Designer Talk By Mustapha: Autonomy With Xenoblade

Hey Game Roomies, welcome to my newest segment! This is called “Designer Talk By Mustapha!” I will basically talk about an idea or design principle and explain why it’s applied well in certain cases. I’m going to start with two of my favorite things. The theme of “Autonomy” will be the focus of our first piece here. I will attempt to explain that design concept using my favorite game as an example. Xenoblade Chronicles. There may be some VERY minor spoilers ahead, but nothing about the late game.

What is the meaning of this word? To be autonomous by dictionary definition is “acting independently or having the freedom to do so.”

Now you may be asking, “How can that idea be associated with a linear story driven game experience?” If you weren’t asking that, I’m glad you’re already on board. Xenoblade doesn’t allow you to control what you experience, that much is true. But it does give you control over how you experience it with a mastery of an element that a long JRPG is almost dependent on. The idea of pacing is often overlooked, which can sometimes be a fatal flaw for a game. Xenoblade Chronicles understands pacing, and if you’re curious as to what that means, look no further than the 500+ sidequests that you have access to throughout the game. These sidequests are of different calibers and difficulties and come with rewards varying from new gear to new arts to just gold.

Xenoblade's Frontier Village.

Xenoblade’s Frontier Village.

That being said, there are many different types of quests too. Fetch quests, merc work, and so on. But they are scattered at incredibly varied points throughout the game. And only about one fourth of them are timed. This means that you can truly address the game at your own pace. You can do an entire half of the game before ever touching a sidequest. Or you could resolve all of the issues in one town before moving on to the dungeon after the fact. The best part is, a lot of the quests have chains of subsequent quests that can only be unlocked at certain points in the game. This means that you build the world as you go. It is completely your decision how much of the world has its problems resolved.

I first realized the impact of this when I finished the game and decided to go hunting Unique Monsters. A lot of sidequests popped up and I ended up visiting Colony 6. The place was still decimated from the early game. I had skipped all of the sidequests leading up to this point. That probably makes me the worst person in the history of mankind. But you get the picture. I skipped the sidequests and the world was decimated as a result of this. I had completed an EPIC main story that I loved in every way, but the world did suffer for it. Exploration took a hit as certain environments would have unresolved issues and really interesting unexplored NPCs.

What I’m trying to say here is that from a perspective of mechanics, autonomy means something completely different in a game like Xenoblade than it would in Mass Effect. You get to make choices that influence the world in those games, and the main story. That in essence, is its own separate thing, that still appeals to a broad audience, but the type of autonomy you would find in Xenoblade gives you choice in the way you play. Your approach to a massive canvas to leave your world’s mark, from a mechanical perspective is truly unique and interesting.

Xenoblade Chronicles X expands on this idea through its exploration of multiple optional party members, and COUNTLESS amounts of side content. Then there are the different classes for the avatar character, and the different Skell frames, which changes the way you do combat. But that game’s open world truly delivers an autonomous experience, with ample consequence. It encourages exploring, but warns you that you lack the experience to confront what you might encounter.

Sylvalum. The tundra continent of Xenoblade Chronicles X.

Sylvalum. The tundra continent of Xenoblade Chronicles X.

But I could go on forever about what qualifies as autonomy. What’s important for designer talk is discussing why it matters. Why do I as a gamer want control over my experience? Easy. Because any experience that can be manipulated to the will of the player has a potentially larger market. You can appeal to the gamer who likes to sit down for short bursts and have fun, and you can appeal to the gamer who sits down on his/her day off and plays for hours.

I get a good feeling when I sit down to play Xenoblade X because I still haven’t encountered everyone or done every sidequest. So sometimes I’ll sit down and do one quest, while other times I’ll sit down for a few hours and just play. My experience varies based on my mood, and I never have too big of an in-game commitment to offset that autonomy. But alas, this post is getting long. So I think I’ve made my point.

I’m just testing the waters with this, but let me know how you like it. This may be something that I switch over to video if I like it enough. But in the meantime, thank you all for reading. For more on games like Xenoblade and other autonomous experiences, come back soon for more from the GAME ROOM!!!

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