OPEN WORLDS ARE changing how we play videogames. I’ve long thought this was a bad thing, but this year I’m beginning to change my mind.
Bethesda’s widely hailed Fallout 4 is one of the latest examples of an open-world game, a sprawling epic that can suck you in for hours on end. But it’s an older game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, that’s got me rethinking vast game worlds. Seven months after its release, I think about The Witcher far more than other games. I wouldn’t say I’m consumed by it, but there is a corner of my brain that is devoted to it. I find myself—on a weekly, if not daily, basis—pondering the strength of its characters, the richness of its world, and the satisfaction of a good monster hunt.
I find myself a bit surprised that it occupies my thoughts so frequently. For one thing, I hadn’t played it in months. Moreover, I’m only now inching toward what I think is the end of the game. After hundreds of hours, The Witcher 3 remains an open plain, full of unexplored depths.
I can’t say that thought doesn’t excite me.
Wide Open Spaces
Open-world games leave players to their own devices, free to explore what amounts to an enormous sandbox with no boundaries and few rules. They date to the 1980s, but 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III set the standard, one that has been expanded upon by games ranging from Assassin’s Creed toMinecraft. This year, perhaps more than any other, has seen more examples of the genre, which are becoming the norm for big-budget triple-A releases. It isn’t hard to see why. Done properly, it’s a goldmine. It keeps players from trading in games too quickly; you’re more likely to ditch a linear action game that’s done in 10 hours than a sprawling epic that can take 100 hours or more. It’s easier to tack downloadable content onto an open-world experience, too.
Still, are we ready for a world in which nearly every AAA title follows the same blueprint? Expansive worlds are expensive and difficult to design, and as such tend to be filled with repetitive content: cookie-cutter tasks, collectibles, and encounters designed to fill a game space that might otherwise be nearly empty. Many of these games de-emphasize the storyline.
At worst, open-world games fail to offer compelling direction, like a vast Netflix queue filled with so many choices that it’s paralyzing. I have this problem with the Elder Scrolls games, which offer everything in the world except for a reason to be there. Even more dismaying, a bad open-world game can seem utterly pointless. The setting of Watch_Dogs offers so little in the way of coherency or thoughtful design that it barely justifies its existence. For a long time, I dealt with these issues by avoiding open-world games entirely, or approaching them like a linear game: Sucking the marrow out of the story and leaving the rest behind.
Living With Open Worlds
This year, I’ve tried something different. Interesting games have come so quickly that I’ve been unable and unwilling to merely plow through the open-world games that caught my intention. Instead I’ve been coming back to them, time and again, over extended periods, to explore them. Every few weeks or so I’ll return to The Witcher or Metal Gear Solid V to complete a few missions, reacquainting myself with these worlds and getting to know their inhabitants a bit better. It’s a slow cartography, maps of imaginary spaces growing in my head, inch by inch.
I feel like this might be the way well crafted open worlds are supposed to be experienced—not as gluttonous binges or narrowly focused rampages, but as long-term occupancies. I’ve found that these games exist more vividly in my mind as I embrace this style of gameplay. They grow in my imagination as they occupy more and more space in my memory. Instead of rushing through them or viewing them as content generators, I abide in them.
This change in perspective has strong implications for how we conceptualize the design and play of such games. It’s a perspective that allows us to move away from an emphasis on filling open worlds with mounds of meaningless stuff, repetitive experiences, and canned encounters. Freed from such constraints, developers can focus on crafting places that reward thoughtful exploration that yields incidental moments of personality and depth. Dark Souls, for instance, fills its small open world with evocative and mysterious details, levels of significance that reward meticulous play with a richer experience.
As players, a focus on abiding with open worlds lets us avoid the pressure of massive backlogs of great games, allowing us to break free of a relentless game release cycle intent on throwing another sprawling experience at us every few months. It also gives players accustomed to linear experiences a blueprint for wending their way into these games. Find a pocket of Fallout 4‘s Commonwealth that strikes your fancy. Sift through the rubble, admire the view, and find some treasure. When you’re ready, move on. If you must leave the world and return days, weeks, or even months later, you have that freedom. Digital worlds have the peculiar virtue of standing the test of time.
Since embracing this style of play, I’ve found that open-world games are like trusted friends who are there when I need an escape or a jolt of excitement. It’s the sort of experience you might have reading George R.R. Martin’s novels—less like a discrete experience and more like a series of connected voyages that become part of your routine in such a way that it begins to blur into your life, tied to the memories of that period.
Rather than being a threat to the types of games I’ve always loved, I’m finding that this can be an opportunity to rethink our relationship to the spaces video games create and become more deliberate in how we choose to relate to them.
I recently upended my entire life. I moved to a new city, moved in with my partner, and started the first in a series of new jobs. During my last night in my old apartment, I decided to do something symbolic to mark the end of my time there. I fired up The Witcher 3. I had been searching for Ciri, the protagonist Geralt’s adopted daughter, off and on since April, and I sensed the trail was finally warming up. I thought I might know where she was. So I went after her, traveling to a part of the game world I had never seen before. Another part of Witcher‘s Continent unfurled in front of me, and Geralt, the protagonist, ventured into the fog. This may sound over-romanticizing, but it felt significant. Metaphorical, even.
It was a powerful way to mark time. Open worlds, I’m discovering, are uniquely suited to that task. No matter where I go or what I do, I know the Continent will be there, waiting, the next time I need it.
source: wired.com by