Ah, the open world. A vast expanse of rolling green hills and icy tundra to explore, all crafted with loving detail, filled with secrets hidden in every nook and cranny. The mind runs wild with the possibilities of what to do next. Do I follow this road? Do I venture into that foreboding forest, the source of a hundred sounds, all ripe with potential adventure? Do I head down to the beach and start swimming just to see how far out to sea I can get? Or do I go on a rampage, the mild mannered and simple-minded denizens of this land serving as a banquet of fleshy things I can either shoot, run over, or poke with my pointy stick? These were the musings of my mind once upon a time, back in the halcyon days of video (and computer) gaming.
I think the game that had the largest impact on me in terms of contributing to my once burning passion for open world games had to be Grand Theft Auto III (or GTA, as it is more conveniently abbreviated to). Yes, there were people to go talk to who had been given a script to read from, and yes, their tasks provided a start, middle, and end to the game, as well as creative and fun ways to challenge the player, but wasn’t the whole point of GTA III to mow unsuspecting members of the public down in your Diablo Stallion, or to have contests with your mates to see who could go on the most spectacular Manson-inspired killing spree and avoid the cops the longest? I remember being too young and too incompetent a gamer (well, marginally more incompetent than I am now) and just loading up my brother’s save so I could muck around with better weapons and better vehicles. Actually completing the game rarely ever crossed my mind when it came to the freedom of GTA III’s open world and it was just about having a bit of fun.
However, I have grown increasingly difficult to please in my old age, and it got to the point where I had played so many titles that I began to grow tired of a great many aspects of video games, yet chief among the many washed-up acts in my theatre of disillusionment comes the open world (among other performances within said theatre, but alas we shall come to those another time). The fall from grace that open world games suffered had most definitely been catalysed by the fact that the memories I had of such games were made during those gloriously impressionable years of my youth, and also due to the unrivalled titillation I once felt when discovering a new world to adventure in. And now? Not much titillates, not even the almost completely destructible nation of Medici, and the innovative ways in which to destroy it, delivered in Avalanche Studios’ Just Cause 3, nor the unique Mesolithic setting for Ubisoft’s Far Cry Primal.
Basically, I find open world games difficult to play. Now I’m not saying that Just Cause 3 and Far Cry Primal are boring and I am certain that if I were to purchase and play them I would probably enjoy them, but sins perpetrated by previous open worlds have made it harder for me to trust these new handsome ones giving me goo-goo eyes from across the bar, especially considering how much these ruddy things cost. If I buy a game, I will want to get my money’s worth, and this is only done by either sinking enough time into it (a resource of which I have precious little nowadays) or just completing the damn thing (and by completing, I mean reaching the end of the story, and maybe doing a handful of optional things, but only if they’re fun). I find that my mind no longer loses itself in the endless chances for adventure and instead just wants it all to be over, so I can get on with my life.
The sins of the open world are difficult to avoid. They are inherently present due to the very nature of the open world game and studios have to invent ways in which the issues with an open world can be ignored. The first sin I care to mention is the lack of urgency in a story’s telling. Now this isn’t a problem with all open world games, but it is a problem with a majority of them. Basically a story will at some point provide a sense of urgency. Maybe, for example, a friend of yours is kidnapped at some point during a story mission by dangerous men who you know plan to kill him to get back at you for foiling their plans. You are told where to go to find your friend but, instead of racing off to the save them, you decide to add some pages to your cookery book, or decide to go hunting for rare game, or finally decide to meet up with that guy who has been waiting for you for an in-game week outside some cave as you had previously agreed to help him save his brother yet immediately went off to do something else. All the while your friend and his captors are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for you to arrive before they jump into action. I always thought that in moments like these, to really engage a player in an immersing experience, these urgent quests should have a timer on them, and when that timer expires, the story changes drastically. For the example above, when you finally arrive at your objective, instead of being treated with a mission where you shoot your way through waves of bad guys until you finally reach your friend who you cut loose and escape with while the building behind you explodes, you are met with an empty building where the captors have vanished and you find your friend dead in the chair he was tied to. That will teach you to hunt down that rare tiramisu recipe when your friend has been taken by your mortal enemies.
Games that deal with this issue do exist. I am not certain whether this is a by-product of how they just ended up designing their games or whether it was intentional to provide some modicum of pacing to the story, but the Jak series from Naughtydog or pretty much any open world created by Rockstar treat their missions as mini-episodes, and once you have started a mission you must resolve the immediate issues and problems raised before you can get back to completing that cookbook, or finding that illusive collectible.
I suppose the other problem that is closely tied to this lack of urgency is how game studios believe more is more and that they need to cram their game with hundreds of hours of content. This just means there is too much to do! Usually you arrive at a new area, stock your journal, or quest log, up with as many missions as you possibly can and then treat it as a to-do list, doing things and completing objectives because the game is telling you to and not because you want to, ultimately following markers and cues on your map obediently. This makes it very hard to care about the people and the world in which they live, when you just treat their problems as a tick chart. It drives me crazy when I come across a quest in my journal talking about recovering a family heirloom for some man who I apparently agreed to help, but that was so long ago that I cannot remember why I am helping him or what was even said during my conversation with him. Only after recovering the heirloom and delivering it back to its rightful owner am I reminded that when I first met him he had been thrown out by his wife due to gambling debts he had paid off with the selling of the heirloom. That context would have been awesome while I was cutting through dozens of bandits as it would have added an extra dimension to the whole affair, it may have even changed how I went about completing the quest, as it was the man’s own stupidity that got him into this mess. Unfortunately, by the time I had got round to completing the quest, it had been reduced to: fetch important item A from baddies, give important item A to person highlighted on mini map. While the lack of urgency in the main story makes it difficult to get invested in it, the fact that there are 101 things to do between story missions means I can’t get invested in any of these people, their stories or the world that they, and the character I control, live in.
I usually attribute my current indifference to these games to the fact that I’ve played most of them. I’ve seen all the tricks and the gimmicks and now there’s nothing new and everything is predictable. Several years ago, whilst playing Far Cry 2, another open world that didn’t live up to expectations, I mused over whether those kids who were five/six years younger than me were as disappointed with the game as I was, or whether the sheer scope of it blew their minds. With that thought, I managed to at least reignite the smouldering embers long enough to really enjoy that game. I attempted to do the same thing with Dragon Age: Inquisition, but it didn’t work, despite me having sunk over 100 hours into it, yet still not even coming close to completing the damned thing (again, too much to do, too little time). But then came The Witcher 3, and it all became clear. All that was required was a great instalment to the open world genre. The Witcher 3 is guilty of many of the things I bemoaned above, but here is a world worth exploring, a world worth spending an obscene amount of time in, a world beautifully designed as the games designers of old used to do before they could rely on state-of-the-art technology to make pretty graphics its only saving grace, and if I’m feeling particularly generous with my time, I may just explain to you as to why it has stoked the fires of my love for the open world game once again…
WORDS: DOMINIC PATRY