Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

White Water Rafting vs. The Amusement Park

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 26, 2013

As a teenager one summer, I went whitewater rafting down the lower New River in West Virginia. Several class 4+ rapids, and tons of lower ranking rapids in about a 14 mile stretch. It remains one of the the coolest memories ever.

It was exhilarating and exhausting. There were times where the water felt like stone, and I couldn’t get my paddle to “bite” more than a couple of inches. There were times where we were we had to navigate three sets of rapids in a row – where very precise turns were absolutely necessary, yet our muscles were giving out. And there was the famous “swimmer’s hole” which I took the “hard way” – right down the middle, not realizing that the “dip” was actually a whirlpool that sucked me down several feet – life preserver and all (or “flushed” as the tour guides call it – with the obvious metaphor). There was absolutely nothing I could do to escape until it decided to let me go. It was only a few seconds – too quick for me to even get frightened – but it taught me a lesson about the power of nature.

My cousin was our tour guide. The following year, they had an accident, and one of the people on his tour died. Even with experienced guides, these rapids were not “safe.” You would do everything you could to be safe, but the danger was always there.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I highly recommend the experience. I’d just say – listen and obey the tour guide, and make sure you are in halfway decent shape, physically.

That same summer, we went to Hershey Park, Pennsylvania. It’s a big amusement park. By most measurable standards, it should have been far, far more extreme and exciting than the rafting trip. They certainly looked more exciting. But as much as I enjoyed the rides, in the back of my teenaged mind, I was comparing it to the rafting trip, and it came up wanting. I enjoyed myself, sure, but it wasn’t nearly as fun.

Why? It wasn’t just because it was “safe.” Failing to listen to the tour guide would have been like failing to obey the “do not stand up on the roller coaster” rule – stupid and possibly deadly.

Part of it came down to interactive vs. passive participation, and to unscripted vs. scripted experiences. At the amusement park, everything was designed to force me through a very safe, pre-defined, scripted experience. You are an audience, not a participant. The rafting, on the other hand… well, that river had been there for a long time before people ever thought of sticking inflatable rafts in it and going down it for a fun day-trip. The rafting was a real adventure. The rapids changed based on the water level. The tour guides did their best to keep us on a designated path, but every trip was a little different. Our success – and possibly even our survival – was dependent upon the combined effort of the few people in my raft. Sure, there were times you could sit back and just enjoy the scenery. But when you hit the class 3 or class 4 rapids, there was no such thing as “keeping your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.”  There was no room for passive observers. You were fighting the water.

The amusement park was a fun little experience. But white water rafting was a legitimate adventure.

I think a lot of modern game designs look more to an amusement park (or, of course, movies) for inspiration that actual adventures like white water rafting. They are slick, polished, and graphically just ooze everything that an adventure should be. But in the end, they feel like very scripted experiences. Your path is linear. While you do need to participate to keep going, and there is often some leeway in how you do things (in what order you kill the attacking hordes, for example), things are still going to be very similar from player to player. They just need to follow along and aim correctly.

Because the player is not allowed to deviate more than a few feet from the correct path, the world is actually really small regardless of how large it may appear. This allows the artists to really pile on the lush details. Because of the limited interactivity, there isn’t a lot of room for bugs to hide. Everything can be polished to a fine sheen. It’s the ultimate amusement park.

But I find myself feeling the same way. There’s a huge difference in feeling and gameplay from something like ARMA 2 (which is still nothing like a “sandbox game”) to a Modern Warfare, even though both are dealing with… uh, modern warfare. It’s like the difference between white water rafting and an amusement park. Likewise, this is traditionally the difference between JRPGs and Western RPGs – although the lines have been blurred and crossed now on both sides to the point that I don’t see much difference anymore.

But again, that doesn’t mean a game has to go all-out “sandbox.” Just – not so linear and scripted. Not so tightly constrained. Yeah, that means that the player might be tying their shoe when the T-Rex appears in all his glory, but while that might make for a crappier “Let’s Play” video, it makes for a more involving game. Just make the player a more active participant, with real choices besides the order in which he takes out ambushers. While it’s fine to still act like a virtual tour guide giving the player assistance and direction where necessary, that’s not the same as holding the player’s hand and forcing them along a linear track.

If that’s the kind of game you want to play, then as a player or reviewer, you are going to need to be more tolerant of the compromises that must take place to make the world more open, and for the player to have more choice in his adventures. If the developers have to design an entire city block instead of the five rooms in two buildings that you are intended to go through, they are going to have to skimp on some details. It’s just how things work sometimes.

While I can play both styles of games (and the various shades in between), in general,  I’d rather have the adventure.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    Last time you talked about this, you said that it partly comes from the cost of making assets (graphics, animations, voice-overs and so on) and partly from stories (and writers) being better suited to books and movies than something interactive and unpredictable.

    But yeah, modern games are so linear that I might as well watch a let’s play. Theme park indeed.

