Not including you Witcher 3, you perfect game, you.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that since the release of Skyrim back in 2011 the world of video games have started to become that little bit bigger. Skyrim was massively well-received and its open world praised by critics everywhere. There’s no other way around it: Skyrim has been (and I’d argue, always will be) one of the games that developers look to when talking about including an open world.
But I’ll be honest.
I’m getting tired of open world games. Or to be more specific, I’m getting tired of games that are so beautiful and big and so full of mind-numbing potential only to be utterly devoid of the life that makes their world, well, the world!
It’s very easy to look at games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3 and say “I want a game like that!” And frankly, I understand why developers would. Skyrim became one of Bethesda’s biggest (and best) games of all time and The Witcher 3 is still talked about regularly on what a game should be like – why wouldn’t developers want to follow in their footsteps?
But to say and to do are two different things and sadly, at least for me, I feel as though a lot of times developers (who should be applauded for their vision by all means) fall short on the world they want the players to enjoy.
The main problem is simple: some of these worlds are just too darn empty. Now don’t get me wrong, the choice to go wherever you’d like, to have the choice to go this way by horse or on foot, with this companion or that companion – all of these factors are important for the player’s experience. But is space really the only thing open world games need to become great ones?
Let’s look at No Man’s Sky as an example.
No Man’s Sky, before its release, was already predicted to be one of the best games of the year in 2016. So when it arrived and the rich world we were made to believe would be part of the game was actually nowhere to be found, well, it was disheartening, to say the least. There were zero structures apart from some space stations (that pretty much looked the same) and no diversity or narrative that made exploring the world enjoyable. To be frank: I didn’t want to play any longer.
Open world games always run this risk, of course. The chances of players becoming drained by the endless opportunity of having something to do is possible, especially when these worlds are so dense that certain quests have a player going back and forth between two different locations with only minimal reward. Also known as ‘fetch’ quests. Also known as one of the most boring types of quests alive.
It is these sort of quests that can run the risk of players feeling as though nothing they do truly matters. In No Man’s Sky I was collecting mostly fauna/flora and various other components and it was fun, for a while, and then it hit me that I wasn’t sure why I was doing this. What was my end game in No Man’s Sky? What was making me want to play it for hours on end? The answer was both drab and sad: nothing.
I believe that’s what made No Man’s Sky so disheartening for many fans. It promised so much only for it to have so little and to put it bluntly, it shouldn’t have been this way. Nonetheless, I’ve got nothing but respect for Hello Games and the vision that they wanted to create in No Man’s Sky, as well as listening to feedback for their game. A game that they have been continually patching in order to provide the experience that could (and frankly, should) have been so much more.
However, it isn’t just No Man’s Sky that has this problem of having a lush world with nothing in it but tedious collectables.
Two words: The Hinterlands
The Hinterlands, a place that once said three times you’ll automatically appear there and be chased by a trillion of bears until you collect all the elfroot, skin all the wolves and plug up each magic, green hole you can find.
And the worst part is that it is easy to get lost in there. Sure you can argue that “hey Aimee, you don’t have to stay in the Hinterlands if you don’t want to,” and I concur! Truly! But it wasn’t just the Hinterlands that was full of hollow side-quests. While Dragon Age: Inquisition’s environments were beautiful to look at and explore, the game struggled with one of the most important factors that games like the Witcher 3 and Skyrim did exceptionally well…
The world of Inquisition didn’t feel dynamic enough.
There’s this one point in Inquisition in particular that still boggles my mind at the lost opportunity there and completely sums up the deep-rooted problem in Inquisition’s world’s narrative. So, there’s this sign in the Storm Coast, a map that you can go to straight after the Hinterlands, that is near a cliff. This sign says ‘BEWARE OF FALLING ROCKS’. You think ‘oh god, better be careful there. Might be a rock or two going to fall.’ Well, SPOILER ALERT: a rock never falls. Nope. No matter what you do. You stand there, waiting for this stupid rock to fall, and… Nothing.
Is this real life? Or is this just fantasy?
It sounds like a somewhat silly example, but this lack of consequence and choice is what I, as a player, find to be incomprehensibly tiring.
The side-quests don’t truly have consequences either (not including those that relate to your companions) and again the sheer amount of them leads the narrative to become disjointed. A prime example is when you get to the Winter’s Palace, the tension that you’ve since lost doing all those side-quests with little to no consequences towards the main story, suddenly comes back at full-force. It pushes you forward into an enjoyable quest that allows actual meaningful exploration that can lead to severe consequences if you tarry too long. It’s overwhelmingly good and consequently, should have been the standard for the rest of Inquisition in terms of narrative and quests.
However, because it isn’t, the thrust back into reality aka more side-quests is just devastating.
Choices and consequences in open world games are vital
So what am I looking for in terms of my open world games? Ultimately the magnitude of the worlds that developers like Bioware, Hello Games, Bethesda and CD Projekt Red create is not the most important component in their game. It’s the various factors such as exciting characters, unique interactions between the player and the world and choice and consequence that make the world you choose to spend your time in, feel like it has got a life of its own.
Remember when you killed that chicken in Riverwood and the whole darn village came at you for vengeance? Or that time when you could choose between destroying the Dark Brotherhood or sparing it? No matter what you did, Skyrim reacted to it. Characters reacted to it. When my Dark Elf became a werewolf there were most certainly comments about it. It was a world that reacted to the things that you did and it felt incredible to be a part of it!
It was a world much like the Continent in The Witcher 3, (which you should have known I was inevitably going to talk about, by the way.) In the Continent, side quests are fun and full of immersive secrets and lore that feels rewarding and organic in how the game’s narrative plays out. It doesn’t take anything away from the main quest because your role in The Witcher 3 is so abundantly clear: you’re there to find clues for Ciri and the road you take is not one that is the straight and narrow. There are twists and turns that lead to side-quests that do not feel like a blockage or a bump in the road, but like there’s another path that the player can choose to do if they are so inclined.
More importantly, the worlds of Skyrim and the Witcher made you feel as though what you did mattered. That you had consequences for the choices you made. Geralt deciding to treat Ciri like a child and not the woman she is? Bingo, she’s dead because of you not believing in her! The flashbacks of Ciri and Geralt in this ending is particularly heart-wrenching, but it also conveys the importance of their relationship and how it affects the world thereafter.
Characters interact and warp with what you do and THAT is what makes open world games so rewarding. A tight narrative structure with characters that aren’t just compelling, but add to the world around you as you play. A world that feels real; a world that I can see and feel the change to, with the delightful environment around it only adding to the game, not swallowing it whole.
Because remember: bigger doesn’t mean better.
Do you agree? Disagree? Have your own thoughts to share on this? Then leave a comment below and let’s get this discussion going!