Into the Great Wide Boring Open | Re-imagining Open World Games
Aloy looked down from atop the dusty mesa. Rolling desert planes stretched out before her. In the sky among drifting clouds flew huge metal birds. Down below machines in the images of tigers, antelope and goats prowled, galloped and strode across the sands. Below the boiling hot earth lay the metal wombs that had birthed these machines. Ahead of her lay supposedly unlimited adventure. Aloy looked out on this vast open world and felt bored.
OK Aloy didn’t feel bored but I sure did. Aloy’s just the main character in Horizon: Zero Dawn and I’m the guy playing as her. Horizon: Zero Dawn is an impressive game full of varied enemies, biospheres that offer their own challenges and a massive amount of things to do. So why do I feel so jaded about it all? It’s not Horizon: Zero Dawn’s fault. I’m starting to think it might be the open worlds players have been demanding ever since the days of Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The illusion of freedom within a game was propagated and popularised long before the two aforementioned games were ever dreamed of but only recently has modern technology allowed us to make this illusory freedom a possibility.
Too much of a good thing can be bad for you or so the saying goes. Freedom is one of those things. Being able to go anywhere and do anything is fun for a while but what happens when you’ve seen everywhere and done everything a game has to offer you. Most games at this point would take the smart way out and end. Lately that hasn’t been the case. When The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out people marveled at Creative Director Todd Howard’s announcement that the game would never end. Previous games had never really made that promise. Even the most popular MMORPG has to end.
Skyrim introduced the biggest open world ever seen to that point in an open world game as well as a new quest system that would have players continually be given quests long after the main questlines, of which there were many, and side-quests, of which there were even more, were over. Like every other player I completed Skyrim. Altogether I sunk about 200 hours into the game, a mere drop in the ocean compared to the amount of time others spent in the game. About three of those hours were spent doing the rudimentary fetch and carry quests that made the game supposedly never ending. Never ending it was but in the wrong way.
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I’m not great at truly role-playing. I’d probably be really bad at Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve seen people do amazing things with the likes of Fallout 4 and Skyrim outside of the traditional story lines and rules the game places around you. But I like the rules and the story lines because without them I’d just be some doofus with a sword and nowhere to go. Role-playing and the endless amount of game-changing mods are why people are still playing Skyrim not for its run-of-the-mill story. And without the open world Skyrim operates in all those mods and role-playing opportunities are lost. But for the average Joe gamer who doesn’t give a damn about creating his own quest-lines or turning dragons into trains boredom will rapidly set in.
Games shouldn’t be boring. If a game is boring then it’s not doing its job right or you’re just not playing it right. Usually it’s the first one though. Open world games give us a tantalising glimpse at what freedom in games looks like. See that mountain? You can climb it! See that ruin? Time to go spelunking! See that old man? You can rob him! You get the picture. But what if when you get to the ruin or the mountain and there’s nothing there for you to do. At least Skyrim has an abundance of activities at the mountain, the ruin and everywhere in between. It’s when open world games fall down in this regard that excitement becomes monotony, monotony becomes boredom and boredom leads to you turning off the console.
One game that had me turn off the console pretty consistently was Just Cause 3. Set on a beautiful Mediterranean archipelago called Medici players take on the role of Rico Rodriguez a revolutionary with his sights on Medici’s evil dictator. To unlock missions to progress through the story military bases have to be destroyed and towns have to be freed again and again and again. This would all be fine if there were more to do in between rather than some rudimentary stunt courses and explosive themed time trials. Blowing shit up is fun for the first hour or two but once you’ve seen one refinery explode in a massive chain reaction you’ve seen them all. The way I see it there are really only two paths from here.
There’s The Witcher 3 option: give players so much to do with a new event or quest popping up every 20 seconds that they won’t have time to think about anything beyond the next monster nest or quest. There’s also the God of War option: downsize the open world. Not everything has to be on a scale similar to Skyrim or GTA V. A smaller open world won’t consume 80 to 100 hours of people’s time. 30 to 40 is fine for most gamers. That’s a week or a month’s worth of gaming depending on how often you play. The phrase “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” comes to mind when I think about a good game. Better you leave satisfied with a reasonably sized story than turning if off out of boredom after your fourth “Kill this troll” quest.