We anchor down and I dive into the pure blue water, emerging on to the sandy shores of a remote island. As the sun shines in my eyes (the bloom lighting creating some rather nice silhouettes) I wonder what this unexplored paradise will hold… And then I pull up my map to find out: a treasure chest, two Animus fragments, a box of salvage and one corpse. Five minutes later, I’m done.
So much for the romance of exploration and adventure.
Open world games have come a long way in the last decade. These play pens of experimentation have evolved into worlds of staggering size and complexity. The ersatz LA of Grand Theft Auto V and Caribbean of Assassin’s Creed 4 are stunning representations of our own world. Los Santos holds up a twisted mirror of modern Western culture and urban sprawl, while the Assassin’s Creed series distils world history into a theme park ride for us to enjoy.
I highlight these titles as Rockstar and Ubisoft are the two developers that have defined (and refined) the recipe of the open world game. It’s a successful recipe for sure, with both series continuing to receive critical acclaim and huge sales, but it’s also one that is starting to leave me hungry. As much as I enjoy these games, and I really do, I would like the new generation of consoles to inspire developers to re-examine how they are structured.
The problem is this. Although each backstreet and shipwreck becomes more beautiful with every passing year, the way we play and experience these environments has not evolved at the same pace. The worlds around us become are becoming more realistic, but our interactions remain artificial.
The formula appears to be: create a fully realised and impressive world, then sprinkle collectables and missions liberally, seemingly at random, around its map. Progression becomes a tick list of objectives defined by icons on that map. Traversal becomes an exercise in completion rather than exploration, each part of the world being little more than a three-dimensional check list of things to do.
At this point an Assassin’s Creed game can take place pretty much anywhere; Rome, the Caribbean, or even Ipswich. The environments, stunning as they are, are little more than digital wallpaper offering the illusion of variety as you undertake the same old missions types.
Grand Theft Auto V fares better. In part this is due to Los Santos being built to function, more or less, like a real working city. There are areas and neighbourhoods that are not featured in the main storyline, but they still exist in exquisite detail to reward those players who peep into every corner and climb every hill. Even if nothing happens in these unexplored areas of the world, they exist to be discovered.
Rockstar’s masterly use of narrative and character also helps, allowing you to flit around the map with ease by using three protagonists and by integrating geography of Los Santos into the narrative. However, despite these additions, the icons on a map formula is still there, as it has been for over 10 years.
This formula is proven to work of course and can be extremely effective. Red Dead Redemption also follows it, but perhaps due to the relative simplicity of its world it manages to balance progression and player direction much more subtly.
This formula is there to help the player make sense of complex places of course, and in games where story take a back seat there are no such restraints in how gameplay elements are delivered. The Saint’s Row series wastes no time in filling your map with a thousand icons and leaving you to it. This does make things easy to manage, but it goes against my desire to be thrown into a wide unknown space and left to discover its pleasures.
The element that is missing for me, is surprise. If a world is interesting enough, then the player will explore, and that exploration can then be rewarded. Events should be discovered, not by being signposted but because of where you are and who you meet. Imagine a Grand Theft Auto where progression came from paying attention to the world around you; from the news on the radio, the unexpected sight of a hold-up taking place as you drive by, or by conversations with NPCs. It would be wonderful to let the world do the talking, not your map.
Hardcore favourite Dark Souls has what amounts to an open world, but it’s one that offers few clues about what each path will take. Part of that game’s appeal is the fear and exhilaration of poking into the unknown. The game is mapped by its playing community and its secrets revealed as each player finds or shares them.
My recent play through of Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds also offers a different approach. The playing space of Hyrule and Lorule is as complex and intricate as they come, but the game never resorts to using its map as its prime method of progression. It’s a useful tool for sure, but never more than that. The player is encouraged to explore and the results of that drive you toward new adventures and experiences.
The best open world games feel like role-playing in the truest sense, they make you inhabit a character within a well-constructed and believable environment. The current formula creates a disconnect. It’s the difference between slavishly following a city guidebook or exploring a place for yourself. So, for the next wave of open world games I would like to see as much imagination go in to how the player uses the world as goes in to their creation.