Quest Updated: Open World Disappointment
A few days ago I spent a long afternoon with a friend where we began by chatting and ended playing with Lego. It was an afternoon well spent. The result – a giant mech with a cyber-crocodile for a hand, and a laser that was, um, indelicately placed (the robot was definitely male). This display of something akin to insane ingenuity in a massive box of old Lego made me think about sandbox-esque games.
I love the concept of a massive, open world where I can be and do anything. It’s the tempting promise offered by many triple-A titles: you decide the fate of worlds in your own way. The appeal for many, especially too-young-to-be-actually-playing GTA gamers is a sandbox of chaos and exploding cars. The chance to run around and act with ultimate impunity in a world that exists solely for your enjoyment. I mean, the only constant is your muscle-y, heat-packing avatar – buildings and hookers and cars and angry policemen melt out of the ether in response to you. This even means glitches (for want of a better word) like driver-less cars spawning in the middle of the damn forest.
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Isn’t this what gaming should be all about? It’s the ultimate extension of the huge model train sets, piles of Lego, collections of figurines, and ultimately the make-believe fortress/house/dungeon/worlds we used to make up as kids. You can do anything!
Or so they’d have you believe…
There are a number of evident problems with open world games as they stand at the moment. And yes, I will straight up acknowledge that not every open world game will suffer from all of them. Indeed, many of these will probably be out of date as I am a povo student with an unreliable laptop and a PS2. But from the outrage over games like AC3, I feel that they’re still relevant.
Number one is that complexity tends to cause chaos. Just ask anyone who’s watched Jurassic Park. From flying mammoths to physics-defying backwards-flying dragons, Skyrim had more glitches than arrows to the knees. Now any and probably all games suffer from glitches. It’s almost a sport to hunt them down and put the video up on Youtube to freak players of the Sims the shit out:
But, the more open-ended and overly-large a game gets, the more likely it is that you will have donkey-women, ghost cars, and other such abominations occurring on a regular basis.
But that’s a poor excuse for a reason to resent open-world games. What the real trouble is, is that they never quite let you do what you want. There is all the promise of building your character your way (which I have ranted about before), and taking action in a world entirely dependent on your ideas of how to play. But the reality is so close it becomes a problem. For example: what I want to do in my head is to fling myself off this rooftop and stealth kill the guard like a badass, while Altair decides that the fat guy walking on the left really deserves to die. However, the problem manifests itself much more in the range of options offered in dealing with problems.
In Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood they told you what you simply had to do to kill the target for “full synchronization” – all kills are equal but some are more equal than others. Never mind the fact that the open world is really an excuse for a city-wide treasure hunt. In Skyrim, they almost never offer you a way to talk yourself out of trouble when you want it, and anyone who yields promptly stands up and tries to stab you again if you sheathe your weapon like the lawful good paladin you are. In GTA, you can’t not choose the thug life (because it chose you). Perhaps it is because I’m getting into D&D and other tabletop RPGs that I’m suddenly hankering after the right to be able to talk to bears, spiders, dragons, and savage barbarians first. And to climb that tree for no particular reason. And for a wide range of possibilities for any and all situations. I’ll admit that open-world games offer huge potential for truly freeform approaches to gameplay, but I still feel that the potential and what we have actually seen are quite different.
Maybe with even greater graphics, processing power and game complexity, we will see in the next few years a development of more truly open-world games that still keep a storyline, rather than only open-ended, goal free play ala Minecraft or the Sims. Maybe MMORPGs can solve it. Maybe open-world games will swing back to allow more narrative control and guidance, so that you don’t spend hours pursuing side quests and have a main questline that ends a little too suddenly (I’m looking at you, Skyrim!). That’s a lot of maybes, but what do I look like – a prophet? I hope that my current lowering expectations of unauthored, open-world games are utterly shattered by games coming soon.
Otherwise, I’ll stick to rolling d20 for bluff.