Open world games are a fundamental part of modern video gaming.
The technology exists now that vast, incredible, imaginative worlds that a player can explore and find lots of completely ingenious things hidden in every nook and every cranny can be created.
But to quote a line from Star Trek (movie number six if you’re feel feisty) – “Just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must do that thing.”
Just to point out to you that during the Xbox 360/PS3 era alone there were no less than forty, FOUR ZERO, open world games. Off the top of my head I can give you both Dragon Age games, all three Mass Effects, both GTA releases, all three Saints Rows, the Elder Scrolls, another two Rockstar games, the Fallouts, the Far Cry’s and the Fables (including the recent HD remake). That’s twenty-one games there alone, and I haven’t even put in the Assassin’s Creeds, the Mafias, the Godfathers and any other PlayStation exclusive games. Or the Batman games! I’ve criminally excluded three Batman games there too. That’s another thirteen on top of the twenty-one. Dishonoured is another, Sleeping Dogs…
Whilst I’m making a point of the vast quantity of open world titles available, the amount of games isn’t what bothers me. It’s that sometimes a much better game is missed because of the decision to make something open world, in my opinion. So my point of missing the obvious here is that we sacrifice something because we create too much. We lose the quality.
Let me give you a few examples of what works and what bothers me. Sometimes you want to go around and explore a vast world where everything is dynamic and the story is well thought out and encapsulating for the player that the vastness and scariness of the world is put aside. In this case I would raise Red Dead Redemption as the pinnacle of that. Over Grand Theft Auto 5, you ask? Yes, because Rockstar actually did something they are normally criticised for which was providing an ending for the game that was incredibly satisfying and well thought out. A well designed linear game.
I’ve mentioned scariness because some games actually scare me because they are too much. The world is so big, so massive and so populated with things that once you’ve completed the main storyline you are left with an utterly bewildering set of options and to be honest, I have enough trouble organising my own life to worry about finding enough to do to level me up past level 25. In this regard, I offer the Bethesda games, specifically Skyrim. If Skyrim has any fault in its beautiful visuals, epic scope and atmosphere it’s that is was too epic, too overwhelming and too lonely.
Come on now Sean, you’re just being particularly picky now aren’t you? Yes. Maybe I am, but some games actually benefit from not being open world and I also think that helps the longevity of a game. Grand Theft Auto online, for example, has a major flaw in that there is no real narrative or direction to be guided in past a certain point. GTA Online suffers from the fact that the levels are designed around the environment, which doesn’t give me, personally, a full enjoyment of a game.
Now, Bioshock on the other hand is something that has benefited very well from the rise of technology without getting in to the open world bracket. Yes it’s a very open shooter that allows you to explore the beautiful crazy art deco inspired environment of Rapture or the steampunk-esque floating Columbia. But they are levels. Regardless of if you can travel around them, they are all specifically designed levels that have an incredibly beautiful immersive environment. Irrational Games’ nuance at storytelling is (or was) second to none. Could that have been achieved if Rapture was a fully open world autonomous environment? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as atmospheric.
A second example of this is a game that was originally open world and still retained some open world elements, but discarded them because it made the game too open, too complex and hard to achieve the narrative exposition that they were looking for. That game was Alan Wake. This wasn’t scrapped because it was too much for the technology to handle after becoming an Xbox 360 exclusive, but because the thriller element of the game could not be delivered with it. Frankly, Remedy made the best possible move there. Thriller games (Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark) benefit more from being enclosed, small and well designed. If the world is too big, it becomes a bit convoluted to program a random scare in to a design with no levels.
Open world games do push you in a directional narrative and you could argue that the Assassin’s Creeds aren’t truly open world compared to the other games. But there are many games that, whilst it is great that they exist, might be better with a scaling back of thought and a better implementation of level design.
I’m not saying that open world is becoming an easy or lazy option, not by any means. But there is a tendency I feel to let the world be the level and dictate your moves and personally I don’t like it. I think a good game can suffer because of it.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is an interesting case here and an example of why open world isn’t always the answer. Firstly the town of South Park is small. That makes the open world a bit more limited, but completely able to be explored. Secondly, the narrative of the game does drive you in a quest laden turn based combat game. But to get to these fights, you have to negotiate designed levels. Because of the 2D visuals of the game, this looks like a platform game, but actually it’s quite a designed level as the lampooning of Canada in the Zelda/Pokémon series style neatly shows. Thirdly, everything in the game, the sub-quests and the story, guide you but still allow you free reign to explore and do it on your own terms without being overwhelmed.
Now the game industry has a choice here and I think the rise of independent gaming will make that choice for them. The next two years are going to see heavy lighting/physics based stunning driving games, incredibly smooth and frantically busy first person shooters aimed at multiplayer audiences and vast open worlds full of quests to explore. But would they be missing the obvious if they took a step back from these types of games to deliver a more stable, concentrated and well-designed progressive game?
I think so. But I’m not you so tell me to shut up and go away if you want.