Closed Worlds : A Discussion and Critique of Open World Action RPGs

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I love open world video games. Or should I say I love the idea of open world games. My experience with them, however, has been a bit of a mixed bag. While I always appreciate what they’re trying to do and the spirit of them, I find myself often not being able to ignore what they can’t do. I feel the games that really end up winning me over are the ones that accept and sometimes even embrace the limitations of the genre, technology and the human willingness to engage virtual realities.

My experience with open world games started back in the early 2000s with Grand Theft Auto 2. I think the top-down isometric nature of that game really reigned in the developer, Rockstar, and forced them to pack a lot of punch into the sandbox elements and core gameplay, giving it a simple yet deep re-playable gameplay loop. Fast forward a few years to the sequels GTA 3, Vice City, San Andreas and the latest GTA 5 and I think there are a few issues that more or less permeate these games as they ventured increasingly more into 3 dimensional game engine physics, realistic graphics, large maps and detailed interaction over the years influencing just about every other open world game in the process due to the wild success of these games. The general conceit of Grand Theft Auto wore thin with me shortly after San Andreas and while the games still interested me, I felt I’d never really feel like there were many, let alone infinite, possibilities. I wanted to walk in a random house and find something new. I wanted to recruit someone off the street to be my partner. The huge open world with all the seeming thousands of people walking the streets and entering detailed buildings invited those ideas but couldn’t possibly live up to them. I felt Rockstar was making linear games within unnecessarily large game worlds filled with unnecessary details that weren’t integral to game-play. It ends up feeling like going to a major theme park as a kid, at first you’re like wow, everything seems so big and immersive but the longer you stay, the more you see things like characters taking their costumes off or many buildings just being props, nobody really lives there, when the lights go off, everyone goes home. I liked what they were attempting and still believe them to be great games, but dare I say, not great open world games. I almost gave up on the genre and single-player rpg games in general, for various reasons, almost missing an entire generation of gaming to focus on you know, real life. But toward the end of the PS3 cycle I heard tell of a game that might have taken the open world genre to new heights while I’d been gone. A game where you can walk into every house (you might get arrested) and recruit random people to be your partner. I took my Christmas money and headed to Gamestop to buy a PS3, this game, Skyrim, and two other games I missed that everyone had raved about, Red Dead Redemption, and The Last of Us. I’d been so late to the party that I only spent about $250 for all that.

Skyrim immediately impressed me with its approach to open world design. You could pick up just about every item in the game. This is a sandbox element that adds to gameplay as many of these items can be sold or used to craft or simply placed in other places indefinitely to decorate or mark game areas for whatever reason you might have. Its an aspect that has very little to do with graphical details that adds much more to make the game world feel like a real space. It also doesn’t hurt that in Skyrim you can create your own character. Character creation alone adds a level of immersion for an open world game that fixed character games have a hard time reaching, especially when the character creation options are as deep as Skyrim. You add all the classes, spells, weapons, enchantments and how they can all be used in various ways and it quite literally makes for endless possibilities, which is why many players have sunk hundreds of hours into the game and can fire up a new play through almost a decade after launch. I was convinced Bethesda, with Skyrim,  had the blueprint for open world design. But after getting midway through Skyrim’s main story quest, I found its problem. Its main story and overall lore was a bit weak and generic. And it had to be. In order for the player character to run off and create his own stories, the main story had to be as general as possible. You can’t have the highly detailed backstory needed for a compelling narrative with a character creation menu that allows the player to choose from six different races and both genders. In order for Skyrim to give the player choice and agency, it had to take away depth and detail within the world. I’m still not sure if thats is necessarily a bad thing, as the modding community on PC have taken advantage of Skyrim’s open-ended nature to craft quests and add-on content that gives the game more depth, I don’t think that can necessarily be considered as part of an honest critique on the base game. I was convinced however that linear stories didn’t work well with open world games. Until I played Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption seemed to have gotten it all right when it comes to how to make a linear game and balance that against open world elements. I enjoyed traversing through the western setting via horse. Knowing that a cougar could pounce on me at any moment while I’m skinning a rabbit kept me on edge. The gun play was fun. It was a simple game play loop. Rockstar, as I’ve read, were reaching the limitations of the game engine they were using at the time and just were not able to pile on details as they were with Red Dead Redemption 2 and I think the former was better for it. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most realistic game I’ve ever played and I just remember being overwhelmed with the controls, the tedium of what I felt were unnecessary options in the game, having to take care of my horse just felt a lot more simplified in the first game. Red Dead Redemption 2 featured weapons repair and cleaning and you’d think with all that attention to detail when it came to the guns that the basic shooting mechanics would be as tight and focused and they just weren’t. I feel the shooting mechanics were better in the first game. I recall the lock-on targeting shooting feature, called Dead Eye,  being really fun and engaging in the first game but in Red Dead Redemption 2 it ended up  being yet another thing to remember in the long list of tasks this game seemed to give me and it just felt clunky and tacked on. I feel Red Dead 2′s  attention to graphical detail and story would have made it a great linear game, with no need for a huge open world, similar to The Last of Us. I don’t have a problem with games giving you a lot of different things to do, I just think those things shouldn’t require lots of menu diving and heavy memorization. It should be intuitive and always fun. That is good game design. Throwing a ton of money at an engine and stacking a development team to increase the file size of a game isn’t necessarily good design. I feel  the same way about the universally acclaimed game from Polish developer CD-Projekt Red, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

