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 As that series has progressed, the multiplayer in many ways superseded the campaign and people are now buying the next installment for new maps on which to play team deathmatches.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.