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Are Open World Games Living Up To Their Potential?

Sandbox satisfaction/dissatisfaction

Once a week most weeks, the RPS hivemind gathers to discuss An Issue. Sometimes it’s controversial news, sometimes it’s a particular game, sometimes it’s favourite things and least favourite things, sometimes a perennial talking point. This week, off the back of most of us being obsessed with Metal Gear Solid V, we're talking about open world, or sandbox games. Big map, go where you please, kill or don't kill - the GTA, Assassin's Creed and Far Cry formula. And it's very much a formula now. How do we feel about that? Has the promise of earlier open world games such as the first few Elder Scrolls been lost? And just why are we apparently giving MGSV a free pass given we often roll our eyes as Assassin's Creed?

Alec: Everyone here? I would have started earlier but I got mind-lock and wound up spend five minutes staring at a tab I’d opened containing the lyrics to Toto’s Africa in order to check something for an MGS post.

Alice: Ah! Sorry I'm late. I was perched atop a poo-covered gargoyle surveying the landscape. Apparently I have a quest here.

Alec: Today’s topic of discussion is open world games. Sandbox action - or at least a semblance of it - seems to have become the de facto structure for most of Big Budget Land these days, but the question is whether these MGSes and Assassin’s Creedses and Grand Theft Autoses are doing all they could with the promise of go anywhere, do anything. They were everything a load of us prayed for five years ago, and now they’re bloody everywhere: is it what we dreamed of?

Pip: No. I mean I didn't actually dream of them in the first place but it's so often "Do anything! Except that thing. You can't or shouldn't do that thing." or "Go anywhere! Except over there. That is the end of the map. Or just a bit you aren't allowed in yet. Or something else. Bottom line, stop walking."

Adam: What about something like Minecraft? Does that count? It’s not what I’d think of as part of the current Open World trend, for various reasons, but it’s truly open in a way that few games are. Infinite landscapes, no restrictions in the form of invisible walls or level limits. I tend to think more of games like that, and from there make the jump to traditional roguelikes and survival games like Unreal World (which also seems to go on forever, randomly, though I don’t think that’s the case) rather than Assassin’s Creed. Which is always set in a couple of cities so is Open City at best. Like GTA.

Alec: Minecraft’s fascinating, because in part it’s an MMO (optionally played solo), yet not dependent on the explicit quest and item requirements of MMOs. Whereas the open world games we’re talking about, like Bat-like Man, Assassin’s Creed & Mordor, essentially took up the icons-on-the-map baton of MMOs and ran with it. Was there a point where open world games could have taken a different direction, before AssCreed (arguably) set the mould?

Alice: Creedo hardly invented the idea, mind - it was just the first big game in recent game history at a point where developers' ambitions for a world were backed up by the budgets and hardware power to render those in AAA-grade (oh god, you know what I mean) graphics. Olde Elder Scrolls games and all their text-based precursors were open-world games crawling with jazz. I also find Elder Scrolls games boring so I hope you're all looking forward to a FUN hour of chat with me.

Adam: Even Daggerfall, Alice? For shame. It’s the most open of all the Elder Scrolls games and also the one that experimented with ideas about how to create an enormous world rather than a smaller, handcrafted one. Randomised dungeons, slotted together using bits of corridor and flooded compartments; IDENTICAL settlements scattered about the place that you can sneak into and rob in the middle of the night. It’s weird in a way that the series has never been since - like, weird from a fundamental design perspective rather than because it has a Big Mushroom.

Alec: Yeah, this is what I meant by branching points. It used to be the setup was discovering stuff through exploration and experimentation, but I guess Johnny Pre-Order prefers to have all his map notations done for him and now that’s the formula. I wonder how much Fallout 4 will bow to that. But is anyone getting away with it? We’re all raving about MGSV and that’s very much an icons-based open world, but for some reason we’re forgiving it….

Adam: My very quick MGSV thought is that I think the world itself has a lot of the same problems I complain about elsewhere, but I forgive (or see past) some of that because the actual interactions with the world are driven by systems that I can learn. I’m learning and playing with the people and gadgets rather than the world itself. The fact that those interactions don’t take place in discrete mission locations and that the systems are allowed to bleed out into the wider world is icing on the cake, but the actual location itself is, to me, one of the least interesting parts of the game. And also where I’d want to see a sequel or whatever the heck comes next build something more convincing. That wasn’t as quick as I meant it to be.

Alec: Pip, you mentioned you’d never shared the dream of these things. Is that because the current most prevalent formula, of stuff being locked off, doesn’t float your boat, or are you more fundamentally disinterested in open world as a concept?

Pip: I just meant "I wish there were open-world games" wasn't a hope I remember having for the industry. At that point I was just playing things that were out and enjoying being surprised by them. What I was getting at, though, was that I object to any rhetoric about being free to do what you want in a game and then running into a shit ton of restrictions. Some games don't do that, some do. We might not be talking about the same thing here. I prefer to call those games sandbox games because it acknowledges you're still working within a framework. Open world feels like a misnomer pretty much the whole time. With AssCreed and Batman, maybe they're closer to playground games. The devs set up assault courses and toys and story for you in the arena.

Adam: Hitman is my favourite example of that sort of thing. I referred to the new one as a snuffbox game, as a variant on sandbox, but nobody cared and it didn’t take off. That’s pretty much all I have to say about that professional disappointment.