I hadn’t played the previous games in The Witcher series prior to Wild Hunt or even knew much about the IP. I had just caught on, along with most of the gaming world, after promotional game play footage was revealed at E3 about a year prior to its release. Capitalizing on the industry’s appetite for another medieval fantasy open world adventure post-Skyrim, CD Projekt Red had everyone’s attention.  Fresh off playing Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, and The Last of Us, I was ready for the next-gen take on the Open World concept that also would have a strong story, being based on a known low-fantasy book series in Poland. With HBO’s Game of Thrones being all the rage at the time, it was just a perfect storm in the gaming world. I pre-ordered a special edition of the game and picked it up day one, it came with a poster and a figurine, neither of which I still have. There was a lot I enjoyed about the game, the story and side quests were engaging, the graphics were beautiful but I never felt the locales were ‘living and breathing’ as many reviews and fanboys implied. The focus on details over truly interactive aspects that effect game play just made me notice what I couldn’t move, which doors I couldn’t open and that characters were just ‘reading a script’. The combat was particularly uninspiring, which was truly unfortunate because the game centered around it. I think if more effort was put into giving the game combat that rivaled Batman Arkham Asylum than it was creating a huge open world, I really feel it would’ve been a better more re-playable game. Its tough to make that argument since the game has broken records and received so many perfect scores but I think its because the game had a lot of other things going for it in regards to strong story and it definitely broke enough new ground for the open world genre as far as fantasy rpgs are concerned to fill the void for those long-awaiting the next Elder Scrolls installment after Skyrim. But I felt for all its strengths for those that were drawn in by the story and atmosphere it was equally a turn off for those that just wanted a true open world experience where there was at least some element that  facilitated the actuality or even just the illusion of endless possibilities. And also more or less just wanted a genre game that was fun with tight and intuitive mechanics. 

Since The Witcher 3 there have been many open world games released. Entire franchises have shifted to the open world format such as Assassins Creed. There’s Far Cry, Watchdogs, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Bethesda’ s other major IP, Fallout. All fine games and game series, some better than others, but for me, they all mostly fall into the open world game problems of not knowing how to make a great base game play loop within an open world while also prioritizing pushing the envelope of processing power. In many of these games level design, combat mechanics, narrative, etc suffer and in games where it doesn’t, where there are great mechanics and great story, Horizon Zero Dawn, for example, the open world is largely unnecessary. There really isn’t much if anything in that game that couldn’t have been in a much better linear game. But open worlds are a huge draw, its that teasing of no boundaries and full immersion. I think for many people these games satisfy that itch but for me and others it doesn’t but I think there’s a way to satisfy us all. I think focusing on realism over design and basic mechanics to create immersion is backwards. I don’t think graphical quality really matters all that much when it comes to immersion, especially since graphics become outdated really fast. For a while it seemed developers would continue pushing the boundaries of system processors and game engines with promises of even bigger worlds, even greater graphics, and that would be their way of advancing the open world genre, instead of just making great game play. Until Nintendo decided to reboot its Zelda series.

