For a while now a thought has been rattling around in my empty head. Gaining more momentum with each new open world I suffer through. Many people have spoken about franchise fatigue for a number of titles with Assassin’s Creed being one that is at the forefront of my mind. However, I think my problem is more wide spread than simple franchise fatigue, I think I have an ever increasing problem with an ever more popular game design choice – the open world.
Ubisoft could very well be the worst offenders with nearly all of their modern franchises looking to incorporate open world elements. The open world setting of The Crew certainly subtracted from my enjoyment of the game. One of the factors that really bought this home for me was another Ubisoft title, Watch_Dogs. There are a number of factors which could have limited the appeal of this game for me; the unnecessary messy under_score branding or the un-fun nature of the background story which seemed to constrain the fun you could/should be having, but I eventually came back to one thought – I had little issue with doing each activity once but very little appealed to me about doing each activity in the game over and over again. Different fictional geographical locations were not enough of a variety to attract me to repetitious activities. That was still not the whole story though, there was more to this.
I had attempted to play through many high quality open world games that I kept on thinking should have done a better job of holding my interest until I had completed at least the “main” story contained within. Grand Theft Auto V was perhaps the most high profile example. A well fleshed out world with well realised characters, highly detailed environments and, perhaps most poignantly, a good variety of mission types and activities. I found it odd that not even the might of GTAV could hold my interest until the end of the line.
This next statement will probably be met with a degree of both cynicism and derision (especially if BRB’s Dan gets wind of it) but I genuinely look back on both Ryse and The Order 1866 with more fondness than I do Grand Theft Auto V. I would not even attempt to argue that either were “better” games or in any way technically superior to GTAV, but if you gave me the choice of which one I had to play through again I would never pick GTAV.
The list of recent open world games that I have either loved or liked a lot but are yet to complete is fairly exhaustive over the last few years;
Incomplete: Arkham City, Far Cry 3 & 4, Skyrim, Sleeping Dogs, AC: Black Flag, Just Cause 1 & 2, Witcher 3, Dying Light, Dragon Age 2 & Inquisition, Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor, inFamous: Second Son, The Crew, Need for Speed Rivals, Saints Row 2,3 & 4, Borderlands 1 & 2, Rage and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. (And bear in mind these are just the games I at least liked and does not include ones that I did not. I have also discounted games such as Red Dead Redemption which I did not finish based on other Red-Ring-of-Death related excuses.)
The list of open world games I have seen through to the end in a similar time period is much shorter;
Completed: Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishment, LA Noire, Sunset Overdrive, Arkham Knight, Witcher 2*.
You could conclude that I am more likely to reach a conclusion if there is a detective leading the way, but I think this is more likely that it is the story that drives me. Many of the games in the incomplete list above feel like an unfinished book or an open wound – each and every one rankles me that I have not seen it through to the end. My pile of shame is generally quite large (and increases in size every year) but I feel that an open world game is so much more likely to become a permanent feature on my pile of shame. So much so that I am becoming increasingly hesitant to start one. Point in case, I ended up loving Arkham Knight but was not planning on buying it and only ended up playing it as I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a non-required review code.
I have for a while concluded that this change in attitude towards open world games was primarily a function of my age and how this has negatively affected the amount of time I have available to dedicate to any one game. While also apportioning some blame on the need for me to not dwell on any one title to stay up to date for blogging and podcasting purposes. While this may play its part, there is more at work here, as I can still magically find the time (often through a lack of sleeping/eating/being a responsible adult) when sufficiently motivated. That said, I have become increasingly aware that my time is important and perhaps just as important as my money. My gaming time is more precious to me than ever and I do not like to feel it is being wasted.
I have come to realise that it is not my dislike of the open world format that is the issue as much as a phenomenon that I will refer to as Open World Bloat (or OWB between friends.) This manifests itself in three evil, game enjoyment destroying ways; the first is open world traversal time wasting, the second is bullsh*t collecting and the third (and perhaps most damaging) is the rise of the substandard sublevel.
1. Open World Traversal Time Wasting – This is something that nearly all the games listed above are guilty of and despite its undoubtable quality I believe that the GTA franchise is one of the worst offenders of – although they did attempt to negate this somewhat with the ability to switch between characters, which meant you did not really care if you left Trevor abandoned out in the middle of nowhere after completing a mission. Prior to this, the introduction of the ability to hitch a ride in a cab was also employed for similar reasons.
