The Trouble with Open Worlds — Part Three

After an in-depth case study of Assassin's Creed in Part One and a wider look at the issues that beset open world titles across the board in Part Two, it's time to come up with some solutions.

Enjoying Freedom

I haven’t played Zelda: Breath of the Wild yet, although a couple of nights ago I had a dream centring on a fraught and surreal purchase of a Nintendo Switch; as I can never hold out against any sort of onslaught from my subconscious for long it’s probably only a matter of time before I cave.

If value for money is a blackboard covering algorithm for most games then it’s an even more complex equation when it involves buying a console which will have, within the next twelve months, a grand total of three games I’ll want to play. Yes, I want to see a dangerously anarchist Mario hopping around the real world (who doesn't?), I want to see all his friends driving karts, I want to angle the camera at suitably epic angles when Link stands on mountains to look at sunsets… but I can’t afford it.

People say, “oh it’ll be worth it just for that” but it’s hard to justify buying an entire games console for a couple of games especially when weighed up, on scales overseen by Thoth, against the pressures of bills, living and, my eternal nemesis, the dog.

Anyway, from what I understand, the new Zelda manages to be a refreshing take not only the franchise but on the open world: one big environmental puzzle which contains enough discrete segments to never feel overwhelming. Although some revitalisation might have been achieved by the merely combining an established Nintendo title with a large world, Nintendo seem to have struck on a formula that exceeds itself and is basically loved across the board.

Overall, though, this is encouraging. “Upgrading” an existing franchise to an open world is a gamble and, as the dangerously unambitious Rise of the Tomb Raider shows, it sometimes fails spectacularly. Ideas can be spread thin over the course of forty, fifty, eighty hour game. The answer is not necessarily to shorten the game, although this would be a perfect fix in a lot of cases, but rather to heap on more ideas. Not stuff — every game out there has plenty of stuff. Collect 100 of these, 200 of those, scour every corner for bottle caps and feathers and bobbleheads. The new Mafia, by all accounts, is death by stuff. Horizon: Zero Dawn, which came out at roughly the same time as Zelda, is a prime example of a game that may be totally overshadowed and maybe even forgotten, despite being quite good, just because it opted for sturdy reliable stuff over the special magic that Zelda reportedly has.

Mass Effect Andromeda is out now and it contains more stuff than ever before in the franchise. Reviews suggest that you have to play for around 25-30 hours before you stumble on the first real feel of a Mass Effect game. Isn’t it gratifying that something finally clicks after you’ve spent a full day playing the game? I don’t think I’ll be bothering with this one. I can’t face that, chewing through layer after layer of badly animated, badly written icing to get to anything of actual substance.

In the end, it isn’t stuff that makes open worlds captivating. Mass Effect, for example, cannot be about how many planets you scan. It’s about the characters. It’s about companions and a team you actually care about, even the scant few you can't actually sleep with. Bioware have been quite skillful at creating relationships that matter at times but I don’t think I’m interested in spending much time with a whole new bunch of corporate colonisers, all of whom seem like cheap-rate versions of the franchise's previous crews.

It’s easy to simply list things which aren’t any good in these games – that’s what I’ve been doing so far, after all — it’s definitely harder to come up with solutions. As in politics, so it is in games. Hopefully some of the criticism I have offered here has suggested a general approach. I can see vague rumblings against open worlds here and there on social media so hopefully this isn’t just an expression of my own esoteric taste. I think there are concrete ways good open worlds, good games, stand out from those that are bad.

Assassin’s Creed 2 gives you a home base, Ezio’s villa and surrounding town, which you can repair and improve. This does have some vague advantages, allowing you to purchase better quality weapons from the local armourer among other aesthetic choices. Really, though, the existence of the town is false progress, something to sink money into which is not integral to the story of the game, to Ezio as a character, or to Desmond plugged into the Animus. What does it matter what repairs Ezio did to his roof, 400 years ago?

Money as a resource is interesting because the AC games are usually so long you rapidly accumulate a fortune. If you were dedicated in AC2, you could amass a Scrooge McDuck pile of coins simply looting the enemy guards you kill. The developers obviously see this as a problem, they don't want you to just accumlate capital for no reason — what, after all, could be worse than that? They want to give you something to buy and so they rather clumsily make you a town planner.

Ezio spends hardly any time in the villa. The memories that you play through are, naturally, what takes him away from the villa. It’s not really a home in any meaningful way. Not somewhere he actually lives. Time spent there is treading water.

Games need to find compelling ways for you to spend money or it should be dispensed with entirely. Ezio’s access to certain pieces of equipment is reliant on Leonardo da Vinci developing them. The game slowly dishes them out to you as his career progresses. This seems a better way of doing it. As an Assassin, the standard weaponry Ezio has should be superior than anything shop bought anyway. Given that later games jump through eras, the developers can curate what items you get and when without forcing you to become a retail magnate who nonetheless must buy, at full price, the items from the shops he owns and supplies.

I’m not convinced you couldn’t give the player more tools straight off the bat and just let the individual decide what to do with them. This is by far my favourite option. It's never as bewildering as developers seem to think. By the time you’re halfway through AC2 and are granted a second wrist-knife, you’ve probably missed a dozen chances to use them.

AC is a game that isn’t designed for home maintenance and Ezio himself is a poorly designed homeowner, dashing across roofs and clambering out of windows as he does. It’s not a game you can really live in. GTA5’s main missions may play on all of Rockstar’s worst tendencies but I can fire it up, stick on the radio, and go for a drive. There are houses, of course, but the home life of the characters is strange and dysfunctional. That isn't where they or the game itself feels at home. Where it’s at its most therapeutic – and best, I would argue – is when you're in a car, on the freeway with the music at full blast.

