[This article was originally posted on CheeeseToastieandVideoGames 22nd April 2013]
Note: I’m using ‘open world’ in a very broad sense and discuss games that are not really open world at all (like Mass Effect and LA Noire) and are merely non-linear or offer a degree of exploration. The reason for this is that my main focus here is to look at why these elements are becoming so popular in the games industry over strict linearity, so the distinction between true open world games and those with open world elements isn’t particularly important for my purposes.
If you follow my blog at all, you probably know that I love me some of that open world action. In the last decade in particular, the number of open world games has been on the rise and some of them have been incredible. However, it does seem that more and more these days, developers are turning to an open world or sandbox structure and though I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s become the norm, it’s certainly getting that way. Consider how many recent AAA titles in the past few years have been open world games. There’s Red Dead Redemption, any of the GTA games, Skyrim, the new Tomb Raider and Far Cry 3 to name just a few. Old franchises that weren’t previously open world have switched over to this structure. Sequels of franchises that were previously open world in a more limited sense have been lauded as bigger and better with each new sequel, like Assassin’s Creed. Developers have bragged about the size of the maps as if that somehow means the game is now better. To many, it seems that having increasingly expansive worlds has somehow become linked with quality and innovation in a game. My question is, can the narrative or any other element of a game suffer from, in essence, being too open world and expansive? The short answer is, in my opinion, a resounding yes. To be clear, my point isn’t that developers should stop making open world games or that they shouldn’t keep trying to push the limits of how expansive a game can be, because if done well, these types of games often are innovative, entertaining, immersive, creative and can enhance both story and gameplay. If done incorrectly however, the results can be at best boring and at worst game-breaking. To that end, I do think that developers need to be a little more cautious in deciding whether a game should be open world or not as it doesn’t necessarily mean it will automatically make it a better game and that they should also be careful in balancing that openness with other elements that they think are important.
Firstly, open world does not equal more fun. That seems to be the premise for developers jumping on the open world bandwagon and I think that’s simply not true. I’m not talking about the fact that massive maps can often be quite daunting (especially for completionists), because that’s something you can get over once you become more absorbed in the wold. The truth is, many open world games can be quite boring, especially those filled with travelling and fetch quests. I’m sure most of you have played open world games like Assassin’s Creed where you get to take full advantage of the amazing scenery on your long rides into the next area. The problem with this is that it gets old pretty quickly. There’s only so much time I can spend watching my character ride around on a horse, no more how heroically they do it. Of course, many games get around this issue by introducing fast travel, but if everything’s so far apart (and many games do this) that you have to constantly fast travel, it begs the question, what’s the point of all having this wonderful expansive world? It’s not like you’re seeing it much. There are also games that feature huge maps, but have no fast travel or still require you to travel excruciatingly long distances and have mind-numbingly boring ways of getting from Point A to Point B, which is even worse. It’s true that it’s difficult to make something as repetitive as driving or riding fun and I can only think of a few games that have done it really well, Far Cry 3 being one. The problem then is not simply with making the game open world, but a problem of often making games too massive in size without actually thinking about how a player is actually going to traverse that territory in a fun way and still takes advantage of all those areas you’ve created.
Having an unbelievable and frankly, daunting number of collectibles and loot items is also a common feature of open world games that can often actually make the experience more boring than fun. I have nothing against collecting or looting items as such. It can be a fun addition to a game that takes advantage of an expansive world and adds optional content that gives you more fun things to do. However, done wrong, it can end up feeling like collecting just for the sake of collecting and a repetitive exercise that doesn’t really add anything significant to the game other than more hours logged. In games like Far Cry 3, it doesn’t bother me too much, because it’s completely optional and you wouldn’t really miss out on anything from not collecting everything, other than a few extra weapons, for instance. Also games that manage to work the collectibles into the main story work well, because collecting becomes less of a pointless, repetitive exercise. What does irritate me is when the collectibles are artificially made an important element of the game, forcing you traverse the whole map. Sure you don’t have to collect all the items, but then you would be missing out. That’s how I felt with the voxophones in BioShock Infinite. They didn’t just tell you back story, they actually told you crucial parts of the main story or least information that I doubt anyone would voluntarily choose to miss. It feels like I’m being punished for not exploring, which should surely be up to the player. Adding in as much exploration as possible and padding the game with tons of extra items and loot doesn’t automatically make a game fun. How to implement exploration is just as important as deciding to include it in the first place and that’s something I feel developers sometimes forget.
