The Open World Trend

Open world!  Go where you please!

This was the promise of the future.  What we wouldn’t have given back in the days of Donkey Kong Country to have been able to free roam across DK Island with the promise of new levels to be had… new loot (and bonus level barrels, of course).  Back in those days, theera of the 1990s when the video game hobby was really finding its feet and jumping into an obscure late-night tv commercial thing to a generational standard – oh what amazing machines our Super Nintendos and our Segas were – we were fixed on pre-determined path by our video game designer overlords.  Except for the occasional warp pipe, we progressed from level one, to two… to three.

RPGs, too, were linear.  They gave the illusion at time of free will, but your path was generally limited to “go into the house in the left before going straight, and then go straight.”  Worlds were designed in specific ways, to be unlocked in a specific sequence.  If I wanted to reach Nimbus Land in Mario RPG, I had to do X and talk to Y…. (although, I am pretty sure Mario already stomped across this place in Mario 3).

Open world.  Go where you want!  Wow.  What an idea.  By the 2000s, games like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion were setting a new standard – truly open world.  Sure, there’s scripted events, but you can get to them when you feel like it, and otherwise, the game will scale and cater to what you do.  Amazing!

I used the warp button.

There was this massive world and it even looked nice.  But – it was boring.  Outside of the dungeons… there never felt like a whole lot of reason to go anywhere.  Most of the game occurred in the cities, which you could warp right to.  Of course there was stuff outside – but I turn on my console to play games, not watch my guy ride a horse for half an hour on his way to the next thing.

A lot of open world games have the same problem.  Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had the great idea of having outside the city space – it was remarkable in that you could travel between cities inspired by LA, San Fransisco, and Vegas.. however, it was empty space without much going on.  It wasn’t worth the bother, and it even deterred me from finishing the game (that and the horrible remote control airplane level).  A whole lot of driving around… with nothing happening.

Even Metal Gear Solid 5, fresh off the market has similar problems.  The world is beautiful – photo realistic, well crafted environments.  The gameplay is fun, and they packed in a lot of features.  They give you a horse right off the bat so you can zip around the environment.

But it’s boring.

Maybe later in the game, the area outside of objective area, the few guard posts, and the odd patrol wil be interesting – but it suffers from Open World-itis: a game that really does not require an open world format, pretending it is one, and the gameplay suffering.

I worry about games like Ghost Recon, which is adopting this format.  Maybe it will be great.  Maybe it is just going with the trend.

So what’s wrong with Open World games?

  1. They lose narrative direction. The mobility and free choice offered by open world games is great, but it comes at a price. Narrative pacing is lost, and the video game is no longer a tool to transmit and deliver a story and an experience, but an engine for play.  Both a good and bad thing, but often, the separation between the main quest – saving the world – feels oddly removed from the user.  Sure, the bad guy is about to destroy the world, but… I really want to go old bottles of pop for the old lady on the other side of the map.  It’s great doing that stuff, but, there’s no continuity of focus.
  2. Empty Space: Hey look! A beautiful field!  Oh look, another one… oh look… What’s the point of having a massive world when there doesn’t seem to be anything in it.
  3. Repeating Scenery, People, Voices: I used to be an adventurer until I took an arrow to the knee… Enough said.
  4. Secondary Quests which add length but provide little entertainment. Who 100%s games anymore? Anyone remember the Spider-man games and the repeating “my balloon is flying away” quests?

Games like Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid 5,  and Batman: Arkham Knight are fantastic games with open world elements.  Arkham Knight’s open world elements are limited, though, in favour of a more narrative style.  It works very well.  I’ve always found open world shooters to be too unfocused, and I worry for Ghost Recon.  Metal Gear Solid 5 is a fun game.. but the world feels empty and after a few missions it was feeling very repetitive.  Could it have been even better if the Open World concept was scrapped in favour of larger, designer created levels, each with unique elements?

Games like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and the Uncharted Series did fantastic things with tightly controlled environments.  They were fun, and that’s the whole point.

I am not saying Open World games are bad.  Many are great.  Fallout 3 stands as my favourite game.  But not all games need to be open world, and some games are hurt by it.  Think back to your ten most memorable games of all time – how many of them are open world?