If you look closely you can see boobs. Metal Gear Solid V

 

I have to get this off my chest – open-world games have been scaring me. Sandbox, open-ended, non-linear, call them what you like. This architectural style of game design has swept through the industry of late, changing the soul (but not always the face) of every game it comes across. “Linearity” has become a dirty word. Even games with history steeped in linear experiences are adopting the open-world style of gameplay. My fear is that this new trend is not for the better, and has the potential to consume franchises that are just fine the way they are.

Open-world games will always have a place, even on my own shelf. And let’s be clear – some games really need to be that way. Grand Theft Auto, The Elder Scrolls, Minecraft. These gems are designed around allowing the player the freedom to experience interactions of their own making. It is that freedom that gives them their shine. But for many of my favorites – Uncharted, Half-Life, Star Fox 64 and others, the constraints and storytelling shape an immersive experience that is difficult to attain any other way.

I’m afraid that titles in the latter category will needlessly change from games that I know and love to something else. In fact, it is already happening. Series’ that had previously been very linear – sometimes those whose prerogative was to provide a tightly woven narrative experience are becoming open-ended. Metal Gear Solid, Rainbow Six and Batman have changed their game-play quite drastically since inception. How long until Call of Duty, a game whose very foundation is poured with the cement of linearity becomes open-world? [Author’s note: It has come to my attention that the upcoming Call of Duty will be non-linear.] A sort of polarization seems to be happening, while a new breed of super-linear adventure (e.g. Telltale Games) is finding an audience, all other blockbuster titles seem to be eagerly eyeing the open-world approach.

As a passionate gamer, I am naturally inclined to condemn things that don’t mesh with what I want from gaming. Even if unnecessary, modifying a game to be non-linear doesn’t inherently make it worse. But it does open the game up to pitfalls which seem to be stumbled into frequently when crafting a game of this type.

They take too long.

Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa exists in a single frame – in video game time, that’s 1/60th of a second. And yet it’s worth 800 million dollars.

I frequently see comments by users discussing the value of a game; its “bang for your buck”. This judgement is usually based on playtime, in hours. Do you look at the run time of a movie to determine if it’s worth watching? Treating gameplay like a commodity and valuing a game based on its dollar-per-hour ratio can easily encourage watered down content and repetitive objectives to fill the dead space created as maps get bigger, or pad out playtime in an attempt to justify that the open-world approach was the right one.

Another frequent concern is replay value. Any good game has replay value. I’ve played Half-Life 2 many times. Not because there is a “New Game+” or features designed to artificially extend playtime – but because I enjoy the experience. Be careful not to confuse replay value with a carrot on a stick.

Part of this is has to do with what an individual wants from a game. I would place a higher value on a visceral, well-crafted experience lasting 8 hours than a similar amount of content inflated to take 40. If a similar experience can be had requiring less of a time commitment, I see this as a win. I’m fine with certain types of games requiring a substantial time commitment; online competitive or co-op games can provide a means of socialization, recreation and sport. But almost any other kind of media should take up a finite amount of time – to have a complete experience, and to satisfy the need for closure.

There’s too much to do.

It makes sense that it would take a tremendous amount of work to make a large digital world feel alive and vibrant, every inch of it unique and interesting. So much so that… it’s not really possible. Technology has progressed to allow these massive worlds, but not so far that they can be populated by anything short of hard work and creativity. Those aren’t always available or cost effective, and so the void is filled with things like collectibles, tedious sidequests, the infamous feathers of Assassin’s Creed. This filler content can create games that feel like a big long list of check-boxes. Good games shouldn’t need these things in the first place, or at the least shouldn’t force them upon the player.

Shadow of the Colossus Stare Down

You can play through Shadow of the Colossus without learning that it contains collectibles.

Taking a page from the purposefully addictive free-to-play model, many open world games feature some sort of simple, resource-management meta game. With real-time waiting periods and resources that can be purchased with real money, these mini-games will easily become another gateway for publishers to monetize console titles. They can directly affect the main game, and require your attention – making them hard to ignore. It keeps you coming back, to take the same repetitive actions, all outside the realm of the actual game you signed up for. These are something to watch out for.