I can wile away hours doing this: listening to music with the base level stimulus of driving that I find cathartic and relaxing. Nipping from lane to lane, overtaking, visiting the landmarks and finding good views. GTA5 is a nasty game in a beautiful world. The sun goes down, the lights of not-LA wink into life on the horizon, clouds roll in, rain shatters on the asphalt. I drive. Night is a spectacular light show, actually quite disarming in its realism. I suppose this would be the sensation I'd get driving in real life if it wasn't something shit that I hated doing.

This is just being. You're in the world, taking it in, enjoying it in a way divorced from the missions and the gunplay and the endless obnoxiousness of the story. I feel like it gives the characters a richer, inner life: Michael or Franklin unwinding with a long drive out into the country and only breaking the slightest of traffic laws. It’s nice to spend time in the game where you aren’t shouting or killing, exploring regions of the map that you don’t otherwise visit. It’s a question, really, of pitch. The GTA games as overseen by Dan and Sam Houser always have a certain level of noise which they rarely deviate from. It largely involves yelling and a particular type of arm-waving mo-cap which they’ve been perfecting since the series went 3D. It's tedious. In fact, the game would be a complete bust if that’s all there was. Fortunately, there’s the driving. There’s the intense level of fine detail. There's the scenery and the occasionally stand out visual joke. Heaps of money spent on every incidental little thing to create this non-world.

Never go driving with Trevor, though. He’s a dick.

Assassins Creed doesn’t have this. You can never drop the hood and just wander around the cities. There’s no downtime. I would love to see how they have recreated Paris and London, if only for a few hours. The cities have so much incidental detail, so much life in the crowds. It’s a shame Assassin Mode is basically always on, even when you're playing sims with your villa. Even with the whole Caribbean around you, I never found sailing from place to place in Black Flag had the same feeling as sitting in a vehicle and just heading out in GTA5 – although it’s certainly the closest the Assassins Creed franchise has ever got to that. It’s not quite on a par with my best moments quietly motoring down the freeway or jogging through the destruction of the world in Fallout 3. The minimap bristles with things to do, the Animus is this ceaseless background hum, there are enemy ships and forts you have to avoid. There are still guards on rooftops, looking to disrupt your movement. The world never shows the player the same level of indifference as sunrise over Los Santos.

The Witcher 3 is another game with an advanced sense of beauty and mood. This is a good example of a game where I did care about the characters and the story but I also enjoyed travelling around. I didn’t tend to ride out only for fun in The Witcher 3, not in the same totally disengaged way as in GTA5. I usually had a destination and a purpose but I never resented it. Travelling is quiet and reflective for the most part. It’s wind and music (incredible, incredible music) swirling murmurations of birds like black scraps of paper against the dying, watery sunlight. Andrew has written about this. The game has a deep well of emotion from which you draw directly as you head out into the wilderness.

The game hits you, again and again, with the poetry of small things: the sense of loss in the windswept heathers and creaking trees, wintry hamlets in the mist, children running through the puddles and the mud. There would be none of this elegiac wandering without the open world.

Red Dead Redemption captures this feeling in two stand-out moments where anachronistic music bursts out unexpectedly to create something cinematic and powerful. The Witcher 3 does this, off-handedly, every time you mount your horse. Velen and Novigrad and its surrounds feel like lived in places and, for several hundred hours, I lived in them too.

I never felt that way with the Florence visited by Ezio. If your grand open world is not one that the player wants to be in other than to stab people then is it really worth the effort?

The Witcher 3 surpasses other open world games because there’s so little that feels like busywork. There’s a lot of itinerant monster-hunting, yes, but that’s what Geralt does. Practically every side quest and contract you pick up has depth, some hidden twist, some moment. Quests seem to have been worked and reworked until they hit a certain level of sophistication, a certain reason for being. There’s only two I can think of (all DLC included) which are a lazy. Even the worst example of "Ride around, flatten a monster nest x3" has three different possible conclusions, the best of which is really clever and touching. Even when you absolutely have to clear a basement of rats, there’s always something more going on. The game's entire philosophy is: it’s never just rats.

Really I wish developers would correctly identify their limits and their strengths. The new Tomb Raider — probably my current byword for an empty, self-loathing experience — did not have to be an open world game. It did not need crafting. A lot of it is completely linear once you have arrived at the mission marker, anyway, so why not embrace linearity? If you have a real story to tell then tell it. Don’t simply scatter it, so much narrative confetti, over an expanse of snow, bears and rusted Soviet iconography.

As a direct comparison, Uncharted 4 is a testament to a developer’s absolute self-confidence. It's actually a correction to previous games which — although linear — had a tendency to become a slog by the end. The 2nd game, for example, probably has an overabundance of set pieces. The end, as you kill 1000 more armoured mercenaries is a misstep in an otherwise superlative action title.

Naughty Dog's tendency now, with the Last of Us and now Uncharted 4, is to tell a story at their own pace, in no rush whatsoever. It is a controlled, defined experience. It’s impossible to feel short-changed by it, I think, because it does so much to earn its emotional content. The experience has been curated and you hit all the notes in the right order. Action sequences are paced out and small scale. The actual "arenas" are slightly freeform, encouraging a mix of stealth and gunplay. It's a kind of limited openness that keeps everything ticking over without empty trudging, while also allowing the player to approach objectives in their own way.

