Assassin’s Creed Odyssey – not perfectA reader explores the current state of open world games and offers his suggestions for changing the settings, missions, and style of stories.
Open world action games have really tested my patience recently. I have played some of the best and biggest open world games in the last two years (biggest not always being the best mind you, I’m looking at you Ubisoft).
Insomniac’s Spider-Man was great before the grind and repetition of gang fights, backpack collection, and pigeon chasing wore me down. Ubisoft’s The Division 2 surprised me with immensely satisfying gunplay and great artificial intelligence, but eventually became monotonous and overwhelming when I realised the game had a huge amount of content locked until you hit level 30 and the endgame mechanics came into play, meaning I would have to rinse and repeat for countless more hours until I was granted permission to try it.
Grind must be the popular word over at Ubisoft studios, because their most recent Assassin’s Creed outing, Odyssey, was also bogged down with hours upon hours of mission and objective repetition in order to progress.
Open world games can be fantastic and provide players with a sense of freedom and choice. A world to manipulate and role-play without the linear trappings of other media narratives such as film and books.
However, it is not the mention of open world that makes me roll my eyes but the mundane, rinse and repeat missions in these beautifully created worlds.
I am not here to say that you are wrong in enjoying the current array of AAA and AA open world games. I can’t do that. Taste and preference are unique to the individual. The same way I can’t argue why someone’s favourite colour is red or their favourite food is burnt toast. But, and here is the but, large developers and publishers will continue to roll out the same tried and tested formulas as long as people keep on buying them.
The only way to breathe life into the most successful genre in the industry (an oxymoron, I know but bear with me) is for a developer or publisher to take a gamble or leap of faith. Treat gamers with respect and understand that we don’t always need to be guided to the tavern’s rat-infested basement by massive immersion-destroying yellow paths. I understand this type of guidance system is actually popular with some gamers, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the default choice.
Two of the better open world games this generation, in my opinion, were Red Dead Redemption II and Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. The latter really defied convention by providing the player with an open path to the final boss immediately. No barriers or narrative restrictions in place if you decide to go straight to the final battle. The world was also wildly populated with mysteries, secrets and puzzles, perfectly designed and always just tantalisingly over the horizon.
Red Dead II was similar in the sense of scale. Say what you will about the standard gameplay mechanics, which were arguably flawed, it was the world that provided the player with a new mechanic. The sheer depth and detail in each nook and cranny, and the way non-player characters would interact and remember your actions outside of mission-based objectives, really provided a true and believable world for the player to role-play.
There is an elephant in the room though. Both Breath Of The Wild and Red Dead II were huge games, with long development cycles and massive budgets. The revolutions in gameplay previously mentioned could only really be done with money, time, and crunch. The latter being a huge controversy in the industry today.
Therefore, waxing lyrical about these two games and their revolutions in the genre come with dangerous caveats and consequences. Unless the current state of industry pay and work ethics are addressed, then fantastic detail and depth in open world games will come with a human cost.
While it may be the case that people involved in those projects probably didn’t receive adequate compensation for the time and effort they put into the work, I do think they should be immensely proud of what they have achieved. With that said, the scale and scope of both projects are clearly not sustainable and probably won’t be replicated any time soon.
Therefore, with those two exceptions, I still think it’s fair to say that the open world game has gone stagnant. I would like to put forward my recipe for a new type of open world game.
I truly believe the problem isn’t that complicated to solve and doesn’t necessarily need multiple sacks of money with dollar signs. We aren’t talking about creating a cure to a disease. We aren’t even talking about a new genre.
I don’t want to just point out the problem without providing some new ideas. Firstly, I understand the need to keep tropes which make games accessible for all. For a publisher to front a developer with money, it must be assured that the end result will appeal to the masses, so subverting the norm too much would not be acceptable. As I mentioned previously, this does not mean you need to make convention the default choice.
Don’t give me a lighthouse instead of a communications tower to unlock a bunch of new objectives. Stop making me the saviour to each and every character I encounter (I applaud the recent Outward, which elected to make the protagonist a certified ‘nobody’).
I long for the time I play an open world game where I’m not given a fetch quest within the first hour to prove myself to the important, friendly character who later turns out to deceive me or sacrifice himself in whatever modern/post-apocalyptic/fantasy story am thrown into.
Speaking of worlds, I think this is dependant on taste and I don’t believe is a cause of the current problem with open world games. Futuristic open worlds always seem to come with post-apocalyptic tendencies, with large open and often empty wastelands probably designed to curb the cost of huge production values tied to the opposite: tightly cramped, neon-lit dystopian/utopian future scopes.
