Make A Game (Not) A Good One Episode 6: Open World

Make a game (not) a good one is a series of obiter dictum that discusses the good or bad in video games. And, today only, that most open world games fucking suck.

I don’t hate – as in properly, clinically hate – open world games. It’s more like I think that a proportionally low number of open world games are actually good games. And, being a naïve piece of shit I am, I’d kind of expect the mainstream triple-A video game industry to treat me the same way. You know, calm. Measured.

It doesn’t. They’d happily spew their delusional marketing of ‘open world = good’ until my half-rotten corpse loses its 3rd dimension, to the very point it ceases to have ever existed under all the screaming tsunamis of pure bullshit. Well, I ain’t gonna just take it.

Much like a lot in this era of everything-that’s-on-Facebook-is-a-stone-cold-fact, the once-noble premise of open world video games has degenerated into icon-fetch grind masquerading as things-to-do. And them things-to-do masquerading as value for money. Yeah! This game is a jillion miles across and will take you 600 hours to beat – you’ll totally get your monies’ worth! Umm, nope.

Shitty modern copy-paste open world games aren’t even worth screenshots. So much for the – oversold – ‘exploration’. Instead, here’s Euro Truck Simulator 2, which I enjoyed a great great deal.

Let’s ask what we’ve been asking time and time again, in this series in particular: why do we play video games? Therefore, why do we buy them? The answer is a lot simpler than one may think: agency. What the likes of Ubisoft or Squeenix or EA are thus equating to agency, are things-to-do. Let’s have a look at an example, shall we.

In recent Mass Effect: Andromeda, now for the first time in the series in glo-oh-rious open world of course, one is asked to collect crafting material from planets. To achieve so, one enters a planet’s orbit, clicks on some UI elements and voilà, material in one’s pocket itself finds. Where is the challenge, the choice, the gameplay, the agency? Well, our clever EA-purchased folk have implemented an ingenious design – unskippable cutscenes inbetween the UI-clicks. The core gameplay here is waiting, and the challenge is… patience! Patience watching the same fucking ‘travel’ cutscene, until one finds himself in a straight jacket covered in his own drool. The design here is have the game blatantly waste your fucking time, over, and over, and over again. But it’s valuable in-game hours, it’s things-to-do, is it not?

And that’s the last nail to the coffin of today’s ‘open world gaming’. Endless, mindless MMO-like collect-questing with as much meaningless space – and as much meaningless time – padded in between as physically (or otherwise) possible.

Here’s a very non-triple-A Rebel Galaxy, which I love. Dearly.

Of course, the ridiculous timewaster ‘mechanic’ is nothing new. Before, there was size. Vast, utterly hollow worlds of cookie-cutter ‘content’ with sole and only purpose to give the player things-to-do, illusion of value for money. No Man’s Sky is guilty of this. Avalanche’s both Mad Max and Just Cause 3 are guilty of this. Every single ‘big’ Ubisoft release since Far Cry 3 is guilty of this.

Which brings me to what some may percieve as a hyperbole, and try and illustrate the sheer magnitude of the problem I have with open world. Even if you replace the, often procedurally-generated, many-a-time RNG-driven copy-paste bollocks with hand-crafted substances, open world tends to, in my mind, ruin it rather than enhance it. In most cases anyway. All two people that read this are probably going to crucify me, but I think that Witcher 2 was a better game than the third.

Out of the 25-or-so hours in Witcher 3 I vividly remember a couple of (absolutely brilliant) side-quests, and… and that’s about it. After I’ve given up, the lingering thoughts are that of its size alone. I’d call it overwhelming, intimidating even, but most importantly, severely disruptive in terms of its overall narrative. Arriving at a main quest site after an hour of chasing some armour set or whatnot and asking myself “who the fuck was this guy again” occured far too often. Twists happened, I felt, in not the right moment, surprises crept in with not the right pace. Quite possibly the biggest tragedy in all this is that I wouldn’t be so critical towards Witcher 3‘s open world be it not for its predecessor, needless to say, ticking all the right boxes at all the right moments. In a more or less linear fashion.

Is Satellite Reign in retrospect just another Ubisoft icon hunt? You bet your bloody arse it isn’t.

But let’s be fair here. We started off with the importance of agency, and Witcher 3 had plenty to offer. And no, I’m not going to compare it to the modern, openworldicized garbage a’la Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst (it was a thing last year, I swear… anyone?). What Witcher 3 has given the player is the power to shape, or at least influence, its world. It didn’t merely present a sandbox and some things-to-do in it. It presented things to do with it.

As demonstrated by Shadow of Mordor and its positively superb Nemesis system, that is exactly what I came to expect from “an open world”. So. Ubisoft, EA, even Hello Games or Frontier, stop it. Stop selling me your illusions of gameplay measured in hours or square fucking miles. I. Don’t. Care.

Know what, do us all a favour and stop using the expression ‘open world’ altogether. Because way I see it, not only it has descended pretty much into an insult. It has almost put me off playing one of the most amazing, mind-fucking-blowing games I have ever gotten to experience. But that’d be a different day’s story.

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