The latest Metal Gear Solid, at its best, kept missions in contained bubbles within a larger world. Once in the particular mission bubble, how you approached objectives was largely defined by the player. Bases set in wide spaces allowed multiple approaches and tactics. Although story missions in the game encourage a pure stealth approach that I personally found somewhat gruelling, in the vast array of side-missions there isn't much stopping you from sitting on a hillside and calling in a barrage. I doubt many people would criticise Hideo Kojima for having a less than clear authorial vision for his games but he was still able to promote emergence and freedom in a game that runs on the rails of his story.

I’m certainly not suggesting that every game should be slavishly linear. However, Tomb Raider and Mad Max and numerous others could have benefited from a tightness of control. A flow of action with an authored momentum. Really what you ended up with was a cavernous box with a pitiful handful of items inside. A lucky dip you endlessly rummage around in. Sometimes the things you pull out aren't even that good.

Red Dead Redemption has plenty to recommend it, not least because unlike the GTAs, you can play the game as not-a-complete-dirtbag. I enjoyed hours of poker, hanging out in a saloon with some other cowboys as the sun went down. There’s a richness to the setting which is exactly like what Assassins Creed could achieve if they dispensed with the Assassins/Templar plotline and God being a space egg. A rawer, realer sense of history.

Even so, a lot of the actual missions of RDR are pretty trite. You travel to a place, you shoot everyone there then you leave. In Mexico, as a key example, you take over a train and drive it across the country shooting people with a Gatling gun. Then you steal that train again for a different group and drive it all the way back shooting more people with a Gatling gun.

Actually travelling to Mexico is a key moment in the game, a moment I have already praised, but what you do there is sadly incidental to the actual story and mired in the usual hollow horseshoe theory politics of rebels and peasants being as bad as their brutal oppressors. It’s also where the game wrongly decides there’s nothing more exciting than shooting waves of enemies with a Gatling.

The real story of Redemption, as it were, only actually becomes apparent in the final act. That’s when things come to a head. That’s when the compromises that John Marston has had to make become obvious. I don’t know why this wasn’t foregrounded more. I don’t know why the government agents who are blackmailing you into working for them aren’t present earlier on. I don’t know why you spend only a few fleeting moments with your family. The plot seems loose, for the most part, only taking the reins right before the finale.

The ending of Red Dead Redemption is powerful but there’s no doubt that some of that power is lost because of odd narrative decisions made earlier on. Really, I could have shot half the amount of people I killed in half the square kilometres without losing anything from the experience. Uncharted 4 brought Nathan Drake's bodycount down to a less-than-genocidal number for the first time in the series, and I would like the next Red Dead to do the same. Action set-pieces should be individually crafted and imbued with a sense of importance, rather than an endless bandit whack-a-mole. Give me a bandit hideout, a dozen different ways to approach, a gun or a knife then set me loose.

Just because a game is set in an open world, there’s no reason for a complete lack of focus.  No Man’s Sky sold itself to people on the idea that there were a million billion worlds to explore. What an off-putting feature: a galaxy of pointlessness. I don’t want to explore a trillion mediocre worlds. I don’t want to explore a hundred if there’s nothing to do when I get there — looking at you, Mass Effect 1. I want to explore five, say. Five worlds bursting with life and incident. Five should be enough, if you make them matter.

The Division is a game of intensely linear shooting, strung out across an empty New York. The philosophy of the open world doesn’t affect the actual things you do at all. It’s just a vast 3D mission select menu you have to navigate through, on foot.

Ghost Recon: Wildlands is different, however politically horrid it is. Missions can be approached in multiple ways to the point that, at its best, the beta reminded me of Metal Gear Solid. You can land on the roof in an attack helicopter, if you want. Sit on a hilltop and call in rebel mortar strikes. Move down, through the brush, and infiltrate stealthily, taking out sentries silently and from afar. It's up to you. Already it's more compelling than The Division.

In resolutely action titles, particularly red-dot sighted military shooters, I think this is the only way to go. If I have to assassinate someone in Black Flag, why can’t I just shoot his villa from the shoreline with my ship? What tends to happen, instead, is that I am led by the hand. Sit here and do not deviate. Listen to this whole conversation, not half of it, not just the salient details, all of it. Now escape in this particular way, down this particular alley. Hide in this bush for this amount of time. Now press Y to finish the level, and remember to like and subscribe.

If I have to adhere so closely to what the game demands then it’s not really an open world at all.

In single-player even GTA, which used to be such a glorious sandbox for this, has regressed. In Vice City there is an early mission where you are ordered to kill a chef for the usual nebulous reasons. I played the mission a few times and he kept getting away. Firing up the mission again, I stole a truck and blocked his exit route, an alley at the rear of his restaurant. I also shot the tyres of his escape vehicle – a scooter. Then I started the mission. When the chef rushed out of the kitchen, he leapt on his scooter and, wheels sparking, drove – wobbling – straight into the truck I had parked in his way. I strolled over and shot him in the head.

I guess, in one sense I cheated. In one sense, I broke the game. You’re meant to pursue him across the city and run him off the road. Instead of feeling guilty, though, I felt empowered. Why wouldn’t I sabotage his escape vehicle? Why wouldn’t I block his route? It’s exactly the sort of thing that people do in the movies that the GTA games borrow from.

It’s a complete nothing of a mission, really. Kill a chef. I actually created something memorable out of it myself, using the tools that the game gave me.  

These days, the scripting takes over. Trucks you park in the way vanish, tyres repair themselves. In certain chases, the game will not allow you to kill the person you are following and there’s no way you can knock them off their vehicle until the allotted time. This might make for a tighter experience, more curated (something I was praising only a few paragraphs ago) but it’s a case of a developer misidentifying what was good about the series in the first place.

Ultimately, forcing me to follow a biker to a certain point and then have a gunfight in a park is something I resent because it’s completely at the detriment of player agency and a step back from what I enjoyed in the older games. I can reload the mission as much as I want so I’m cheating by default. Why not let me have fun doing it?

I entitled this article Enjoying Freedom not because the player has to make the most of open worlds, but, really, because you have to be allowed the freedom to enjoy it. If an open world is just soulless, empty scenery then you are trapped in little more than a film set. If it's just a set of tasks, then it's a job, and one thing is certain: there is no liberation through work.

The Trouble with Open Worlds – Part Two

In Part One, I discussed my problems with the Assassin’s Creed franchise particularly the exponentially increasing amount of busywork you have to do in any given game just to make progress. These are big hunks of game that you have to chisel through over the course of hours and hours. It's a task I have been historically bad at.

It's instructive to look at AC because the problems with that franchise and the ethos of crowding a minimap with ten thousand things to do (some of extremely limited entertainment value) is not limited to its hooded assassins and historical worlds. Far from it..

The Value of Worlds

The algorithm of value for money relating to video games is vague. Isn’t it better to get five hours which pack a punch instead of forty hours of vague nothing? Even if this is the case, is it fair to pay the same amount for both?

Certainly ten years ago there seemed to be a constant debate about how short games were getting not to mention a related concern over how expensive games were becoming. Something like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was pilloried because you could complete it in around eight or nine hours. Games like Call of Duty tied a robust and, crucially, unlimited multiplayer experience to the singleplayer as way of compensation. As that series has progressed, the multiplayer in many ways superseded the campaign and people are now buying the next installment for new maps on which to play team deathmatches. As with the Battlefield series the single player campaign is a vestigial limb, deliberately designed as an extended tutorial for the real experience: playing alongside teenagers from the United States who sit on the game 16 hours a day and spend most of the time either calling you slurs or shouting at their mother.

What has happened elsewhere is even more cynical in its way. Games that have eight hours of story or, rather, eight hours of ideas are extended artificially by inserting them in an open world. The price, therefore, is justified. I expect Medal of Honor: Allied Assault would have taken much longer to complete if I had to manually drive from the coast of North Africa to the staging area for the Normandy Invasions and pick up every tree-leaf and helmet I found on the way.

Assassin’s Creed is, sadly, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the open world games I have not and never will complete.

Mad Max (2015) by Avalanche Studios is a great example. The first few hours of that game are kind of fantastic. They perfectly capture the feel of Mad Max, especially Fury Road. You drive around a vast wasteland in your tuned up, rusted muscle car, clearing out bandit camps and rescuing survivors. Skies go grey and tumultuous with the weird storms that indicate how wrecked this world’s ecology is.  Enemy convoys are a distant blot of dust on the horizon. You put your foot down and you’ll catch them.

It’s a lot like catching sight of a distant sail in AC: Black Flag. Your prey is out there, in the vast blue ocean, you draw close and broadside them, you swing across to the enemy and drop to the deck, fighting the captain one-on-one in the midst of the melee. It’s a great experience the first, second, third time.

Then you hit a saturation point. As you’ve seen, I always hit a saturation point and maybe my tolerance level is low. We’ve all got one, I think, but sometimes the particular seduction of a particular game can keep you coming. Even with open world games I’ve loved, however, there is always a sense of tiredness towards the end. Please, I beg, as Geralt. Please let me find Ciri. No more quests. No more digressions.

Some of this is life, you know? I’m rapidly gunning towards 30. Maybe I’m a bit embarrassed at this pastime. Maybe this website is an outworking of a desire to be seen as someone apart from the games, someone who is observing and writing. I’m into it, you see, in a more sophisticated way. A scholarly way. That’s it. I look at the minutes, hours and days racking up on any one game and I do feel a sense of dread, a sense of encroaching death. Life, wasted by the second, looking into a foolish, fake box of lights.

Even as work encroaches on my time, even though I need an early night and a nice, healthy dinner, even though I need to walk the dog and there’s books I want to read and someone on Twitter to get angry at… I’ll still play a video game if it holds me. Nothing scholarly about it. I’m no faker. Push that shame down real low and forge on.

If a game really grips me, I’ll see it through. Apart from Bloodborne – which I’m just totally crap at.

What stops me is the sense I’m going through motions. You take over a convoy on Mad Max, you bash aside the escorts and salvage the remains. It’s a tremendous experience evocative of the best moments of the films. The trouble is they’re not woven integrally into the game. They’re a hobby, and there’s actually not that many of them to do. A couple per region.

Other activities, particularly the car-less clearing of bandit camps, you do again and again and again and again. There are radio towers to climb, of course, and other towers you don't climb. Those you pull over with your grappling hook to lower an enemy warlord’s grip upon the land. This loses its appeal fast, especially when it becomes harder to reach the structures in question. Every activity you complete earns scrap metal to upgrade your car, cobbling extra bits on slowly but surely. There’s an illusion of choice here, spending resources on the pieces you want – but really the same thing would have been achieved with your vehicle just periodically improving as time went on. Really, you want all the upgrades. Story missions are mechanically identical to all of the game’s worst busywork – and that’s when you have a real problem.

You take over bandit camps and kill bosses and pacify whole stretches of desert. Then you get a cutscene – in all of these games it’s always a cutscene – where someone points at a map – it’s always a map – and says, “Right, here’s another 60 bandit camps.”

In Assassin’s Creed, when the map opens up, the tooltip blinks on the screen – imagine it reflected in the pallid cast of my skin, the visible horror in my widening eyes: “Here’s 15 more forts you have to clear,” “Here’s 65 more towers and landmarks you have to climb.” What about the new Mafia? “Here’s forty-two thousand more racists you have to shoot in the face.”

The game, without ceremony, dumps a massive stack of files in your inbox and says, “Get a move on.”