Modern day worlds, past or present are also quite common. Ranging from the widely successful GTA franchises to the lukewarm Watch Dogs, and the not so lukewarm recent Mafia entry; all of which tend to focus on crime and the seedy underworld. The problem here is that the modern world is restricted to the laws we have in place today and match this with the nature of open world games and player freedom, and you are probably going to want to destroy any path-blocking non-player character.
This then means that any narrative or story set in a modern world will inevitably involve breaking these laws to make it somewhat believable and therefore naturally place you in a world of crime and murder, and at some time involve the player ensuring any non-player character is not running to alert the ‘guards’.
You could argue that fantasy has been used more than your frayed, trusty pair of underwear with holes in the nether regions, yet could still feel fresh with the right mechanics at play. I am talking about the fantasy genre here, not your underwear. Fantasy is a vessel for the imagination. Yes, it is a genre riddled with tired dragon and magic tropes but only because that is what we expect from it. There is no reason why these can’t be subverted to give a new, interesting take on Tolkien-esque characters.
When it comes to narrative, most open world games are obsessed with making the protagonist the most powerful character ever born. Only then to have either amnesia or have their powers taken away so they can spend the next 30+ hours getting them back in a convenient manner in order to overthrow an evil being hell-bent on turning the ‘world’ into dust. Feel free to replace ‘world’ with significant other or loved one and you get the idea.
There is no reason why you couldn’t have all the trappings of a beautiful and intriguing open world without the threat of it being destroyed. Like the best open world games, the landscape in which you play should provide the mystery and intrigue rather than the boring narrative thrust upon us in many games released today.
Now I come to the most contentious part of open world rot: missions. The bread and butter of the genre. What makes up for the bulk of the game. There are some core mechanics at play which are hard to change. For example, immediately after receiving a new power, you are often thrown into a mission which requires said power to progress. A then B. The Metroidvania model tweaks this a little by providing the obstacle first then giving the player the power later on in the story, so the player has to return to the obstacle at the start to progress. B then A, if you will.
Avoiding such conventions in open world games is difficult but Breath Of The Wild did manage to avoid such obvious narrative structures by making its world truly open while also keeping some Metroidvania techniques in place to give the player the sense of progression. Lots of paths blocked by bombs.
Acquiring objectives in open world games can also be laughably mundane. The icon over the head is now ingrained in any gamer over the age of 16 that removing it would either be a stroke of genius or cause utter confusion. But instead of going to get missions, why aren’t missions sent to you? GTA tried this with its mobile phone mechanic but the damn thing went off so much that whenever it did, it was ignored because you already had a hundred missions on your to-do list. A good idea, overused.
There is clearly a balancing act at play here. Provide the player with enough variety so they aren’t restricted but ensure they aren’t overwhelmed so each mission feels purposeful and worthy of your time.
There are plenty more issues and mechanics that can be addressed, but keeping in mind everything I mentioned already, I would like to put across my recipe for what I would like to see in an open world game in 2019.
For the setting, I would choose fantasy due to the range of possibilities and characters still unexplored. Two of the best examples of open world fantasy games, Skyrim and The Witcher 3, are now both eight and four years old, respectively, and that tells me that there is still much more in the barrel labelled ‘fantasy’.
With a fantasy setting in mind, you would think of dark lords, dragons, and Ragnorak style narratives, where the player is told to save the world. Not in my game. My idea is more localised. The protagonist would be a tavern manager. He doesn’t have amnesia. He hasn’t been given a majestic sword. You are simple and a humble person who wants to make his business the best it can be. He would already have a personal history with the locals and it would be at the player’s hands if they choose to discover more of their lore within the town.
Being the landlord of a pub means that characters and missions would come to you by means of customers and their stories. The pub is your base of operations, with mission variety coming by venturing out of the town to acquire stock, staff, recipes or help a local you have developed a relationship with. Once a few missions are completed, you might find your local farmer starts asking for help.
Recipes and ingredients are your loot. It would be crazy to defy the age-old convention of harder missions means better rewards, so this would still apply. Venture further from your base of operations and your chance of greater rewards is improved.
Customisation and content is important, so feel free to decorate your pub as required with content found around the world. However, don’t expect 1,000 types of chairs or tables because we want to avoid developers spending their hard-earned summer holidays meticulously adding creases to red leather cushions to meet the release date when the core game is already good to go.
I could elaborate more on this imaginary game but I believe I have proved my point. There is room for change. I love open world games and they are usually at the forefront of any generation or gaming technology and are often used as a baseline to progress from.
The current crop have lacked creativity and inspiration, with the emphasis on grind and meaningless loot hidden behind paywalls to keep players from moving on. Only now have I mentioned loot boxes. A sad story for another time.
By reader Nick McElroy (@NicElroy)
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