We’ve survived the intense lens flares and even the muddy brown era, but games have reached a cinematic head in the last few years. We have richly detailed camera modes, gorgeous landscapes to set them against, and the resolution of the Gods. But what have we lost to these movie screen moments of high action? Fortnite and PUBG seem to have found the answer and snuck it straight into the industry.
One of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild‘s strongest draws was its ability to offer ‘player driven moments’. Those satisfying instances of ‘will it work’ that herald a system of logic and intuitive player understanding. Anything you would expect to happen in real life will work in the world of Link’s latest adventure, creating an experience as fluid and intuitive as you could hope for in a virtual world. Crucially, this organic manipulation of the game world yielded moments of intense personal victory. As embedded play took over, the wide world of BOTW became a lot deeper. This is the underlying challenge PUBG and Fortnite have held up for the industry.
The idea has always been there, of course. Give players freedom of access around an expansive world with its own rules and challenges and watch them create their own fun with the tools you’ve provided. It’s literally the Minecraft design spec. What PUBG and Fortnite have done, though, is bring that trust in the player to action shooter games. Games like Doom, Wolfenstein, Battlefield, and Destiny are still, to varying extents, funnelling players through narrative pipelines. It’s safer for high action titles to do this, they can focus a more on what the player can do by strictly defining what the player can’t do. In contrast, the stripped back approach of the biggest Battle Royale titles allows a broader focus on player cans by dropping some of that pressure around glossy appearances and rain effects.
It’s a quintessential ludological / narratological debate. When games are so focused on maintaining a high veneer appearance, they stand to lose a degree of dedication to the cause of play. While that’s obviously not the dystopia we’ve found ourselves in in 2018, after all, we’re not being mindlessly tunnelled through cut scene after cut scene like zombie-esque movie-goers, there’s a distinct industry direction on the map. Just a few years ago, we were in the thick of cookie cutter killers, with AAAs banking their cash on the shooter campaigns that sold. Then The Last of Us hit and we all fell in love with a good story. Don’t get me wrong, I love a narrative adventure, I think it’s one of the most powerful ways to experience a story and there are a number of titles out there I would happily call a ‘play’ experience purely due to their narrative mechanics. But we need a balance, and new ideas are perfect for balancing.
Fortnite and PUBG have reminded the industry that its games don’t need to rely on cinematically stunning appeal to offer in-depth experiences. Instead, a focus on player-driven experience over that of the developer is working to mine away at the closed tunnels of AAA story / game progression. Fortnite and PUBG both offer what simulation and sandbox worlds have been running on for decades, freedom of action and the corresponding alignment of action and expected result. It’s a fully player-driven experience, and the moments of satisfaction and elation at this freedom and opportunity to create and manipulate in the realm of a shooter constitutes a large part of its fan appeal. It’s what BoTW got right in the RPG arena, and it’s what big title games like Battlefield 5 are learning to incorporate in their experiences.