You can do this. You can spend literally days of your life doing this, if you want. No judgement here. This is a safe place for any sort of habit. Did you see we wrote 10,000 words on a game about mercenaries getting their facial features cut off by goblins? We’re your friends. Don’t worry.

I’ll try to push on, usually. Need to get that value for money, don’t I? I need a second job, just for the evenings, ticking off boxes until the developers decide the game is over and arbitrarily throw the final boss at me. Percentage completion trackers become a parody of themselves. You can sometimes complete the main story with just over 40% of the “game” completed. What is the rest? Towers and camps, untethered to story progression - unpaid overtime.

Someone is to blame for this trend, and maybe it’s Rockstar. After all they put a whole fake internet in a game so maybe everyone else is looking to compete? Maybe it’s Ubisoft. Probably, yes, it’s Ubisoft. Ubisoft released a snowboarding game, Steep (2016) where you have to unlock areas of a map by climbing certain peaks. Yes, like in Assassin’s Creed. Yes, like in Far Cry and the new Zelda. In a snowboarding game. Ubisoft, at this point, might release a game of chess where you spend the first four hours with just a pawn and have to climb towers to unlock the other pieces.

I mean, in a certain sense, the commercial sense that drives all decisions made in… well, I suppose anything…there is a logic to this. In terms of pure sales, it’s working. But if you look at the statistics of The Division, the drop-off in players after the first few weeks was huge. There are thousands of people out there who hit critical mass and just stopped playing. In that game, I actually completed the main campaign but that’s not the point. An MMO is meant to keep you playing. The Division was extremely bad at holding the player’s interest. Once the game was done, you could repeat missions for slightly incrementally better rewards but little else. They’ve done more now, there’s DLC, you or I can throw more money at the problem if we wish. I don’t really want to. Why should I? What’s dragging me back?

Any moment, something new will come out. Something shiny and pretty and politically obnoxious, I can shoot poor people in the face in that. Why would I go back to snowy New York? What else does the game have to offer me? Not much. Ubisoft themselves have recreated the whole of Bolivia for me to denude of poor people so I can just hop onto that instead.

Even Tomb Raider has gone open world now, and this is particularly bad because easily the best bits of Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015, subtitle: relentless anti-communism) are the side-salad of strictly linear puzzle tombs. Like Mad Max’s convoys, these are completely incidental to the game itself. You have to find them in the most inanely conceived wintry open world with Lara Croft’s Tomb sense tingling whenever you’re near one.

It’s not just about distances, either. It’s not just that instead of starting the next level I have to trudge three hours across the map to get there – although, obviously, that is part of the problem. In Tomb Raider you now need to craft weapons and hunt rabbits to make gloves for yourself, too. How much of this is just an epiphenomenal fad directly related to the size of the world getting bigger? I mean, the developers seem to be saying that you have to do something in the massive tundra they’ve created. It’s not going to be something interesting. It’s going to be killing rabbits in the name of survival.

Does Tomb Raider really need an XP system where you upgrade Lara’s skills and abilities? I look at 12 rocks and I’m now fluent in Greek? Come on, please. Play for another two hours and get a 2% chance to recover arrows from the animals and people you kill? Now I can read the boring Aramaic murals too. This kind of feature bloat just turns me off. I want dual pistols, infinite ammo and the T-Rex back. I don’t need to make hats.

I died on one section in Rise of the Tomb Raider, over and over again, because Lara couldn’t hold her breath for more than fifteen seconds. It’s the tiniest little section where you basically have to duck into a pool of ice water and swim to the other side. If you’ve played the game, I doubt it gave you any trouble at all. I was kind of overthinking it, looking for somewhere to surface earlier than I needed to. On my television, the graphics were kind of muddy and confusing. I thrashed about looking for an exit and failed, drowning the protagonist quite honestly dozens of times.

What I learned was that I can hold my breath for longer than Lara Croft. Fair enough that the designers want to have you start off weak and under-equipped and gain power. In different ways, that’s what games have done forever. Even so, the cynicism at play here makes itself transparent when the protagonist kicks off the game effectively less useful in a firefight than a sheet of plywood and with the lung capacity of a hamster.

In Ghost Recon: Wildlands, you can jump out of helicopters from the start but you have to spend points to unlock a parachute.

Far Cry 3 is another example, as much an inspiration for the latest Tomb Raider games as the Uncharted series they also borrow from. At the time FC3 came out, the filler was at least a novelty, a new form of busywork. You had to hunt three wildebeest or foxes or parrots to craft a better gun holster. Before you made the new holster, you couldn’t carry more than two weapons. Wallets had to be made from sharks or you could only carry a limited amount of money. You literally couldn’t pick up money unless you hunted sharks. The writer said this is deliberately ridiculous, a claim I think that is 1) a lie and 2) an insult on at least three levels. If your sole defence for a feature is that it’s “meta” maybe you should stop wasting our time and go back to writing your novel about the college professor having an affair.

There’s no excuse for this. It’s labour. Earn the right to progress in this game that, not to put too fine a point on it, you have already paid good money for. Don’t earn that right through skill, really, or even effort. All the game wants from you is time.

Far Cry 3 is massive anyway. There are so many towers to climb and so many enemy bases to clear. Instead of tying progression to just the XP system (obviously it’s got one of those too) there are artificial full-stops where you plateau and can only hold two magazines for your AK47 until you poach a monkey. You run over a deer on the road and pump your fist, “Yes, now I can get the belt I want and carry a second grenade” kind of like getting a tax rebate.

This aspect of the game made me ashamed of myself, honestly. I felt and I still feel like I was being mocked.

