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.