What a time to be alive. In my grandfather’s day, they had to walk for miles in the snow for anything. In my day, I had to walk a good ten minutes to get a bus, a linchpin in my otherwise neglected exercise regime. Now, in my child’s day, these kids are complaining about the walk their Dragonborn has to endure between Whiterun and Riften: a textbook case of first world problems if ever there was one.
The seeming resurgence of the “open world” game has brought problems such as these to light in the minds of many who could previously stomach little more than a short and conveniently located corridor to get anywhere. More games than ever are being developed and advertised as being open world. That this is making inroads into series that previously never employed the mechanic, is giving many pause for thought.
The internet, as it is wont to do, provides a suitable podium for the masses to vent their frustration over the emergence of the phenomenon, usually after yet another company announces yet another game has yet another open world. Stop me if you’ve heard any of these arguments – “I don’t have time to do everything in the game, so I outright refuse to do anything in the game”, “Walking anywhere takes too long, any form of in-game fast travel is a cop-out and I refuse to rely on the mechanic”, “Open worlds are empty, much like my soul when I play one”, “There is no sense of urgency when you can become so disconnected from the main plot, however, I have a sense of urgency in needing to complete a $50 game in 30 hours or less”, “Bring back Final Fantasy XIII!”
Okay, you probably haven’t heard the last one. Yet. Either which way, these arguments aren’t without their merit and I want to address each of them somewhat and examine their flaws. To begin though, I want to turn to the elephant in the room named Ubisoft.
Ubisoft use “open world” as something of a sentence enhancer that can apply to just about every game they have churned out. Ubiquitous Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot let us all know at E3 2014 that gamers (that’s us) want more freedom and Yves Guillemot (that’s him) was going to be the one to give us it. Our hero.
Perhaps Ubisoft are creating more open worlds, but open world games are not to be found therein. The latest batch of Assassin’s Creed and games like Watch Dogs may come with the promise of a wide expanse of exploration but the severe limitations, likely caused by rushed development, leave the player with a sense of anything but. Climbing an impossibly large tower in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, for example, feels precious little different than in the very first game, aside from being perhaps more bug-ridden.
Compare and contrast to games with exploration that boggles the mind such as Grand Theft Auto V or The Witcher 3. This in my opinion is the definition of the open world game, an evolution on the theme most often associated with Bethesda games The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. Taking this as the definition of the genre, I’d like to take a look at the issues one by one.
Ultimately, those of us who have no time in the day will struggle to find time for gaming; it’s a fact. Games with impossibly large worlds are just below the potentially years-of-your-life investment a solid MMORPG career will require. Without the element of competition and/or easily refreshed endorphins released upon getting shiny new loot your buddy does not have, attention will ultimately and inevitably wither.
Let’s take 100 hours as a solid ballpark. That kind of investment seems like a lot, but games simply aren’t coming out as often as they used to. Dedicating a solid 1-2 hours a day to one game, with potential for more at the weekends, is unlikely to cause you to miss out on the next big triple-A game. They take far too long to make (in some cases, sadly longer should be spent) and releases are staggered for maximum effect. In fact, the time investment is far easier to stomach on an open world game where at any given time less focus can be put on the overarching story in favour of something more trivial or localized.
Ah, so walking places is mundane, eh? Well fortunately for you, you’re not my grandfather and you’re rapidly not becoming me either. Immersion friendly methods of travel are fast, pardon the pun, becoming the norm in open world games. Obviously, we have driving in Grand Theft Auto and up and coming in Final Fantasy XV, horses are tamed and ready in The Elder Scrolls and Metal Gear Solid and The Witcher 3’s Skellige have boats for sea travel. These methods of transport are speeding up proportionate to the increase in world sizes.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the ride isn’t mundane. Skellige has a boat load, literally, of empty ocean. With worlds so bloated, it’s easy to miss the mark on things to do and explore: the very essence of the genre. Focus then shifts radically back to the narrative, the “why” of the whole experience. Dragon Age: Inquisition lacked the urgency that one would have imagined should have accompanied such an apocalyptic setting. Games like Batman: Arkham City felt a touch flat in comparison to Arkham Asylum, which was more streamlined. Not that I didn’t appreciate the transition to open world but that its implementation was in my view found wanting and the story it attempted to tell suffered.
That’s the rub, though: problems with individual games are a result of many issues, be they rushed development or technical limitations. This does not, however, impact on the open world game as a theory; an idea for a kind of video game that cuts through the barriers to fully immerse the player in its setting.
As it stands, not many games exist that can provide that experience, while many games exist that don’t even try. That Metal Gear Solid V comes out in the same year as The Witcher 3 is not a result of an over-saturation of the open world genre. Ubisoft has been calling their games open world for years, so that’s no evidence of an immediate evolution of gaming away from the corridor shooter.
Game worlds are expanding in general, but the aim of the game is still to provide a rewarding and lasting experience coupled with an enriching story that leaves the gamer satisfied but wanting more. Perhaps as things stand, this can be received easier from the more linear Gears of War-style games, but my hope is that someday gaming will arrive at a place where open world games are the opposite of a chore, have living and breathing settings, are so entwined in the plot that you want to keep playing but are so easily accessible that the more time-pressed among us can pick up and put down at leisure.
Until then, I’ll just remind my kids to use the fast travel and be done with it.