To be honest, Far Cry 3 particularly annoys me because... despite all its horrific characterisation and the Gap Year student killing indigenous people plotline that’s reprehensible to me, writing that is just bad on every conceivable level of sensitivity... despite all that, it can be fun. All of the attempts to follow up Far Cry have never surpassed the first Crysis, Crytek’s super-suit offshoot which is a delirious pleasure to play, but FC3 comes close.

You can literally ignore the plot when you’re properly playing FC3, stalking enemies with a machete and sniping patrols through the jungle. Occasionally, there are bursts of spontaneity and “emergence” to match Crysis. The combat, at a base level, is good. It didn’t need to be saddled to all this crap, this cavalcade of narrative and mechanical bullshit.

Similarly, the best moments of Assassin’s Creed are those times when you lose yourself in the period and the movement, forgetting about the Apples of Eden, the alien God and Danny Wallace's wry polygonal smile. I mean, in a narrative-driven game I’m not sure there’s a worse criticism than “the bits where I could forget the story were good” but there it is.

When in FC3 someone pointed at a map and the game opened up to a whole new hard island with more armoured enemies, I couldn’t face anymore. The main villain captures you a number of times over the course of the game and says, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again.” He repeatedly says this. Climbing my fortieth tower, I realised he had a point.

Fallout: New Vegas is better than its predecessor Fallout 3 but I explored every nook and cranny in FO3. Exploration was rewarding because it felt so fresh and so exciting. Stick the radio on and head out, shoot some mutants or bandits. There were problems. In the denser areas of Washington, it was actually impossible to walk as the crow flies. This kind of ruined the underpinning idea of just picking a point on the map and walking there. Trying to navigate through ghoul-filled tunnels was not fun. By the time New Vegas rolled around, I’d had enough of the kitsch 50s radio and trudging. Despite improving on the previous game in almost every respect, the bread and butter of the experience was identical and I’d had my fill. Stuffed to the brim, again, with game.

The sense of fatigue builds up over the course of individual games and over a series as a whole. I was never going to buy Fallout 4 because I couldn’t face a less imaginative version of a game I already abandoned halfway through. In the same way, I’ll never get another open world Tomb Raider or another Far Cry which involves making wallets out of sea-life.

Maybe completion isn’t important, maybe it’s the experiences we have on the way. In some cases, this is true and I want to talk more in the final piece about what kind of things open worlds do well and how some of these numerous problems can be mitigated.

That said: its proof that the story alone in most of these games was just inadequate. To a greater or lesser extent, they’re all vigilante stories. Max Payne spread across 1000 square kilometres. Shoot all these thugs, shoot these lieutenants, shoot their commanders, finally get to the king and kill him too. Even in Assassin’s Creed, even when that final person is the Pope, this type of experience is stunted. A vast world which you interact with only barely, exclusively via the barrel of a gun or with your fancy wrist knives, hardly represents the full range of human experience. There’s not much relief in there, just violence.

You’ve played enough of these stories: you can sense the path ahead of you down to particular beats: the inevitable betrayal of a team-member, being captured, having your weapons taken from you, escaping seconds later for a Quick Time Event revenge.

At worst, open world games are a deadening experience, a grind that would not be out of place in an MMO, divorced of the social interaction that makes those games so appealing. Filler that is not fulfilling.

I think they’ll continue to get made because they sell, at least initially. Those stats about The Division are pretty compelling if you’re some cigar chomping walrus-esque capitalist selling children’s things. What I think will happen, however – and Zelda is a very good case in point, as was Metal Gear Solid 5 before it – is that designers will have to be especially inventive to keep such games interesting and stave off player fatigue. They will need to do much, much more to stand out. Bigness and the occasional view isn’t enough.

After all these thousands of words about the problems of open worlds, it's time for solutions, right? Maybe part three will suggest some.

The Trouble with Open Worlds - Part One

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Final Fantasy 15, Nier: Automata... these are all very different games recently released that share one common feature. All of them are set in a open world that you travel around, relatively at will, doing whatever you fancy, rather than being a set of cast-iron, linear missions in a set sequence.

Open worlds seem to be something of a trend. Recently other series, notably Metal Gear Solid and the Witcher, took familiar characters and elements and sent them out into the wilderness. Are open worlds really that compelling? Are they essential, now, an expectation of an audience wanting bigger, longer experiences? Or are they just a fad? Over a trilogy of connected articles, I'll look at the good, the bad and some of the downright depressing.

As a jumping off point, I want to discuss the successes and failures of a stalwart open world series: Assassin's Creed.

Falling with Style

I have never completed an Assassin’s Creed game and I never will.

This is not because they are resolutely bad games, although some are. There are problems with the franchise, of course, practically all of which relate to the story’s framing device, but really it’s because they’re just too long: meals with too many courses, races with too many laps, a season of TV with too many episodes.

In the first Assassin’s Creed (2007), you play as Desmond Miles, a living descendant of various Assassins from history. The Assassins are a secret order where participation is hereditary and naming conventions are blunt. You replay the memories of your ancestors via the Animus, the purest sort of sci-fi nonsense machine. Controlling a long-dead ancestor with a design scheme that deliberately evokes puppetry; you follow in their footsteps, trying to gain future critical information from their historical experiences.

The exact details occasionally diverge but this is the rough pattern of each game in the series. You always play as a future person, Desmond or someone else, “playing” as an ancestor. They’ve doubled-down on this as time has gone on but it was never less than self-defeating. The framing story removes any real sense of urgency from the plot. In fact, I think the games conspire in various ways to disconnect you as much as possible from the dubiously "historical" events depicted. You never die in the memories, you just reset. You never really live in the memories either. This strange limbo you’re in, inhabiting a dead ancestor and re-treading a path already trodden 700, 300, 100 years before always made the games feel hazy to me. Nothing I did really mattered, I just following a script. A historical game where you personally exert no influence on history, rendered a mere observer of a distant cousin’s movements, seems to miss the point entirely.

