The Whole Wide (Open) World - Part I
I have an odd relationship with open world games. I'm quick to just say "I don't like open world games," but I do love a few of them. Some of it is me being crazy, but some of it is caused by the way this industry seems to think we enjoy games, and the ways we validate those assumptions. Regardless, this rather young genre is perhaps the most popular in all of video games, with hundreds of millions of game sales falling under its umbrella. But does a design idea qualify as a genre? What defines an open world game anyway, and why are they so damn popular? It's a phenomenon worth examining.
Part I - And I Would Walk 500 Miles
One of the core tenets of open world games is a sense of exploration. Linear games like Uncharted can sometimes go great distances toward giving the world a sense of “place”. However, it doesn’t take long to run into that door that doesn’t open, that ledge you can’t climb, or an invisible wall. Open world games obviously have the same limitations -- no game is infinite—but they try really hard to mask that stuff. The effect is you feel like you can run around those game worlds for hours on end, the way you could in real life.
The thing is, exploration isn’t defined by the environment. It’s defined by the act of exploring. Assassin’s Creed games have you traversing environments as though they were jungle gyms. You’re climbing buildings, jumping off balconies, rolling through windows, zip-lining, and I think you even paraglide at some point. It’s been a while, and that’s a lot of damn games. Exploring a world in this many dynamic ways is a lot more exciting than in something like, for example, an Elder Scrolls game. Skyrim has a large, detailed open world. You get to walk around in it. Sometimes, you get to walk at a cliff side and mash the jump button until you make it to the top, thereby allowing you to... walk around some more. That’s about it.
Even the likes of Assassin’s Creed seem tame in comparison to the antics of games like Far Cry 4 or Just Cause 2. It’s this wide range of exploration options that makes me wonder what people picture when they hear the term “open world”. I think the playground-esque worlds of some games make it easier to accept the less inspired gameplay ideas they typically include. Infamous: Second Son represents that playground style wonderfully. Your character in that game is a superhero in Seattle, Washington. Scattered throughout the city, but usually above buildings, are little collectible bits. There’s some sort of useful mechanical upgrade for getting all these little guys, but the real motivation is that they require using your powers in clever ways to reach them. They turn the whole city into a platforming puzzle, and I love it. You’re doing a lot of gliding, launching yourself off buildings and things of that nature to earn… stat points (blast shards?) or something. I don’t remember. But I remember how fun just getting around that gameplay environment was. It also served the extra purpose of making it feel like you’re a superhero. You get to do things a normal person would never be able to, but in a setting normal people occupy.
Those types of experiences are what make exploration matter to me. If Infamous was the same game without any climbing or gliding, it would just be a standard action game with a lot of walking. The same can be said about Assassin’s Creed without its movement options, or Just Cause without that ridiculous grappling hook. And because of this, I find it hard to appreciate open worlds that limit transportation to just plain, ol’ marching. That is, unless they offer other reasons to explore than simple fun. We’ll get to that another time.