Opinion by Matt S.
But I don’t like the genre. When I like an open world game, it’s despite it being open world. I can probably count the number of open world games that I liked because of their open world on one hand. To me, these games are, almost without exception, arbitrary. They’re fake. They’re smoke and mirrors. They’re highly linear games that throw flashbangs and fairy dust at players to bewilder them into believing that they’re either getting value for money, or a game in which they are actually free.
But you’re not. Once again, open world games are fake because they are utterly linear in their fundamental designs. As with most other games, in open world games you’re a mouse running through a maze looking for that bit of cheese that the developer through in there. You might feel like you’re free to go wherever you like, but ultimately, you don't. It’s deception.
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In terms of narrative, in open world games you have, at best, a couple of paths through the game. Depending on how you play you might experience a couple of different endings or plot strands, but in terms of the narrative, these games are actually painfully linear. Take Assassin’s Creed, for example. You’ll follow through a series of highly scripted plot lines in order, and those “missions” that progress the story will almost always put you on a strict path to follow, where any substantial deviation for it actually results in a failed mission state. Those missions might be challenging and require a player’s ability with both action and puzzle solving, but they are linear.
And what do between those missions? A series of largely trivial pursuits – collecting things, or engaging in side quests that might provide a little more story, but rarely with any meaningful impact back through the main narrative. And between all that is a massive plot of virtual land to wander through which, while often beautiful, is frequently empty of interaction.
That’s not to say that I don’t like Assassin’s Creed, mind you. I actually like almost all of the entries in the series, but I like them for that linear narrative, setting, and characters. The open world side of things is a distraction, or even an irritation. I have a slight touch of OCD at times, and I simply hate when the minimap fills with icons of things to see and do. Because I feel like I have to do them, and then four hours later I’ve finally cleared out all the useless little distractions the open world has thrown at me, and I’m ready to continue on with the actual narrative.
This brings to my next issue with open world games; the platform completely ruins the pacing. When you think about most of the truly great open world games; Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed and Elder Scrolls games, the thing that is consistent about them is that the narratives are powerful. And yet these games want to keep pulling us out of the narrative to participate in meaningless little activities that have nothing to do with the narrative. This, in turn, slows the games down. Exceptions, such as The Witcher 3 and Yakuza, manage to make those distractions meaningful to the game world, and help build your connection with it, but again, if you let those distractions overtake progressing through the main narrative, it isn’t long before the main story gets put on hold for great lengths of time.
Pacing in storytelling is the games industry’s greatest Achilles heel. The goal always seems to be to give players better “value for money,” by bloating a game with more and more “content.” On the one hand it makes sense to do this, of course, because who doesn’t want to squeeze maximum value from a favourite game? But, and the same time, narrative structures are fairly set in stone with visual media, and what we see in games is stories that continue to maintain those three act structures of films, but stretching them over far too much run time, and by the end, narrative fatigue is a very real possibility, even if you are still enjoying the game itself.
Open world games exasperate this issue by introducing a lot of narratively dead time in between the already-bloated narrative. I can’t think of an open world game that hasn’t felt that it has outlived its welcome for this reason, and inevitably I find myself forcing myself to get over my OCD to skip past it just so I can complete the game, because I could feel my frustration that the story was not done with rising. Having to play a game in a way that I’m not comfortable with because I was finding the pacing frustrating is not a positive experience.
But, once again, my main problem with open world games is just how deceptive they feel. You boil a game like Assassin’s Creed down to what it does, and it’s actually not that much difference to what the really linear games do. You’re still being led through a specific narrative, and you’re still locked to quite linear actions while on it. The difference is that between those missions, these games have a nasty habit of pretending that you’re the one in control.
In fact, the best open world games don’t feel open at all. Dark Souls titles, for example, are technically quite open in design; if you see something in the distance, you can probably get there to look at it closely. But what made Dark Souls so perfect as an open world experience is that it never felt like the world was bloated or that it was more open than it needed to be – indeed, through most of the game you were still wandering up and down closed passages. It was just the genius of the level design that those passages all rolled around one another to create a world where you could basically go wherever you wanted to, but the openness wasn't turned into a distinct feature in itself, and FromSoftware continues to ask players to drive forward from the start through to that final, brutal boss battle.
I can’t stand games that deceive. Open world games might be the overwhelming preference for blockbuster developers at the moment, because those worlds do offer a handy checklist of features that make the game relatively easy to market and sell in the millions, but as far as I’m concerned, the entire platform that drives these games is pants. Focus, developers. Give players a focus, refined, experience. Most importantly, stop wasting our time.
- Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld