Does Bigger Mean Better? The Ordeal of the Open World in Modern Gaming.
Irish comedian Dara O’Briain has a routine on video games in his 2010 DVD This is the Show. In it he talks about everything from the Wii’s “It’s for kids” reputation, his difficulty with Metal Gear Solid’s controls and the parallels between Grand Theft Auto IV and real life. It’s this last point I’ve been thinking about lately. O’Briain’s issue with the game was that he always got stuck at an in-game toll booth during a timed mission in the early game that has player character Nico Bellic drive across Liberty City to assassinate a man. Having gotten stuck at the toll booth one too many times O’Briain said “Fuck this I’m commuting!” He’s not entirely wrong.
I’d go so far as to say he’s almost entirely right. A lot of games – especially the glut of open world games we’re currently wading through – have you commute. Whether you’re Batman, Spider-Man, an assassin, a revolutionary or a Spec-Ops soldier the game will force you to travel to a lot, if not all, of your objectives. It’s not a massive issue on its own. These days 99% of AAA titles have exceptional graphics making the worlds they take place in a joy to look at as you traverse them. Sometimes the journey is the destination but this focus on graphical fidelity has come at a cost.
During lockdown I’ve been playing a lot of Just Cause 4 and while that game’s gorgeous journey between objectives is never an issue the destination almost always is. Grappling, parachuting and wingsuiting (especially with the rocket booster update) my way over grassy plains, high above arid deserts and between snowy mountain passes is always fun. Unfortunately I know that once I get to where I’m going the objective will be as dull and rote as the last one.
Just Cause 4, like the last three games in the series, is a game about blowing shit up. You play as series stalwart Rico Rodriguez, an agent of chaos that travels the world toppling dictatorships and despots. Think Che Guevara combined with a flying squirrel. It also suffers from the same problems as its older siblings. Every single game in the Just Cause series has been following the same mission structure for 14 years. Go here, destroy/disable this machinery or kill this commander and you’re done. What’s the point of travelling such vast distances? What’s the point of creating these massive worlds if I’m just going to be doing the same things over and over and over again? Just Cause 4 is the one I’ve been most aware of at the moment but it’s hardly the only one. At least blowing shit up is fun and looks cool. Travelling across an entire city or worse half the Ancient Greek archipelago just to stab a guy in the neck? Much less so.
Ever since the first game the Assassin’s Creed games have been getting bigger and bigger but only a few of them have actually benefited from these expansionist tendencies. Assassin’s Creed IV, Origins and Odyssey were three but even with Odyssey it became obvious that bigger did not always mean better and “100+ hours of in-game content” began to sound more like a threat than a promise. With Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla coming this winter and the promise of an even bigger game world it’s time to start asking: Does bigger mean better?
The answer comes down to what the world you’re playing is filled with. At the top of the pile of massive open world games there are games like The Witcher 3 and Skyrim. Neither of these games are young but their worlds are big and they feel unique and that uniqueness makes them worth exploring. More importantly they are very full games. Whereas Skyrim is a little more rudimentary in its charms The Witcher 3 makes its world work for it not against it.
The developers at Projekt CD Red had a policy with the third Witcher game and that was the 20 second rule. Basically when Geralt, the player character, enters a new area and begins to explore a new item of interest should appear every 20 seconds. These could be fast travel posts, side quests or small activities like bandit camps. Regardless of whether Geralt of Rivia interacted with any of them there and then or left them for later it felt as if the game world was unfolding before the player. It was unique and what’s more it made the game world feel like it was a living, breathing thing. Exploration was its own reward rather than a piece of an algorithm pushing you toward an end goal.
Expecting every game to be like The Witcher 3 or Horizon: Zero Dawn is foolhardy. Some developers and publishers don’t have the budget to push their ideas to where they want them to go. Sometimes story must be sacrificed in favour of graphics or gameplay like in Just Cause 4. Sometimes, as in Mafia III, it’s the opposite. A great scaling down may be necessary within the next few years. The recent disappointment of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint as well as the criticism that Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was just too much game were heard at Ubisoft. Whether these lessons are implemented after Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla remains to be seen.
What is the point of all of this empty space if it’s not going to be used for anything other than scenery? It’s a waste of player time, developer energy and processing power. Players deserve to explore vast open landscapes. Developers have a right to flex their creative and technical muscles in creating them. It seems equally wasteful not to use the processing power of the advanced consoles and PCs we have today. But it has to be worth it.
If exploring the five states of Red Dead Redemption 2 or Gotham City in Arkham Knight leaves you feeling empty rather than full of wonder then it’s clear something’s wrong and that a change is needed. If exploring even the most beautiful and bountiful game worlds makes you feel this way then it’s time to start scaling back to the foundations and start building again; brick-by-brick if needs be.