The plot, such as it is, spirals into increasingly boring gibberish. There’s an ancient war between Assassins and an another secret order, the Templars, that plays out in every game and in Desmond’s future. A lot of frankly awful stuff about the origin of the human race and religion is in there. At worst, this boils down to the absolute nadir of minigames where you click on real photos of historical atrocities to unlock your pal Danny Wallace saying something cynical.

In terms of gameplay, the Animus has a direct bearing on graphical glitches in the simulation, visual effects, abilities you have and even intrinsic things like limits to the levels. Missions are memories. Areas you can’t reach are locked away in memories you haven’t accessed yet. You have “Eagle Vision” which lets the simulation identify targets for you, conveniently letting you have thermal imaging in the Middle Ages. The supposed motivation to climb towers and jump off, revealing areas of the map, is to synchronise with the programme. If you kill civilians, instead of a game over screen, you will “Desynchronise.” You have strayed too far from the memory and broken the connection with the memory. Over and over again, the game reminds you that you’re in a simulation of a simulation, literally constrained to never stray.

The Animus could have been used to structure the narrative. You are accessing memories of an ancestor. Why does it have to be naturalistic? Why does it have to be strictly chronological? The first game, playing as the ever-moaning Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, follows an extremely conventional route. Even if the first game is excused as establishing the IP, later titles certainly had an opportunity to move around far more freely from era to era and event to event. One of the latest games, set in Paris across the centuries, does move around to an extent but it’s all set in the same city. I suspect the time-changes are just to update the geography that you have to traverse, serving the same function as moving geographical location in the previous games.

Skipping to the next important memory, you would think, is exactly what a corporation would do rather than letting you mooch about as your great-great-great-great grandfather indefinitely. The Animus was a missed opportunity to give the game some drive. No-one involved ever seems to have seen the framing story as a way of cutting the fat, rather than adding it.

The very first game was severely criticised for repetition. Ten years and seventeen games later, that criticism should only become more pronounced with each new iteration. I guess we ought to be reserved about this and see it like a brand new FIFA. “Oh, well, it’s another Assassin’s Creed game guys, time to stab people with wrist knives again!” I don’t think you can ring-fence the franchise like this, not anymore. Maybe once what AC was doing was uniquely it but no more.

Every entry in the series suffers from bloat. The first game started with a handful of cities in Medieval Palestine around the time of the Third Crusade: Acre, Jerusalem, Damascus, all connected by a vague strip of desert. At the time the setting was seen as a daring choice, a hotbed of contentious politics and religion which warranted a loading screen warning. In reality, the game lamely divvies up all its characters to be Templars or Assassins and neuters, almost completely, a bewilderingly complex, tragic and – from the view of historical fiction – exciting period. The actual way it handles Christianity and Islam, all pawns in the games of omnipotent alien creatures, means it has nothing of any importance to say.

Even that game was overlong. The later cities were deliberately designed to obstruct you at every point possible. A free-running game, you think, is all about freedom and fluidity of movement. A stealth game is about moving unseen through crowds. These are the two key components of Assassins Creed and to make both of them more difficult Ubisoft Montreal placed archers and guards on every roof and drunks on street level, to break your movement. The drunks would shove you over, stagger you, slow you down. The archers would simply shoot you with an arrow, often knocking you off the roof to certain desynchronisation. How playtesters didn’t point out how annoying this was, how counter to the proposed ethos of the game, I do not know.

As Desmond, in first person some of the time, you were periodically dragged out of the Holy Land and told to go to bed by your handler before playing on, kind of like hard-coding my mum when I was 15 into the game itself. This was another annoyance, a disruption and distraction, which the game could do without.

Assassin’s Creed was a fairly dizzying culmination of ambition and technology, born out of a rebooted Prince of Persia series that was pretty well acclaimed (at least for a while). How did it get so boring, so quickly?

I never completed it.

The second game is an improvement in every respect. There is no way that Ubisoft Montreal weren’t conscious of the criticism Altair came in for as a protagonist because with Ezio, the series’ best character to date, they seemed to address every problem players of the game had.

Skipping forward to Renaissance Italy was an excellent choice, too. This was a time period with all the necessary complexities that they could feed their underwhelming meta-fiction into, but was a bit more palatable than the Crusades. The cities were more complex and bigger than the first game but, critically, more vibrant, varied and alive. The geometry of the game was better, making the parkour more challenging and more entertaining. There were more towers to climb, more enemy soldiers to defeat, more interludes with Desmond and the future friends. At this point, it seemed like the developers were already kind of embarrassed of the modern day bits and Danny Wallace's polygonal face. These interruptions became less invasive and less regular but, equally, clearly less critical to the game. It’s easy in AC2, over long periods, to forget you’re supposed to be in the Animus at all, aside from the glitches and syncs and unnecessary visual garbage Ubisoft Montreal use to obscure the quite beautiful world they’ve created. This is surely not what they wanted. Yet they were never fully prepared to bite the bullet and have someone shout, “Oh no, Desmond’s merged with the Animus, only completing the mission will get him out.” The full Quantum Leap is always an unfulfilled promise in the fiction. In this game you use the money you earn to build a nice villa. This is kind of a nothing feature, really, in the context of the game – and yet is worth mentioning because it shows a design direction that the series really seized with both hands.

Oh, vitally, Ezio can swim whereas Altair could not. No more instant death in water. Honestly, who knows why anyone has ever released a game since GTA3 where you die when you enter water, like a witch from Oz.