Secondly, I don’t think that all genres or stories are inherently suited to being open world. Not all first-person shooters, for instance, would benefit from the open world format for instance. Much as I adore Mass Effect (that’s probably one of the biggest understatements I have ever made right there), I do feel that the first two games suffered from attempting to balance action and exploration and as a result fell a bit short on both at times. It’s a difficult line to walk and I’m not suggesting that they should have cut out either (God no!) My point is just that it is difficult to balance exploration with other elements of a game and that thought needs to be put into how to do that or whether it would enhance the experience at all. There are many games where the open world elements can feel completely superfluous, like LA Noire. Driving around and completing little side quest frankly felt like a chore and took away from the important parts of the game. Rather than add to your experience, those extra elements just feels pointless and you end up either just ignoring it or just grinding through it. There’s not only no need to add in open-world elements into a game, it can end up just diluting what would otherwise have been a fantastic experience on its own.
Thirdly, games that have huge open worlds can sometimes suffer visually as well, with each area having have less detail than those of more linear games or those with smaller maps. For some games it doesn’t matter, for instance sandbox games such as Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress. The point is to have an extremely expansive world, which you can control or manipulate and the graphics are deliberately basic for that reason. However, the bigger the world the more likely there are to be horrendous glitches. Red Dead Redemption, for instance, has some absolutely hilarious ones (check it out on Youtube). Also there’s often less to do than it first appears. In many open world or non-linear games there are big open spaces that you have to travel between or areas for exploration, but there’s actually very little in them. It’s mainly an illusion of space and all the items and quests could have been packed into a much smaller area, rather than forcing you to traverse the map just to collect one little thing. Bigger is definitely not better and if you have a huge map, but with very little actually going on in its various parts, then personally I would prefer to play a game with more detail packed into a smaller map. That doesn’t mean that open-world games are inherently less detailed at all. Batman: Arkham Asylum and Far Cry 3 did very well at packing tons of detail into fairly large areas. It’s all about balance and not simply expanding for the sake of expanding.
Lastly and most importantly to me is that the story can suffer for adding in open world elements for no reason and the result is that it feels less like a less coherent world. Too many side quests can detract from the apparent urgency of the main plot and make it more difficult to suspend disbelief at times and can even lead to narrative inconsistencies. I’m sure everyone’s come across a point in an open world or non-linear game where a character tells you ‘quick! Get to the next area and talk to so and so or we’ll all die! We’re counting on you!’ Instead of taking this to heart, your character wanders around for the next three hours collecting things and talking to NPCs and ‘exploring’. It can lead to a feeling of disconnect when you do continue with the main mission, only for everyone to act like you weren’t just a complete douchebag for abandoning them in their time of need. Also, running around talking to tons of characters can mean that the characters you do meet are less developed. The benefit of more linear games is that it’s easier to follow specific characters around and there’s more time dedicated to getting to know them. Here there is a major difference between a non-linear game and a truly open world game. The more open world, the more these dangers exist. Sometimes having millions of possibilities can feel more like a lack of direction and that can take away from the main narrative. It’s not a surprise that many games with the best stories are linear or at least more linear than a fully open world or sandbox game, although of course not exclusively. As many point out, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a story being linear. In fact linear stories are tried and true. When was the last time you read a non-linear book? It’s all about finding that balance and figuring out whether your story would benefit from your game being non-linear. Personally, I don’t think games should be open world unless there’s a real reason to do so; in other words, if it would really further the plot or if the exploration aspect of the game is simply more important.
There seems to be an obsession with open world games or at least with having some open world elements. Personally, I think developers need to be more cautious and I don’t like the trend of simply making games bigger or having more options simply for the sake of it. Of course, in the end it comes down to enjoyment and for some people, exploration is more important. If you’re enjoying yourself, that’s the important thing and there many games that incorporate or focus on the exploration aspect of a game and do it very well and they are no less important than games that depend on its tightly told narrative. Those two types of games are also not mutually exclusive. At the same time, I think it’ll be a while before we see a truly narratively strong and truly open world game. That doesn’t mean we should give up, but there does need to be more awareness that there is a balancing act going on or at least that there needs to be a decision for sacrifice. I welcome more open world games, but I also think it’s a pit trap that many a good game could fall into, never to return.