Everything Wrong with Open World Games

Fallout 4 – one of the year’s biggest games (in every sense) is out now:

I shared the trailer with my significant other, who gently told me: “But… you’ll never complete Fallout 3!

And it’s true. As my Lone Wanderer emerged from another dungeon crawl in Fallout 3, I realized that I couldn’t go on any further. Here are my issues with the open world genre:

1) Bigger, Not Better

Open world games have grown too big, too unwieldy. A friend of mine started Fallout 3, left the Vault 101 atomic shelter, surveyed the post-apocalyptic expanse of the Capital Wasteland – and gave up!

What once was fresh and exciting (remember racing around Grand Theft Auto 3’s Liberty City?) has been remade each time “bigger and better”. But this is like pounding down greater quantities of junk food to gain greater enjoyment. Why not savor a smaller, well-made meal?

Look at Rocksteady’s bloating Batman games. We raved about the lean, defined Arkham Asylum with its Metroid influences. They expanded things (what else?) with the admittedly still manageable Arkham City. But then there was this year’s overstuffed GTA-’em up, Arkham Knight. The Batmobile was never needed here, and the last Arkham game suffers as a result.

2) Time Commitment

Open world games have no respect for your time. Look at this:

Fallout 3 How Long to Complete

According to HowLongToBeat.com, to complete the main story of Fallout 3 takes an average of over 32 hours. To complete the main mission plus extras, I’m looking at 72 hours.

Say I play this game for two hours per week. At this rate, I’ll have Fallout 3 completed in just over 8 months!

Open world titles demand a lot of gamers. Sure, you could concentrate on the main story only, but you’ll end up missing a good 75% of the rest of the game. And so the player is spread thin, grasping at main missions, side quests, collectibles, and secrets.

If the very best video games give the player complete control over their environment, then open world games take this away. You can never get your arms around an open world.

Worse, developers artificially extend the life of their games by padding them out with special challenges. In order to reach that 100% completion you will have to mop up the game map in a digital treasure hunt, or clear out “optional” objectives – usually involving replaying the same missions, but using specific weapons or techniques (typically stealth), or within time limits.

How much (more) time can we afford to wander around sprawling worlds like the 18th century Caribbean, Gotham City, the cityscapes of Los Santos, the fantasy setting of Skyrim, even outer space in Elite: Dangerous? And the forthcoming No Man’s Sky will take place across procedurally generated planets – 18 quintillion of them, in fact.

3) Little Value for Money

I understand the value for money issue – nobody wants to pay full price for a two-hour game – but we’re way past that point now folks.

Sheer size doesn’t equal value for money. A game that rambles on for 100 hours outstays its welcome long before the end.

Are you experiencing new gameplay at hour 50 as compared with hour 5? Or are you grinding down the same repetitive missions over and over?

Fallout 3 Capital Wasteland

A wander around the wasteland in Fallout 3.
Source: http://fallout.wikia.com/

Indie games like Braid or Limbo or World of Goo “only” last 3-6 hours, but are better value for money because they constantly surprise. They squeeze every drop of originality and entertainment out of their gameplay hooks.

Non-linear games also have little replay value. I’ve never returned to an open world game to vacuum up the remaining challenges or collectibles.

4) Dull Quests

As open world titles have evolved they’ve started to grow identical to one another. Video games are reliant on structure, and open world games are now at the stage where the graphics are changing – but the underlying mechanics are not.

You can dress up the quests differently. But underneath they are all variations on the theme of: travel from “Point A” to “Point B” and speak to, steal from, or kill whomever or whatever you find.

Grand Theft Auto V

Urban sprawl in Grand Theft Auto 5.
Source: http://www.rockstargames.com/

Quests and side-quests become hypnotic – you do them by rote since you’ve completed similar missions so many times before. Nothing unexpected happens. There is no shot of adrenaline. Compare this to the jolts delivered during the linear but action-packed gameplay of The Last of Us.

Missions and side-missions are our digital checklists. They are just items, chores to be crossed off. They’re shallow, if we’re to be honest with ourselves. Even the name “dungeon crawl” evokes drudgery.

And then there’s this obsession with collecting stuff. The array of loot and items to stockpile and craft – intentionally formulated to stimulate the OCD in all of us, our need to collect ’em all.

5) No Sense of Discovery

To sail the ocean in a schooner, ride through the American frontier on horseback, or hike across a futuristic landscape – fun at first, but after hours of this the enjoyment wanes, and you find yourself trudging around.

Developers know this. They’ve given us “fast travel” options: little icons that zap us straight to our destinations. Yes, The Legend of Zelda had warp points, but they were neatly embedded as songs that spirited you away via a magical ocarina. They made sense in context. Fast travel only shatters the atmosphere. Fast travel reminds you that this is not a real world, and that you are cheating to get around.

And rather than asking the player to draw their own, now developers provide us with maps that look like this:

Assassins Creed IV Map

Piracy: The Assassin’s Creed IV Way, where everything is permitted (and signposted).
Source: http://www.kotaku.com.au/

We already know what we’re going to find before we reach our destination. We’re robbed of any sense of exploration or discovery. Would Ocarina of Time have been as compelling if, when trekking across Hyrule Field, we had been told what we would find at the ranch on the hill?

On-screen displays compound the problem. Take Assassin’s Creed again – the HUD points you to your next objective, tells you how far you have left to travel, and signposts side quests, shops, points of interest, and any enemies along the way. Even Fallout 3 has a “go here” pointer on your compass. This is handholding by GPS – unfortunately just like real life.

Path of Least Resistance

Roaming the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3 has been enjoyable, but I’m ready to move on. And the dilemma for the open world gamer is real, demanding that you make a strategic choice.

Either take the direct route and close out the story in around 20 hours – but miss most of the side quests. Or commit to playing the same game for months – possibly years – to see all it has to offer, and never get around to enjoying the games gathering dust in your backlog.

All this makes me appreciate the linearity of The Last of Us or Half-Life 2 – tightly focused games with plots and characters that drive you onward. Open world games gain mass with each iteration, but they’ve become stodgy. Will we see a return to linear gaming in the future?

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3 responses to “Everything Wrong with Open World Games

  1. Takes me 30 hours to 100% a Fallout 3 play through. Guess it means redoing it for the 3 Karmic paths?

    Didn’t know about how long to beat, would have been useful when I started Fallout 2 and it took me 50+ hours. Or any of the xcom games.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great post and I agree with you on all points. I’m sick of the way scale is used in these games as if bigger = better. I also found Fallout 3 particularly egregious. What bothered me more than the size of the world though was the size of the game’s interiors. I’m amazed that I’ve not read anyone else complain about this. WHY ARE THEY SO BIG? It’s so confusing. Endless repetitive corridors, horribly laid out and completely impossible to commit to memory. The underground networks, the buildings, the vaults, the towns even, all of them designed with seemingly zero regard for the player who has to navigate these environments. When you’re mired in this much shit, the marker on your radar is not a handy feature or tool, it’s a lifejacket!

    No wonder 2D games are making a comeback these days 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks! And you’re right about Fallout 3’s interiors. As you say, they were too large, unwieldy, and repetitive. The broken down buildings and factories and grocery stores were pretty indistinguishable from one another.

    Like

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