Ever since titles such as Grand Theft Auto III, the gaming industry has held a particular fondness for open-world gaming. For companies such as Rockstar and Bethesda, this idea of a vast and detailed map with potentially hundreds-of-hours-worth of entertainment has become an important staple in their games. A certain magic comes with being able to go anywhere and do anything at any time in order to truly make the game your own, but the sheer popularity of the genre has left me confused and frustrated.
I wrote a feature piece back in August of this year called “Does Single-Player Have a Future,” and in it I drew a connection between the popularity of multiplayer and the best-selling games of all time; 46 of the top 50 best-selling games ever embrace some form of multiplayer/co-op (the list has since changed thanks to Red Dead Redemption 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII, but the point that these numbers make still stand). At the same time, I mentioned how this list doesn’t even scratch the surface of multiplayer considering the immense popularity of free-to-play multiplayer games, and how the top of the Steam charts sings the same song. These two lists alone can easily be used to evaluate the effects that multiplayer has on both the gaming experience and sales. However, the same correlation cannot be found for the open-world concept.
A mere 11 games on that same best-selling list are considered open-world if you include The Sims. Now, the top ten best-selling games for each individual year have a much higher percentage of open-world games. So far in 2018, five of the ten are open-world; last year it was also five. Again, these are better percentages, but I still question the true value of open worlds if they can’t truly dominate the charts given how many developers rely on them for their games. So why do studios use open worlds so much?
Don’t get me wrong, developers have found some truly magical ways to use open worlds to their games’ advantages; games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Marvel’s Spider-Man, the original Mass Effect games, and Grand Theft Auto V do it perfectly all in their own ways. Marvel’s Spider-Man actually has a pretty large map, but the scale of it is brought down by just how quickly you can traverse it. Traveling from one side of Manhattan to the other never gets dull because of all the street crimes you can stop, the people trying to shoot at you later in the game, and the act of being able to swing everywhere you go. Mass Effect and its first two sequels hit you with plenty of different side missions that actually can affect the loyalty of your crew. It also takes a similar approach to open worlds as Spider-Man does by making it quick and easy to travel across entire planets, systems, and clusters. Both RDR2 and GTAV have vast worlds that may take a while to make your way through, but they give you plenty to do in the meantime, such as helping a woman whose horse died get back to her home, or escaping the police because you just drove 90 miles-per-hour onto a residential sidewalk and killed 15 pedestrians.
While these games have found the right formula, certain games either have no business being open-world or use the world to suck the life out of you. Does your game’s map have vast open spaces with nothing to do for miles? Then it doesn’t work as an open world. Contact your doctor if you experience any symptoms of boredom, or your thumb gets stuck holding the joystick up. This is a big reason why Red Dead Redemption simply isn’t that fun. While its prequel has destroyed houses, random farms, and plenty of interesting characters along the road to interact with, the original RDR just bores you after you’ve taken in the nice scenery for a couple hours. So much of the game is saddling up on a horse and going seemingly nowhere, sometimes at ten-minute intervals. Rockstar could’ve made the game half the length with a smaller map, and this would’ve been more enjoyable to play. Is that realistic? No, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun.
I’m starting off light with that one. At least I finished Red Dead Redemption, but I can’t bring myself to go back to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I love fantasy, so when I first purchased these games, I was giddy to hop in and make my own adventure in a totally different world than I could never even hope to be a part of in real life. Unfortunately, these games suffocate you with too much of a great thing. On January 10, 2018, TwinFinite.net released an article stating that The Witcher 3 has a total of 405 quests across the original release, DLC, and expansions. The list of games worth playing for more than 60 hours is very finite, so it’s quite an audacious statement for CD PROJEKT RED to put more than 200 hours of content into one game. While I know I can’t speak for everyone, I personally feel extremely uncomfortable playing video games when I feel that everything snowballs onto my plate. A couple hours into both Skyrim and Wild Hunt, you already feel hopeless in the face of all the quests that can be completed. As someone who likes to turn over as many stones as possible when playing a game, I feel much less motivated to even finish the story when I know it won’t be enough. Making a huge map with objectives crammed into every nook and cranny is simply a poor development decision that totally defeats any value that the world has. If the world constantly gets drowned out by enemies and side quests, you can’t appreciate the world you’re in. Instead, you find yourself just pushing and pushing to get to the next mission knowing how many steps behind you are.
While this sucks a ton when playing a game, the content in both of those games is still good. Again, it’s just too much of a great thing. However, THESE games take the cake: Vampyr and L.A. Noire. These open worlds upset me more than any other because they’re utterly pointless. Vampyr can be summed up by a crippling lack of detail, polish, or, subsequently, proper atmosphere. Every corridor you go down is just a never-ending onslaught of repetitive textures, and I specifically say textures instead of buildings. You can’t go into a single building unless the game specifically needs it for a plot point. If this is the case, why should I pass by building after building to get to my destination? They have no purpose other than to make the map bigger. Why is the map bigger? So they can put more and more enemies in the way of what the actual story is about. Fortunately, L.A. Noire has a very detailed and interesting world, but you can’t really explore it. This game just BARELY fits under the open-world category, as there is actually very little freedom in going about the city. However, within a given chapter, you may find clues and investigate sites at your leisure. Why do you have to drive around to do this, though? It’s just a lot of padding that means nothing and serves no purpose.
An open world only has value when the world has a distinct purpose. It can’t just serve as a way to facilitate the gameplay. I love using The Last of Us as an example because that game is extremely limited in its linear style. There are no choices, you must follow the given path to the objective, and every character you meet is met specifically as part of the story. Yet, many consider this to be one of the greatest games created. With a few tweaks to the story, Naughty Dog could easily have created a large map for players to explore, but they knew that this game didn’t work in that environment, because the environment would lack purpose. Instead, they made specific locations and gave them purpose with intense detail and atmosphere. This makes the environments meaningful and unique. Everything is there for a reason; it’s not just filler.
I think open worlds receive too much praise in the gaming community. The scope in which they’re used needs to be severely limited for the sake of quality. Developers need to spend more time, money, energy, and resources on polish than on content. Otherwise, the industry will continue its downward spiral into quantity. So many AAA games release every single year, and consumers have to cautiously spend their money. If studios released fewer titles that were of quality, as opposed to cranking out game after game, then we’d have room for more developers to stay afloat and prosper. This is why companies like Rockstar and Naughty Dog will be around for decades to come, and Activision-Blizzard and Ubisoft will soon be gone… Although, this is just one guy’s opinion.
Brandon is a young writer who loves going deep into games to explore meaning, purpose, and life. He believes that there’s nothing better than getting lost in a world full of characters to love and lessons to learn. He has a special place in his heart for single player games such as Mass Effect and Life Is Strange, but he also blows off some steam playing some of his favorite multiplayer games, like Paladins.