Pip: I am sorry for your loss. Let's have a moment of silence for the snuffbox genre :(

Adam: I tend to use sandbox and open world interchangeably, which definitely loses whatever nuance might once have existed. And I agree that sandbox suits GTA, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry - those types - better than open world. They have a location, or several locations, and that location is a place to play, with some degree of freedom rather than the ‘corridors’ that we see in everything from Call of Duty to Alien: Isolation. And I get similarly frustrated by the illusion of freedom because I am precisely the kind of person who runs straight to the edge of the world and tries to see where everything joins together or breaks. I do enjoy that though - doing my little Truman Show bit every time.

Pip: It's interesting that you mentioned Minecraft though. It's far closer to what I feel an open world game should be in a lot of ways, I just happen not to enjoy it. I get more of a sense of freedom and potential from the space in Proteus.

Alec: With all these things we do and don’t appreciate in mind, what do we wish sandbox (or snuffbox) games were doing differently? For me it’s the icons, looking at that big map showing exactly where everything is and thinking ‘well, nothing’s going to surprise me now, is it?’ Batman may be the worst for that, because it seems so actively disruptive to the urgency. MGSV has a neat trick in terms of you don’t get shown where pickups are unless you interrogate someone, which is a far more exploratory system - have to plan an incursion, not get caught etc- but does ultimately become mechanical so the problem’s still there in the end.

Adam: If there’s a big world out there to explore, more than anything I want the other things in it to feel like they exist even when I’m not looking at them. I mentioned The Truman Show before and it’s a fairly good analogue for how I feel about games - if I become aware that the other actors in the world only start to follow their scripts when I’m looking at them, then I often become disillusioned quite rapidly. There’s the GTA IV and V thing where you can stop at an intersection and look in both directions, see no traffic, then look again and see loads of cars that have spawned because the game is terrified that you’ll get bored if you’re left on your own for more than twenty seconds.

And that’s why it’s always so exciting to see a police car chasing an NPC vehicle, or a car crash, or a mugging. Because if I’m not involved but things are still happening, I can pretend, for a minute or two, that the entire city is full of events that continue even when I’m not there to see them. And that’s what I want from open world games - to have things happen, to have systems interact with one another in unexpected ways, even if I’m not the star of every story.

Pip: I think that's a decent point. I do actually enjoy some games in this genre, I just don't like referring to them as open world because that feels like a lie. I instantly want to test the claim and you know that the answer is going to be "well, it's big but there are limits". Within that there can be awesome systems or really lovely narration or any number of other cool things that give you a real sense of scale or being immersed in that world. I just don't like calling it an "open" world.

Alice: The more a game tells me I can do, and urges me to do it, the more I'm aware of what I can't do - and want to do that instead. My main problem is usually that most of the activities filling these worlds are boring or repetitive. They have CONTENT but I don't care about their #experience. Being large and containing many things isn't enough. That's probably what I dislike most about Elder Scrolls games - they're full of dungeons and forests and this and that and all you do is dodge traps and hit things in garbage combat, because that junk is everywhere. This is why Proteus is the best open world game: it has nice things to look at and yep you sure can wander around and look at them.

Alec: You guys I think I’ve found the answer to all these issues, though. Behold: No promises, no restrictions, nothing to live up to, nothing. Nothing. Except for some composited stock photography. That is the answer.

Alice: I don't want an unlimited sandbox. The reason I haven't burnt out on Metal Gear Solid V is that it's not an open world in the Far Cry 3-y way. It's got huge mission spaces, sure, but you're returning to your chopper and Mother Base and travelling round the world - it's got very clear boundaries. It knows your time in that area before you nip off is limited. It's a collection of playgrounds whose boundaries extend just far enough beyond what I'll probably do that I have an interesting experience as I pass through. If I stuck around, as you do in most modern sandboxes, I'd quickly be bashing into the walls.

Pip: Something I've heard about MGSV and which makes me interested in it (although not interested enough that it takes precedence over Destiny right now) is that it reacts far better to your choices than most other games. Like, it's been described to me as far more flexible and able to account for how you want to play than you having to meet the game's needs. I haven't got far enough that I've confirmed that, but it's an interesting shift in the relationship between game and developer if so – instead of you working to meet what they want, the game trying to keep up with you a bit. Sounds like you'd run into that feeling of restriction less.

Adam: Yeah, I think that’s fair. It’s an extension of the stealth/no-kill/all-guns-blazing choices that have been part of this kind of game design for a good while, but I think what Phantom Pain gets right is that it encourages playfulness and experimentation. It’s enjoyable when your plan falls apart because the reactions of the AI are entertaining and legible; you know how they’re likely to react but the details are hazy enough to make every encounter slightly unpredictable. I had to teach myself not to stick with basic tranquiliser guns and a cardboard box because I’m so accustomed to finding one trick and sticking with it. It’s much more fun to just try everything - plant a bomb on a toilet, use that water pistol that you found, try to stow away on a vehicle doing a supply run.

I just realised that Crusader Kings 2 is the best open world game, by the way. So that’s good.

Alec: We should probably wrap up, although Adam hasn’t even talked about Ultima VII yet and I didn’t defend Morrowind’s honour. NEXT TIME.

Alice: Open world games don't even have box wine.

Alec: Therefore Tesco’s is the best open world game.

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