The Legend of Zelda; Breath of The Wild is quite possibly my favorite open world video game ever. Nintendo seems to have learned from the mistakes of other developers and focused more on game engine physics as they pertain to game play, not just graphics. When other developers were spending E3 presentations talking about ambient occlusion and anti-aliasing, Nintendo focused on making the world for BOTW immersive by going back to the basics of gaming : fun. It wasn’t content on just tossing tons of items into its game world. It focused on making those items truly interactive with the game world in ways that give the player real choice and freedom. There’s so many different ways to take down a camp of enemies in the game, it doesn’t quite get old. The story may not be as strong as previous Zelda games, but it cleverly used those old stories, in a way only open world games could, to build a world that was believable and immersive. Having a less tightly focused narrative is a welcome trade-off when characters and environment can be interacted with to such extent.

I hoped developers would learn from Breath of the Wild, being the critical and commercial success that it was. But with game after game being released afterward that shifted the focus back to non-game-play aspects, I figured it must be easier to hire 100 more design students to work on grass than it is to find 1 creative genius of game design. I didn’t give up on open world games, I still play Skyrim on PC, I am looking forward to playing the DLC for Zelda I’ve yet to download, but I did stop looking for new IPs and other developers to wow me. During my gaming hiatus I heard that respected developer Sucker Punch was working on an open world Samurai game based in feudal Japan. I thought to myself, oh yeah, it’ll likely be another Assassins Creed-like game, yet another game company looking to milk the open world genre. Skip. The press releases and early promotional footage seemed to confirm my suspicions. Beautiful open world, wide landscapes, talks about lighting and foliage. I kept it on my radar but I wasn’t expecting much. Man was i wrong about this game, Ghost of Tsushima.

Upon release of the game, I actually had another game on pre-order, The Last of Us 2, which i was exponentially more excited about. But after bad user reviews and story leaks for the Last of Us 2 and such great early reviews for GOT, as well as in-game footage that was rocking the gaming community,  I transferred my pre-order funds to GOT. Within an hour of playing the game it was apparent that this game not only took visual and design inspiration from Breath of The Wild but it also  built on the philosophy that Breath of The Wild established for its take on open world design. Keep core game play simple and intuitive. Ensure that the core game play loop is one of, if not the most compelling things about the game. For GOT its the combat. The deep combat system is one that I will be playing for a while and can see myself coming back to. I’m not fighting bad guys to level up my character or to find a certain weapon or unlock a bit of story, I’m fighting bad guys because its fun as fuck. Sucker Punch seems to understand that its not enough to make a game visually impressive from a graphics standpoint, if you’re going to focus on visuals make it beautiful from an art standpoint. The photo mode in this game, how color works, how the foliage and building design was done not to just exhibit the highest texture quality my console could handle but more to balance the visual canvas at all times, create such a stimulating experience for the eyes that is more akin to looking at an art exhibit than it is to watching a CGI action movie set piece. How GOT of handles story, side quests, exploring the world is impressive as I never feel I have to do anything I don’t want to do. It proves that an open world game can have fleshed out characters and deep stories while also allowing the character to roam free, giving incentive to follow the main story quest instead of making it a chore. It, along with Breath of The Wild challenged my belief that open world games should allow character creation and not have much of a mandatory central plot. It also proved that a game with a linear story could fit wonderfully within an open world, if the open world was utilized for game play effectively and the story was cleverly tied to those game play aspects.

I am about halfway through Ghost of Tsushima and I am very optimistic that it will end satisfactorily for me because it has already exceeded my expectations,and I am also optimistic about the future of open world games. GOT looks to be a runaway success, selling out in many places. I do hope that other developers take note and realize they need not put so much pressure on themselves to break technical barriers, what makes great open world games, is the same thing that makes great games in general, great core game-play.

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