I never completed it.

This is my real defeat. I think I was close to the end on this one but I had been to Florence and Venice and Monteriggioni and Forli… I couldn’t go on. At one point you use a flying machine designed by Leonardo da Vinci to flap about killing people and the elastic band, deep in my brain, that controls my interest in anything I'm doing, quite simply snapped. I couldn’t face another city. Another ten towers to climb and jump off of. Another five people to assassinate. All of the cities look pretty but the essential interactions you have with them are always identical. I’d spent hours on this game but felt no momentum. Nothing pushing me on. Enough was enough.

The next iteration, Brotherhood, features Ezio again and is centred on a vast recreation of Rome. You have to conquer each of the city’s twelve regions. You spend your hard-earned cash on improving the city. You can call team-mates to help you or send them on missions to earn you money. It’s a honed, tempered version of the second game which was still not nearly honed nor tempered enough.

I never completed it.

There was another game in the Ezio trilogy that I never played. It’s set in Constantinople and Ezio is old. You also play as Altair again. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it but I thought I was pretty much done with the series at this point.

AC3 came along and was set largely in the countryside of North America during the American Revolution. You spent the entire game killing redcoats. It was, at best, patchy. It added a feature where you could pet every single one of the animals running amok in the colonial towns. Chickens, for example, you could pick up and stroke. That was good.

There was also a sequence where you controlled a ship and sailed around which was so good they span a whole game out from it.

I don’t know what Desmond was doing at this point. I did the gaming equivalent of fast forwarding through those bits, just completely disengaged from it. I didn’t get very far into this one at all. It is uncompleted.

The next game in the series that I played, neglecting the various hand-held and mobile iterations of the franchise, was Black Flag. This was more of that one aspect of ACIII which stood out so I thought I’d have a final roll of the dice. You play a Welsh pirate called Edward Kenway who can basically travel around the entirety of the Caribbean in a Napoleonic ship during the Golden Age of Piracy. Your crew sing shanties and you seamlessly jump from the rigging to each of the little islands you come across. There are dozens of unique locations to stop off at and you can sail to pretty much everywhere you can see. This one is good and, if you were jumping into the series perhaps from the very top of a church steeple, you could probably go straight to this one. It’s still on the spectrum of acceptable graphics whereas the Ezio games are probably a little past it.

Of course, obviously, inevitably, I never completed it.

There’s been a game in Paris since and another one in London which features Karl Marx telling you to assassinate factory owners. I’ll never play them. Even if little details I hear are silly or appealing, the reality is I've played these games before and I really have seen pretty much all Assassins Creed has to offer.

How many hours have I spent on this franchise to date? That’s rhetorical, I never actually want to know.

Each game gets bigger and more bloated with things to do, side-missions and characters. My interest seems to wane ever quicker. Take Ezio. A more accomplished approach to his story would surely have been having him age over the course of one game, dipping into his teenage memories and skipping forward to the most important points in his career as an assassin. By the time he’s sixty, that should be something you can feel keenly in the parkour and the combat. The tone of the game should shift from the wild frivolity of Venice as a lusty 19 year old to the more jaded and darker tones of the crumbled Byzantine Empire and your creaking bones. Instead, you get three full games of hours and hours of gameplay, charting practically every person your ancestor ever stabbed. He stabbed a lot of people. One of history's greatest stabbers, this guy.

That's the problem with all franchises but something painfully obvious in AC, hence why I've picked it to discuss. Each new game has to find a different way to captivate your interest but, unavoidably, this takes more and more effort every time. I was quite literally pulled back in long after I thought I was out by marketing that shouted, “You can be a pirate, this time! Please, Jon, one last hoorah. Cutlasses, Jon.”

You have hopped nimbly from roof to roof in each game. You have desynced from too many collateral casualties a hundred times. You have walked a file up to your manager’s office in first person (something that, hilariously, Black Flag actually makes you do) and rolled around as Desmond in a hoody in a future world much less convincing than the historical cities the game laboriously recreates. New places, new characters, new cities, new time periods: all fleeting novelties. Rather than anticipating player fatigue over the course of a decade and being spurred to make the narrative more immediately, traditionally compelling the plot has drifted into a kind of weak parody and the gameplay itself has tired out like weary old Ezio.

Rather than dropping the framing device, the truly brave and – you’d think – inevitable decision, this has become an actual job, literally a job you have at a games company, plundering the Animus for design ideas. Rather than killing any of their darlings, a dozen more darlings are formally introduced each time. There’s no actual story to be told, is there? There was no ultimate point in mind with the inception of the series, other than to make money. Similarly, the games themselves echo the grind of real life that you’re playing a game to escape. Sinking a British man-o-war is an achievement. Sinking a hundred of them? That’s a quota.

My time is, to an extent, precious. Why should I play the mission, featured in every game, where I have to sit on a bench and eavesdrop on a conversation just to receive my next objective? My pirate ship with a full crew and twenty guns, primed and ready to fire, sits in the dock while I listen in on a couple of sentries talking interminably. If I step out of their general vicinity, I have to reset and retry. Is this really what you’re having me do? Yet again? Even in the first game this was an absolutely dire mission. A whole ten years later, it’s a crime.

Yet, this weary feeling of going through the motions and hitting a game's productivity targets, is a problem not limited to Assassins Creed, not even limited to Ubisoft who have put a lot of effort in becoming the absolute byword for it. It is a problem endemic in modern video games.

In the next part, I’ll talk about some more games I’ve never completed and how a design philosophy of big spaces full of mundane things to do has affected franchises which don’t even include a guy with wrist knives.