Long after the story is over, long after the campaign is done, there is still much work to be done! As a completionist, I feel compelled to check those check boxes. Unlock that thing I won’t use. Shoot for that 100%. Open-world games have mastered the art of seduction, enticing the player with numbers, progress bars, percentages and achievements. These elements, however unrelated to the reasons we play, have become part of the games they are in and it seems like a waste to ignore them. The question is why? Why am I doing this? And yet I do. The amount of energy and conscious thought that we put into this sort of tedium is astonishing.

They all feel the same.

As you increase the scope, it becomes harder to retain what makes a game unique. The feel, mechanics, textures and interactions that make a game what it is take a back seat when a massive open-world calls shotgun. I feel that many games today share an increasing sense of futility – that your actions don’t really matter, that the open world doesn’t care about you. How or when you do something is irrelevant as long as you eventually check it off the list. The characters we play as deserve better motivation than that.

An “open-world” game should leverage the feelings of uncertainty and exploration, but if you turn the map markers off in a modern game, it becomes nigh unplayable. Games that feel “intoxicating in their immersiveness” are getting harder to find. They often boil down to moving from waypoint to waypoint (or just fast-traveling there) and doing the same thing that you did a few minutes ago. The freedom of choice should empower the gameplay and story – rather than create dead space that needs to be filled by something irrelevant to the task at hand.

Any fan of the sandbox type game enjoys the extra-curricular; exploration, experimentation, free-roaming and investing in their character outside of a pre-determined path. These strengths of the genre should be present, but not relied on to be the core of the game. Skyrim is based on dialogue. Grand Theft Auto is based on organized crime. Minecraft is based on construction. Their open worlds serve to enrich the environment in which you do these things. But when an insufficient core is surrounded with menial tasks, even the most vibrant world becomes an unfitting host for story and immersion.

 

If open-ended games often suffer from these issues, why is everyone so eager to create them, even within franchisees they don’t seem appropriate for?

When Borderlands 2 came out, Gearbox explained a paradigm shift in how they viewed their game; “We look at it as a hobby”. The difference was subtle, but noticeable. The game felt like less an adventure and more a pilgrimage to the gods of loot and progress (read: Destiny). It was longer, easier to drop in and play, and had no level cap. If a game has infinite progression, are you missing out on the experience by not playing… infinitely? As it turns out, this is the exact sentiment that many of today’s publishers are going for. This change in what it means to play, share and complete a game marked my first experience with a new industry trend.

GaaS, or Games as a Service is a model of game development that seeks to nurture long term engagement. If you can keep the player playing, you can make more money from your game. This is facilitated through the internets with DLC, community events, “Daily Objectives”, and layers of social networking. It’s no coincidence that the first games to utilize this model were free-to-play mobile apps. Games like FarmVille reside in your pocket, on your mobile device. They are ever present and allow for quick, casual bite-sized play sessions. Playing a game like this can be a habit. And, as it so happens, open-world architecture is much more accommodating to this concept than a linear game would be.

FarmVille

Looks fun, doesn’t it? FarmVille 2

I had hopes that console gaming – sandbox or linear – would be considered a higher order of media, one kept out of reach of these fish hooks masquerading as features. If developers and producers continue to push out AAA games with GaaS, I fear it will lead to games designed to satisfy a player’s compulsions rather than entertain. If you are willing to sacrifice enjoyment for engagement and intrigue for accessibility, I don’t want to play your game. But the fact is, we may still. The temptation is strong, especially when a new title in your favorite series comes out. It is risky to make a new intellectual property, and publishers are opting to use pre-existing titles as a foundation for different games to evolve something that they know consumers have already committed to.

You would think that the perpetuated lifespan of today’s software would help foster the communities that formed around the popular games of yesteryear, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The cloud of GaaS is ephemeral, and only seeks to hold you occupied until next year’s installment is released. I’m excited to see how new technology allows more fulfilling open-world games to be created, but it will be up to discriminating consumers and artful developers to minimize the interference caused by avaricious trends. The relationship between player and game is changing, and the linear story will suffer because of it. I hope that the crafted narratives, set pieces and events that can best be offered by linear games are still allowed a place at the table, even if it’s no longer front and center.