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.