Closing the book on open-world games

As design trends go, few have been as invasive, but has open-world really made games any better?

I’ve never been to Bolivia, but I can tell you it’s beautiful. I’ve driven through its mountains and walked through its farmland - as part of an elite commando in UbiSoft’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands. The piece de resistance of the latest Tom Clancy-a-thon is a sprawling, gorgeous living map of the South American country, complete with jutting mountains and sprawling salt flats, and chock-a-block with countless settlements of corrugated aluminum buildings and precarious-looking guard towers.

I’ve never been to Bolivia, but I can tell you based on this experience alone that it’s beautiful. I can also tell you -- based on this experience alone -- that it’s boring.

It was somewhere between my second and third hour with the game when I realized that more than a jingoistic take on the war on drugs, more than an elite combat simulator, Wildlands was principally a driving simulator - a quick check of the in-game statistics menu confirmed I had spent 60% of my time in UbiSoft’s Bolivia driving. Ghost Recon: Wildlands is the latest in the trend of videogames designed to get in their own way; taking what could have been an incisive commentary on the war on drugs -- or even a well-paced tour through a foreign country -- and instead stretching it out over dozens of hours in the name of #content.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands (UbiSoft, 2017)

In the name of fairness, I’m not just picking on Wildlands here. Open-world games are so numerous that they now comprise a whole genre. Over the past five to seven years, big-budget game design has shifted, causing games to morph from gyms to bars.

Bear with me here.

The impulse to use games to explore new spaces and kill time is understandable; unfortunately, the execution often leaves something to be desired.

Games used to be gyms. They were specific places that you go for a set period of time to work toward accomplishing an overarching goal one bit at a time. In the real world, that goal is getting killer abs, in videogame land, the goal is to win the war against the aliens (extragalactic or extranational).

But as games entered their adolescent period, they lost interest in working out and became enamored with hanging out. Games went from cut-and-dried point-A-to-point-B affairs to virtual surrogates for loitering at the mall after school. After a day at the office, it’s tempting to hop into Wildlands’ Bolivia or Skyrim’s Skyrim and do some virtual sightseeing. The impulse to use games to explore new spaces and kill time is understandable; unfortunately, the execution often leaves something to be desired.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011)

Ask anyone what they like most about their favorite open-world game and you’ll hear “the freedom.” Player autonomy is a box-back feature that has been enticing players and developers alike for more than a decade, and why not? Games, as the ultimate virtual-reality pastime, seem custom-made to create holodeck-like experiences directed by the players’ whims. Be who you want -- be a prince (or murder one), drive the fastest car in the world (or crash it) -- these borderline-Freudian impulses to exercise our lizard-brains are at the heart of open-world gaming.

As noble a goal as “complete player freedom” is, trying to achieve that for players is fighting a losing battle right off the bat. Unlike wandering around actual Bolivia, or an actual post-apocalyptic wasteland, every videogame ever made is a closed system. There is, by definition, a limited and predefined amount of “stuff” a player can do in any game. This is just an incontrovertible fact of game development, and not a studio on the planet has been able to get around this reality; the best we can do is disguise this as much as possible by presenting players with the “obvious” choices in a given scenario, but leaving things just ambiguous enough so that the player feels that they discovered it on their own.

When this works, it works great, and it’s one of the subtlest arts of game design. But when it’s rushed, ham-handed, or not well thought-out, the seams show and the transparency is even more damning than had the developers not tried to go open-world at all. In this way, the “invisible wall” syndrome has adapted to the modern age of game design sensibilities.

Wildlands Wildlands

What’s worse, crafting a game that balances Fun Stuff for the player and a strong sense of narrative consistency is challenging. This makes sense when you think about what a narrative is: It is a chain of events, often (but not always) linear, leading from one point to another, encouraging understanding, on behalf of the audience, of the characters, setting, or even the audience itself. But for the narrative magic to take hold, it requires the audience to submit itself to the whims of the author and agree to let itself be led. This is the opposite of the paradigm chased by open-world designers. How can you have a tight, cohesive narrative when it’s impossible to predict where the audience will go or what it will do next?

How can you have a tight, cohesive narrative when it’s impossible to predict where the audience will go or what it will do next?

The results of the sort of game design bellyflop vary, ranging from games that are boring and repetitive (like Wildlands) to games that seem to contradict their own sense of thematic urgency (my favorite example here is Mass Effect 3; a game about a space soldier racing the clock to save the galaxy - but not before she finds some time to fly around rescuing space kittens).

And no, not every game has to be narrative-driven, but an attempt to superimpose a cohesive narrative over what is otherwise a recreational space will fall victim to this sort of friction every time.

Far Cry 3 (UbiSoft, 2012) Far Cry 3 (UbiSoft, 2012)

I’m traveling again. This time, I’m on a secluded island in the South Pacific, in UbiSoft Montreal’s Far Cry 3. As with my jaunt to Bolivia, I have a loose itinerary, but no tour guide leading me by the wrist from place to place. I’m supposed to be rescuing my friends, but if I want to take some time and hunt wild boars or race go-karts, these options are also available to me.

As a break from its dour predecessor, Far Cry 3 lures in players with its promise of emergent storytelling - a newish trend in major videogames that lets players make their own stories by wandering around the world and letting things happen to them. Having never been to the South Pacific myself (I don’t travel a lot, ok?), at first I was delighted to take part in Far Cry 3’s unique brand of ecotourism. But one fateful night, a friend in a bar asked me what the game was about, and I realized I wasn’t able to answer her.

Games like this are, to borrow a phrase from the late great Terry Pratchett, a surfeit of communion wafers.

See, that’s the problem with emergent storytelling - it has a tendency to hijack a more constructed, authored narrative experience. After a dozen or so hours in Far Cry 3, I had raced a bunch of islanders, done some hunting, bought and sold some guns -- and not much else. Games like this are, to borrow a phrase from the late great Terry Pratchett, a surfeit of communion wafers. I could continue wandering the game’s islands for the rest of my real-life natural existence and never come anywhere close to completing the game’s story or even participating in anything of meaning or note. Many such games love cramming themselves full of tasks that amount to little more than busywork or stats for you to check on the in-game statistics screen, driving around in circles while the completion percentage counter creeps up closer to that magical 100%.

Lest you think I’m being a curmudgeon, I should clarify that I’m not opposed to open-world or less linear games. My caveat is that the world design make sense with the theme and artistic objectives of the rest of the game.

Okami (Capcom, 2006) Okami (Capcom, 2006)

Take everyone’s favorite lupine Zelda-like, Okami. As an open-world game, players will spend literal hours doing nothing but traveling between locations on the map. And yet, Okami, as a game about restoring natural balance and returning beauty to the world, makes this act itself a rewarding experience. I may run across Shinshu Field a dozen times in a single game, but each time, I’m blown away by the new growth and new animal life I find has sprung up as a direct result of my own in-game actions. It’s a subtle touch, but it ties back in with the game’s thesis and reinforces the importance of all the monster-killing I’ve been doing.

I even enjoy games that refuse to provide me with a task and instead just force me to commune with their environments. Proteus is an open-world game that downright refuses to give players a goal or an explicit narrative. Instead, it insists that players pay attention to the game world they’re inhabiting. Walking around the island and observing its strange wildlife and experiencing its seasons, free of the burden of objective markers or timers, is a transcendent and meditative experience.

I really would like to go to Bolivia one day. Seeing its beauty recreated in digital form has ignited a desire in me to explore that world. I long to immerse myself in its beauty and see what it has to offer me. But I know that when I do make it to South America, I’m going to have an itinerary, so I can make the most of my experience. I think it’s a good philosophy all around.