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Open World Games Are Starting to Burn Me Out

There are too many games to play, not enough time and every developer wants to create a sweeping open world with a million question marks to visit. Enough is enough.

Open world is the forced stealth levels of the late 2010s/early 2020s. It’s the tower defence that we all got bored of in 10 minutes flat a decade ago. And yet, like that one cookie-cooker enemy that you fight in every single location of an open world game, it just doesn’t want to die.

Worse, you can’t just ignore it. Interested in gaming? Then, by default, you have to be interested in open world games. The alternative is missing out on every big release of the year.

What is it about this genre that is so attractive to developers? More importantly, why is it that it’s here to stay?

The Road Goes Ever On and On

Get a mission, walk (or ride) for 10 minutes in the vague direction of a objective marker (getting distracted occasionally on the way), before having a conversation that points you in the direction of another objective marker. Maybe you’ll pick a fight or watch in panic as you ride your horse off a cliff.

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What game am I describing? Every game – I’m describing every game.

And the “mission, walk, conversation, walk, fight” gameplay loop isn’t the problem, as boring as it sounds boiled down like that. No, the problem is that 10 minutes of vague walking. It makes what could be a concise, fun linear experience into an adventure of ‘moments’ that aren’t really moments.

Take Ghost of Tsushima, which I’m really enjoying for the most part. It’s a lovely looking game, filled with wonderous little glades, lakes and old buildings. They even look stunning when you’re riding by at full speed because you only have 10 minutes left to play and you’ve already spent too much time petting foxes.

It’s just one of the latest in a long line of games that offer an open world almost entirely for ambiance, rather than need. Would the game have suffered if missions had been connected by a menu rather than a giant open world? In some ways yes, in others no. For one, it would have been a hell of a lot more concise.

And this isn’t an attack on Ghost in particular, which is no better or worse than most other titles of this type. Any exceptions – such as Red Dead Redemption 2 – would come out of bias on my part, and not because they are a true exception.

Where to next?

I pick Ghost, because it makes use of most of the open world sins that so many games utilise today. There area¬† dozen mission threads going on at once, bouncing around from place to place with no real structure except “where the mission needs to happen”. It means it’s on the player to keep track of the stories they want to play and the order in which they want to play them. That sounds positive, right? Until you realise that means actively ignoring other missions.

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This becomes a bigger mess when you take into account people who may only get a handful of play hours each week. What about people who take a break for a few months?

It’s a mess of choice, and the benefits – world building and exploration – rarely pay off.

On the odd occasion where exploration is rewarded, the line between “this game has done it right” and “this game has done it wrong” is thin. What makes Breath of the Wild or Fenyx good, and Assassin’s Creed “bad”?

I think it’s about experience. Fenyx and Breath of the Wild isn’t necessarily about the objective markers. Your progress isn’t entirely based on how much of the story you’ve watched.

That’s why they feel so fresh – for now. Expect further clones to water that down.

But for now, expect more lifeless open worlds.

Plenty to see

Over the coming years and months, there will be dozens of giant open worlds to explore. From Grand Theft Auto 6 through Hogwarts Legacy and then back to Horizon Forbidden West via Fable, there will be no shortage of exciting places to walk slowly across.

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Some of them will feel fresh and alive. Others will feel like barriers to the story. At this point all of them will need to come down in price before I even think of buying them – I need a break from yet another lush adventure filled with epic discovery. For epic discovery, read “walk to question mark, complete task, walk to next question mark”.

This isn’t a controversial opinion. It’s something that seems to be spoken about quite frequently on the web. The new Indiana Jones game was met with deserved excitement, followed by people hoping it’s not first-person or open world.

So why do developers keep doing it? I mean, besides the obvious: that we keep buying them.

Let’s face it, open world games provide good value in terms of length. You can add ten hours onto any open world game, even if that’s ten hours of doing nothing but holding the analogue stick forward. Since the genre popped up around the same time people were getting up in arms about Call of Duty “only being eight hours long”, you can see where it came from.

But also, they’re an easy way of introducing you to a foreign place. As you travel, you see everything from animals to villagers, history and geography. And open world Lord of the Rings game wouldn’t need to introduce you to the concept of hobbits before sending you out on your adventure, because you can talk to them and explore at your own pace.

Conclusion

When I think back on my favourite open world titles, a lot of them are much, much smaller. The likes of Ocarina of Time, for instance, was massive but not overwhelming.

On the flip-side of that, we have titles like Red Dead Redemption 2, which I place as one of my top five of the generation. It was overwhelming – but it was real. The world was alive and beautiful, and unpredictable in a way that couldn’t be boiled down to “UNDISCOVERED LOCATION”.

When almost every major game seems to have either a significant online component or a giant open world, every title starts to feel like a major investment of time. That’s a bubble that has to burst. In 2021, no major games are 0/10 – don’t even touch – quality. Everything is worth playing, and your choice is to not play it, or to muddle through as best you can and as quickly as you can. God help you if you plan to plat every title.

We need more focus in our games. If you want to do open world, look to Metal Gear Solid 3. It was fully explorable, and fairly easy to backtrack in. There were discoveries, sure. But there was never a sense of losing perspective. You had a mission, and the game convinced you to move onwards.

At the very least, it’d save you from having vital world-saving adventures where you spend most of your time collecting shit. Wouldn’t that be a nice treat?

 

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blank Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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