Without a doubt, 2007 has been a marquee year for first-person shooters. We've gotten Bioshock, Call of Duty 4, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, Crysis, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Team Fortress 2, Clive Barker's Jericho, Unreal Tournament 3, Timeshift, FEAR expansions, and more. Even the lesser games are above-average, and the best are some of the best games we've ever seen in the genre.
Two of the most acclaimed of this whole bunch are Crysis and Call of Duty 4. Both were hotly anticipated and both have been well-received by gamers. But I thought that these two games are an interesting contrast – both are first-person shooters, but represent two sharply contrasting design philosophies. Crysis features large, open environments that are highly interactive and allow players to approach any given situation in a seemingly limitless number of ways – so-called "sandbox" gameplay. Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, is very tightly scripted, utilizing purely linear levels that are designed to emphasize the drama and intensity of the action.
Just listen to the developers. In an interview with IGN, Grant Collier, head of Call of Duty 4 developer Infinity Ward, had this to say about linearity and interactivity:
"[E]veryone right now is demanding sandbox gameplay and total destructibility. We personally don't think that it's that fun, I mean, 'go anywhere! Do anything!' That's just - I think it's a buzzword, it's a badge, it's a bullet-point option, but a lot of games they get in there and they try to do that and then they're like 'okay we have the sandbox, now why don't we try to make the game fun'. And total destructibility, you can really ruin the gameplay. There's so many spectacular moments that you have when you funnel the action into certain corridors.... I think right now it's a fad, and the fad will pass, we're not going to be bite on in it - we want the game to be fun first, and destructibility comes second."
By contrast, here's Crysis lead designer Cevat Yerli on Crysis' open-ended, interactive style of play:
New gameplay emerges out of these systems. I was running with speed power towards an enemy and shooting and another person came across running as well towards me, and he jumped over me, and in the air increased his strength, landed, and punched me to death. I was like, “%*&# you!” (laughs) It was like life straight out of The Matrix.
Another really cool scenario was when I was in the harbor under the water, and under a boat. I had the pistol, and then switched on speed and literally, like a dolphin, jumped in the air, pow pow pow pow – killed him. He was like, “What the #(*%!” He couldn’t see underwater because of the boat, but I could see him as an enemy on the radar.
This is an aspect that I’m proud of because the systems are working everywhere, and it’s not like it’s a scripted moment or event or just me versus a person or enemy. It’s always fresh. That’s the cool part of it and that’s what I mean when I say I want the player to express his intelligence in ideally the most wide range a shooter can offer.
So with these two games, we're presented with two highly contrasting gameplay designs: scripted gameplay versus emergent gameplay. While these designs are by no means mutually exclusive (both games contain elements of both designs), in my view the scripted design of Call of Duty 4 represents an aging and increasingly archaic design; Crysis' emergent gameplay, on the other hand, is the way of the future. Here's why (warning – spoilers ahead):
Call of Duty 4 showcases some of the strengths of scripting. At times, the levels are very dramatic and intense. There is a level of storytelling that indeed can benefit greatly from scripted events. However, the contrivances of scripting often hurt the immersion of the gameplay, and a few examples in particular stuck out like sore thumbs to me as I played the game:
* At one point, I was under attack by a helicopter, and the goal was to make my way to a nearby farmhouse, which is heavily guarded by enemy troops. I tried to make it to the house a few times unsuccessfully, being gunned down by the helicopter gunner nearly every time. So I decided to do the most logical thing: I shot the gunner. He fell out of the chopper in dramatic fashion, and it slowly flew away. Finally I could make my way to the farm house and focus on killing the infantry. But wait! The helicopter re-emerged, with another gunner. I killed him, too. This sequence repeated itself numerous times, until it became obvious that the helicopter had infinite gunners – the designers had already decided how I was going to take out the helicopter. Sure enough, once I made it to the farm house I was greeted with an infinite supply of Stinger missiles, and my squadmates instructed me to shoot down the helicopter.
* In another sequence, I was on a mission to assassinate a key character with a sniper rifle. The game factors wind direction into the shots, which is pretty clever. What's not clever is that shooting this character is a pre-scripted event; he is maimed by the shot, losing his arm, but he survives. No matter how accurate I am – I could shoot him in the head or in the foot – the final sequence plays out the same.
* Later in that same level during a massive enemy assault, it is possible to stand in an enemy spawn point, which prevents them from spawning and renders the whole scene a cake walk.
* Scripting also hurts the replayability of the game. When I'm playing any given sequence, all of the enemies spawn at the same spot every time and follow the same scripted patterns. So if I round a corner and get killed by an enemy I didn't see, I know exactly where to aim my gun the next time through. I always know that the guy with the rockets is going to run over that way, and the two guys with machine guns will run this way.
Crysis, on the other hand, gave me some very memorable moments of emergent gameplay:
* On the first level, I was pinned down behind a rock, under fire from a mounted machine gun. Stray bullets caught a nearby tree, which fell on me and killed me.
* I decided to ambush a small encampment of enemies. I used the nanosuit's super-strength to jump up a steep rocky hill on one side, rather than walking up the road or creeping through the woods. I mistimed a jump though, and launched myself about fifteen feet into the air above the enemies I'd been planning to ambush. In an amusing moment, they all gasped in unison at the sight of my superhuman ability, and scrambled for cover. So much for that ambush!
* On a number of occasions, I found myself under heavy fire from a patrol boat. I did the logical thing and shot the gunner. The driver would speed off, usually docking at a nearby beach or fleeing into the distance.
* I tried to use the cloak to sneak up on a group of lazy enemies sitting around on a beach. I changed weapons as I approached and suddenly, they were alerted to my presence and started attacking me even though I was still cloaked. At first I thought it might be a glitch, then it hit me: they had seen the flashlight on my gun.
I could go on and on; these are just a few small examples. Because the gameplay is emergent rather than scripted, the possibilities seem almost endless. Peruse any Crysis forum and you're bound to hear many entertaining stories about surprising, amazing, and even humorous emergent gameplay.
I played Call of Duty 4 after I had played Crysis, and Crysis had spoiled me quite a bit. I kept wanting to destroy vehicles, shoot down trees and knock down walls, but everything was static; I wanted to find better vantage points to attack, but there were artificial barriers blocking my path – often as contrived as an impassable wooden fence; I wanted to shoot the gunner in the helicopter, but... well, you know how that went. And while scripted gameplay does allow for some dramatic moments (as exemplified by the mostly excellent Pripyat level), I feel emergent gameplay allows players to discover situations that are every bit as dramatic, but more unique and special since the player's choices are the catalysts.
I believe that games that reward players for creativity and intelligence are the real wave of the future. The problem of course is that it's much more difficult to develop a player-centric game. Many functionalities can clash with each other, and a lot more things can go wrong than in a narrow, scripted environment. Given the escalating costs of videogame development, I feel very few developers will take the risks of using emergent gameplay. It's worth noting for example that Far Cry, Crytek's previous game released in 2004 and a very ambitious game in its own right, has yet to be imitated by other developers despite its success. Ambition is the most costly development expense of all. But every now and then, we see developers taking risks, doing something special and gamers embracing it. In time, I think, more developers will embrace this emergent style of gameplay, and gaming will be better for it.