Just because you have built a vast environment and an enjoyable traversal method this does not mean you have free reign to take every opportunity to waste as much time as possible with an “epic” journey to the start of the next objective – cut to the chase already! This often feels like a very cheap way of trying to find ways to distract me from actually completing objectives and I find I have increasingly less patience for it with each open world game I play.
2. Bullsh*t Collection – Again something I had increasingly less patience for is the “piece of McGuffin” spread throughout the environment to collect. This is a mechanic that has been prevalent in many other genres and perhaps made the leap across from platform games. The first time I remember encountering this in an open world setting was in Crackdown, where it was well implemented and rightly praised, but I do not think I am alone in my increasing disliking of this. Many would say it had hit a low point in flag collection in the original Assassin’s Creed but the most egregious use were the pigeons of GTAIV. I do like the recent rise in the implementation of in-game interactive maps to make this less of a problem – as seen in in the likes of Sunset Overdrive.
3. The Substandard Sublevel – This may be my overactive imagination but I cannot help thinking that there is an ever increasing percentage of a game that would, in previous generations, have been left on the cutting room floor. Possibly lead but the increased production costs of a game, making it increasingly costly to completely abandon content that has had time, effort and resources dedicated to it. The imagined conversation I have is this;
Q: “Hey this level isn’t working out so well. Shall we just cut it from the game?”
A: “Nah! We’ll just make it a side mission that you don’t have to complete if you don’t want to!”
Or perhaps even worse in this day and age; A: “Nah! Let’s just hold it back, polish it up a little and release it as DLC!”
For me all these factors have led to all open world games becoming less and less appealing to me. Many game designers have come with increasingly devious ways of hiding these factors and even largely negating them but all of them harm a game designer’s ability to tightly control and play with the pacing of a game’s story. I think that Arkham Knight did an excellent job of almost fully integrating all the mechanical component parts of the game into the wider narrative, but even this came at the cost of having Alfred basically say “Hey Bruce! I know the city is under threat but now would be a good time to swan off and go do some side mission crap!”
The freedom to explore a game environment at my own pace and in my own way is something I thought I wanted and needed so badly that I often campaigned for it in a very vocal manner. I campaigned for this freedom so much, I did not stop to think what we were losing in the process. So, please stop listening to me, I’m an idiot! I know next to nothing about game design when compared with an actual game designer. (That said, maybe consider sticking around for the next few paragraphs!)
For the sake of clarity it is probably worth pointing out that I am not advocating that all open world games disappear tomorrow and I will probably be the first idiot to shout about when there are “not enough of them anymore!” Some of the games I am currently most looking forward to are in an open world setting or have open world elements; Ghost Recon Wildlands, South Park: The Fractured But Whole and Fallout 4. I am just wary of every game going down this path. I like open world games, I just do not want every AAA game to be one.
I am presently becoming increasingly concerned that the transition to an open world game will harm my enjoyment of the upcoming Mirror’s Edge sequel. The first game was a quite linear and tightly controlled experience changing to more of an open world setting will no doubt add variety and replayability but I worry that this will come at the cost of making the path through environments less varied, more obtuse or just plain dull. A concern that was not helped but these some of these traversal sections being edited out of the recent gamescom trailer. They are not interesting enough for your trailer, but apparently interesting enough for me to play through.
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In the same way that the technology of previous generations encouraged the increased prevalence of platformers and more recently First Person Shooters, I am concerned that current tech will further encourage developers to make ever sprawling open worlds of increasing size, with the real estate of a game’s map often becoming a marketing bullet point – “biggest game ever!” Or “1.5 times the size of the map in the previous game” but this may do as much marketing harm as good – and worse still, may encourage games to bloat.
All that I ask, Mr. Big Game Developer, is that you do not just choose the open world option just because you can, but stop to ask if you should. If you can tell a better story without an open world, then fight for your right to do exactly that. I would rather have a concise portion of a good game than more of a bloated one. Quality over quantity. Direction rather than freedom can be even more rewarding.
Tags: AC: Black Flag, Arkham City, Arkham Knight, Bullsh*t Collection, Dragon Age 2 & Inquisition, Dying Light, Far Cry, InFamous: Second Son, Just Cause, LA Noire, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Need for Speed: Rivals, Open World, Open World Bloat, Open World Traversal Time Wasting, OWB, Rage and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Ryse, Saints Row 2, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishment, Skyrim, Sleeping Dogs, Sunset Overdrive, The Crew, The Order: 1886, The Substandard Sublevel, Witcher 2, Witcher 3