by Daniel Bullard-Bates
I was hunting down another surveillance device on the side of a building in inFamous, struggling with the awkward platforming controls. This was the third building covered in these blinking red devices, and I had to track down each one and get right next to it to deactivate it. I was stuck, once again, jumping up to grab one ledge and accidentally clinging to another, when it occurred to me just how little open world games bring to the table. The formula for creating an open world game seems to be this: Take a normal, linear story, separate it into missions, and require the player to do a lot of travelling to get to each mission. Then throw in lots of dull, repetitive side missions, hidden objects, collectibles, etc. And don’t worry too much about sloppy, over-complicated control schemes or glitches; those have come to be expected in open worlds.
At their very best, open world games offer one of two things not present in most linear video games: the ability to do almost anything and push the boundaries of the world, and a sense of discovery and wonder. Grand Theft Auto, as a series, became famous largely for the former. There is a linear story in each Grand Theft Auto game, but the appeal for many is the ability to do as one pleases. You want to spend all your time hitting on women and eating hot dogs? Fine. Want to be involved in high speed chases with the cops? Sure. Want to see how far you can jump on a motorcycle? Go for it. Will you obey traffic laws, or drive recklessly? Do you want to travel by bicycle or jet pack? This is a valid and useful approach to the open world game, because the openness is about options over environment. Grand Theft Auto presents a playground.
The other approach to the open world relies more fully on the aspect of exploration. This school of thought is based on the appeal of discovering new and interesting places, and relies more thoroughly on visual and narrative design. An excellent example of this school of open world design is Fallout 3, which had several completely optional locations with compelling, insulated stories that outstripped the cliché overarching plot of the game. Some of the vaults that dotted the landscape, for example, oozed with tension, intrigue, and atmosphere. And if the player didn’t go out exploring, they would never be seen. Brütal Legend managed to make exploration exciting simply by virtue of its creative environmental design. Every heavy metal landscape had some bizarre new piece of architecture or natural growth worthy of an album cover. Fallout 3 and Brütal Legend show their seams elsewhere, but they each get a few things right; it’s clear, at least, why the creators wanted to set their games in open worlds.
If an open world game doesn’t provide one of these two benefits, why bother making it an open world game at all? Playing inFamous, I continue to wish that the same plot had been told in a completely linear fashion. Taking breaks in the action to replay the same mission types reduced the enjoyment I was getting from the game. Just because a mission is optional is no excuse to make it boring. Assassin’s Creed was criticized for the same problem; there just weren’t enough different things to do to keep the experience consistently entertaining. If inFamous were a more linear, plot-driven game, there wouldn’t be so much junk on the periphery, spoiling an otherwise fun and exciting premise.
Also, for some reason open world games have become synonymous with poor controls and technical difficulties. It is difficult to get Cole, the lead in inFamous, to jump and land just where you want him to or cling to the right part of the building. The cover mechanic in Grand Theft Auto IV was obtuse and the car controls were needlessly difficult to master. The first Assassin’s Creed gave the player a huge world to explore and the graceful, simple controls to explore it, and then killed the player if they accidentally took a dip in any body of water. And almost every open world game ever made has had problems with texture loading, slowdown, screen tearing, and crashing. What rule determined that having a more complicated world gave the game designers license to make a less functional one that’s harder to interact with?
I can accept technical issues; I prefer a well-polished game, but I’ll take a fun one with a few hiccups. A strange control system is less forgivable, but I’ll learn it if the game makes up for it in other ways. The real tragedy of open world games is that they are still designed just like linear experiences. There is still a main storyline that the player is meant to traverse, at the end of which something climactic happens and the credits roll. Maybe the game lets the player continue after the end credits, but the narrative is finished.
A truly open world would let the player set their own goal. Maybe they want to end crime in the city, once and for all, by working their way through the crime families and striking fear into street criminals. Maybe they want to be adventurers and thrill seekers, and run a business to finance their every whim. Maybe they just want to find the right person to love, and make sure that they are both safe from the forces allied against them. Adding every option imaginable is an impossible task, but more available storylines will result in a more open world. The credits should never roll on a real open world game. The game world should just present itself to the player and ask them how they want to change it.
Monday, February 1, 2010
by Daniel Bullard-Bates