    I think something of a compromise could be achieved by using procedural content (including things like texture variations) for big and open world and human-designed content for most things related to story. Also, some 30 minutes to 2 hour long linear segments would be fine even in something that is otherwise an open world game.

  • Matthew P. Barnson said,

    I got pulled out of the boat just a little downriver in Strippers Hole after Swimmers Hole, if I recall correctly. Fun river, good memory! Everyone said I was underwater a very long time, but it felt like just a second or two to me.

    Our uncle Danny “lost his teeth” on that trip. Now, I thought that a rock had knocked out his real teeth, but it turned out that the teeth he had lost were false ones. That said, replacing a set of custom dentures has a very real cost.

    To me, that’s an additional part of the sandbox mentality to a game: your losses should be real. You should value your items in-game.

    In fact, we do this instinctively in many adventure games, building ever-growing inventories of tchotchkies “just in case” we need them later in the game. That hoarder-mentality is, in my opinion, part of what drives Adventure Games: the desire to collect stuff and get more of it, and the endorphin release when our “collection desire” pans out and becomes essential to progression of the storyline. It’s one of the few things in our control in such a scripted storyline, and it provides a validation of our instincts to grabs stuff and hold onto it.

    Similarly, NOT having the thing you need drives a real sense of loss in a game. To realize you have to go back to your contact and say, “Hey, dude, uh, I can’t finish your mission because I accidentally blew up the thing you intended me to drag back here” has an emotional cost, particularly if that is associated with somehow being “put back” in the game, even if it’s not fatal.

    The challenge of such open-ended sandboxes, though, is as you mention: they tend to be largely featureless in comparison to richly-scripted environments.

    One part of the solution to me seems obvious: put additional content creation tools in the hands of the players. Neverwinter Nights did this, and although only a modest commercial success, the amount of content it spawned was AMAZING. Modders have done this for years in various games, to varying effect, most following Sturgeon’s Law very closely.

    Another way people get around this — as evidenced in EVE Online — is when the game developers provide mechanisms for players to change the attributes of the game. EVE has sovereignty mechanics to allow players to shift the borders of their territories, deployable structures to be destroyed and fought over, and a police force aimed toward punishment rather than prevention (huh. Like in real life!) that all allow “real” costs to affect a player. They’ve extended this sandbox mentality partially to their new franchise — DUST 514 — with mixed success.

    What I’d love to see is a massively-multiplayer, persistent universe that puts not only mechanics-style toys in the hands of players, but expansion-style tools and some mechanic for validating the player content before releasing it to the general persistent playerbase.

  • Darius said,

    Talking about amusement park rides reminds me of a recent experience I had with Medal of Honor. We were moving through a hallway, and had some enemies popping out like ducks in a shooting gallery. When they were all dead I moved ahead but couldn’t figure out how to progress.

    I went back to my AI teammates, and they were all hiding in cover shouting at me to shoot the nonexistent enemies. One of the AI teammates had gotten stuck on a crate while trying to move into cover, and was running in place against the crate.

    I shot the crate out of the way, figuring that he had to get into cover before it would let me move forward, but he just kept running in place. So finally I shot him, he recoiled from the shot, yelled at me to be more careful, then ran into cover. Then they all my teammates broke from cover and yelled at me to follow them to the next objective.

    It felt just like an amusement park ride where something had gone wrong with the machinery, trapping me in limbo until it could be put back on the script.

    Definitely a lot less interesting than the more open world style games.

  • McTeddy said,

    Hey, amusement parks! That’s the analogy I always use while talking about modern games!

    And I actually find Let’s Plays more exciting in games that have the T-Rex moments. Most linear games create LP’s like a movie… It’s about watching the plot unfold. They just save me the wasted time of endless kill corridors and QTEs.

    But Let’s Plays shine in something like the original X-Com where the player is the star. I’ve watched a dozen full sets and seen completely unique stories.

    – I’ve seen strategists carefully hunting the aliens
    – I’ve seen people rush in using expendable troops
    – I’ve seen one who relies on the robotic tank
    – I’ve never seen someone play quite like I do

    Despite all the times I’ve seen people play, I see a new story. People can really shine when they don’t have cut-scenes to steal the attention.

    Besides, those unique experiences give me a reason to play even AFTER watching the lets play.

  • Xenovore said,

    100% agreed, Jay! I’m getting sick of the hand-holding, rail-roading, and cut-scening in modern games.

    Oh and “quick-time” game-play needs to be banned; no more of this “press A now or die” BS! Designers, nobody actually enjoys that crap; stop being lazy and come up with something intelligent.

  • McTeddy said,

    Crazy as this sound Xeno… I actually enjoy QTEs and such games. I love Dragons Lair, Space Ace and even derive enjoyment out of Ninja Blade. They are all open about their intent and I can have fun.

    What kills me is when the devs promise me freedom yet punish me for being me. Whether it’s forcing me to walk into a trap, lock me in a room until I kill people or those stupid “Torture this guy” sequences. Devs, If I’m not actually in control… don’t pretend. It makes you look bad.

    Just be open about the experience you offer and let the correct players enjoy it.