Graphical fidelity, framerate, audio and physics are all aspects (among many others) that have drastically improved in the gaming medium over the last decade. Of course we haven’t reached the ceiling as far as these things are concerned, but games no longer look and act like the toys they once did as the experiences they offer now are linked closer to movies than pinball machines as they once were. So what’s next then? If the visual and audio components are top notch, what should the focus be shifted to? Immersion. That intangible feeling when you’re completely fixated by something, drawn in by its complexities and intricacies to a point where what’s happening in the world around you fades away.
This is all fresh in my thoughts thanks to one game in particular, Ghost of Tsushima. The upcoming samurai action-adventure title by Sucker Punch, the studio behind the InFamous series, is easily my most anticipated game of 2020. The initial announcement trailer from Paris Games Week 2017 was enough to have me buying a ticket for the hype train. Set in Feudal Japan, rich with vibrant colours and all tied together with violent, beautiful sword-play, it drew me in quicker than Tsushima’s lead protagonist Jin Sakai draws his blade.
Why would you want to muddy the beauty of this game with dirt waypoints?
Recently Sucker Punch gave us a few more details regarding Ghost of Tsushima via an article in PlayStation Magazine. This piece documented how your bond with characters will be strengthened or weakened by how your approach to certain situations; the equipment that will be at your disposal during the game and that your story is one of revenge and redemption. But the most intriguing titbit in this article was the choice that Sucker Punch has made to not include waypoints, but instead they are tasking the player to use their knowledge of the landscape alongside landmarks on the island of Tsushima to guide them.
It may not sound like anything too ground-breaking, but stop for a moment and think about your favourite games and how they lead you to your destination. Open-world racers like Forza Horizon use waypoints and direction indicators, but that can be explained away by the car you’re driving having a satnav. Skyrim, The Witcher, Fallout and countless other RPGs all use waypoints to set you on the road to your destination as well. Without a doubt it’s convenient, ensuring that you don’t lose your way or get confused, but doing so it sacrifices that all important immersion.
Nothing says high-fantasy fun like a million icons scattered in every direction
I know, I sound like I’m having a go at a tried and true game mechanic purely for the sake of arguing, but it’s more that I see what Sucker Punch is trying to do with Ghost of Tsushima and want it to be done elsewhere as well. And it’s not as though I have an issue with games directing you towards your goal either. Take The Last of Us for example, Naughty Dog’s use of lighting is subtle, it guides you to where you need to be without being intrusive or obvious. The difference here is that The Last of Us is a fairly linear title, so these guideposts blend with the rest of the game, but waypoints in an open-world titles are less subtle and tend to stick out like a sore thumb.
One of the biggest draws for the RPG (role-playing game) genre is exactly that, you play the role of your character, effectively you are your character. So when you are told by an NPC that what you seek is 350 paces north of the village, next to the abandoned well in a small rundown shack, these directions should not only be important and listened to with attentiveness, but they should also help create immersion. Instead, thanks to the handy waypoint, the dialogue is more often than not skipped or immediately forgotten once it’s blatantly pointed out to you on your map.
So let’s take the waypoint out of that situation. Instead of mashing A/X/whatever to skip the townsfolk’s spiel, you listen, as the information they are giving you is necessary to progress. A by-product of this requirement is that you may even care about what’s being relayed to you. A simple fetch quest to retrieve a necklace could easily turn into a heartfelt favour to return a family heirloom to a grieving widower. It might sound like an exaggeration (which admittedly it is) but the more you listen the more invested in the world you will be, and (you see where I’m going with this right?) the more invested you are in the world the more immersed you will be.
Without the convenience of waypoints you might actually give a shit about the old lady’s fry pan
In some cases waypoints are justified in-game by means of advanced technology, magic or some other McGuffin, but in a general sense if the mechanic isn’t there, an excuse won’t have to be made. It might be a little off topic, but it’s always a bit distracting, for me at least, when the character you’re playing as has the impossible skill to see through walls thanks to Eagle Vision in Assassin’s Creed, Detective Mode in Arkham Asylum or…Hitman Sight(?) in Hitman. Bringing it back to my main point, if you do away with the waypoint, developers won’t need to find an excuse as to why they’re there in regards to the game world.
Of course there are issues with this method. If you take an extended break from a game, coming back to it might prove to be problematic if you aren’t graced with the memory of an elephant, but this can be remedied by the inclusion of an in-game log such as the one Cole Phelps uses in LA Noire. And yes, getting lost and frustrated would be an agreement for waypoints I’m sure, but personally I see wandering off the beaten path when trying to find your way as a positive. If the game is interesting and detailed, getting lost should be an adventure, not a punishment.
Sure, Ghost of Tsushima won’t be the first game in existence to do away with handholding, but it’s definitely one that I think will benefit from it majorly. Walking into a small Japanese village, gathering information from its people and properly listening to their stories about the Mongol invasion sounds amazing. Wandering through the vast, gorgeous fields, searching for a maple tree to guide me toward my destination sounds incredible. Feeling like a Tsushima native due to my deep knowledge of the landscape that has been cultivated through exploration sounds like a dream. None of these things would be anywhere near as impactful if the game included waypoints, and all of them will (you guessed it) deepen my immersion.