The notion of open game worlds has always appealed to me, ever since Elite. When there's even the faintest whiff on a free roaming environment, or virtuality that I can go off an explore, I'm interested. It's an impulse that leads me to spend endless hours in Stalker, or to expend an entire day driving around Fuel. But whatever game I play, I end up feeling somewhat dissatisfied. It's kind of dissatisfaction that does not seem to be so common with linear or arena games. I think it's to do with a specific tension that open world games create: between what the game is about, and what the environment - and its openness - implies.
The most obvious example of this tension that I can think of exists in Far Cry 2. The game's environment is a brilliant Africa-in-miniature, and everything from the flies buzzing in the air to the gleam of the swampy jungle has been conjured spectacularly. The combat too is entertaining: fire propagation, over-wrought grenade physics, ludicrous close-combat battle-horror at the end of a semi-automatic shotgun. But the two systems do not mesh comfortably.
Far Cry 2 tries to push your experience as close to that of a traditional shooter as it can manage in this open environment. Once you're outside of the key "safe" towns, anything and everything is an enemy, or a target. It is, like any traditional shooter, a rolling battle. This surprised and exasperated many gamers, because while they were happy to suspend disbelief for a game like, say, Crysis, which could be seen as a very wide corridor, they could not make the same leap for a game that did not really funnel you continuously in a single direction. The verisimilitude of Far Cry's world - with its network of roads, villages, rivers and army encampments - seemed at odds with our experience of it. Where everyone was an enemy, and everything would chase, shoot, and attack you, the world seemed at odds with itself.
The very notion of it being an open world seemed to suggest that the game would support more life: civilians, passive enemies, the illusion of a wider world. I think about this, and I think about Outcast, the voxel sci-fi adventure. Right there, back in 1999, was a game brave enough to say: "here's a world, it's full of life, politics, danger, go deal with it and save your own world in the process." You traipsed out into its pixellated valleys and did precisely that. Thanks to the freedom of movement and general neutrality of much of the world of Outcast, when combat occurred it was an moment of high drama. Combat in Far Cry 2, meanwhile, is often reduced to a kind of road-clearance. The Outcast player's experience of being in a particular, although virtual, place was therefore (despite its incredibly lack of visual fidelity by modern standards) incredibly potent.
The illusionism required for an open world game is different to that of a linear game. For Half-Life 2 the illusion is all about momentum. As Gillen regularly points out, such games are all about forward motion, and they break down the moment we don't see where to go, or who to shoot. Open world games go for quite a different illusion. They might simple be a big arena for stuff to happen in, or they might try to be a little more indulgent of our imagination, and to try to create the illusion that there's really something going on, that there's life.
Perhaps the best illusion of a living environment is the one generated by GTA4. The city of Rockstar's most recent game is a masterwork on its own, without any of the game elements considered. I find myself lost in it, staring out of the window of a taxi with a similar reverie to that of visiting a real foreign city. Except here I can be much braver, and explore more fearlessly into dangerous terrain. It's the potency of GTA4's illusion of cityness that really gets me: the chatter on the sidewalks, the slow chug of the traffic around town, the general ambient goings on that pay little attention to you unless you specifically interfere with them. The failure of Far Cry 2 (and also in a related sense Fallout 3 and Assassin's Creed) was that the design never really made a bid for that kind of suspension of disbelief. You were the centre of what was going on in those worlds, and you always knew it.
The illusion of life outside of your own in-game activities is, perhaps, one thing open worlds need pursue and exploit, beyond even the essential mechanics of their game. Stalker, for example, was fundamentally a shooter, just like Far Cry 2, but the existence of neutral or indifferent entities, the very-slightly wider range of interactions (an inventory, non-combat items) seemed to expand the illusion into something we wanted to poke, prod, and understand the limits of. This spooky Ukrainian countryside-dungeon really could be The Zone, and I could be the rogue, hooded individual charged with exploring it. While not precisely open-world in the same way GTA4 is, the game provided a sense of life and non-linearity that allowed you to get lost in it, and invest in it, because you were always given reasons to value the idea of exploring it.
Exploring. That seems to be to be the other aspect of open worlds that developers need to make the most of if they want to have their world mean something to players. Aside from the randomly distributed nonsense-money of Far Cry 2's diamonds, it had little reason for you to poke about in particular points on the map. You could not expect to find many secrets - perhaps a hang-glider here and there. Instead, you followed the missions and did the violence where it was directed, and therefore most fruitful. I'd argue that where the open world model prospers is often when it gives you reason to explore and investigate its limits: finding the very highest jumps or the most obscure billboards in Burnout Paradise, for an example that is neither a shooter, nor trying to create the illusion of a living world.
I often feel as though open world games create fantastic places, but then fail to create a game that is appropriate to the environment we find ourselves in. Fallout 3's mechanics, voices, and character design left me struggling to enjoy what is, clearly, an astonishing feat of world creation. I know that many people felt similarly aggrieved with Oblivion, although I actually got on with that a whole lot better. Similarly, when I played Assassin's Creed my continuing reaction (aside from my indignation at the cutscenes) was a disbelief that the design team had done so little to exploit their astonishing medieval city. It felt, at times, that the assassination game was going on in spite of their bustling city around me - as if the team had created this beautiful world and then didn't really know what to do with it, because they had this assassin game to be getting on with too...
So to come full circle with the sense of dissatisfaction with open world games: I think the way we experience them, by comparison with linear games, says something about how our gaming imagination functions. We seem to understand that when linear games point us in a certain direction, that's the way to go. When an open world game appears, its very structure suggests something about how we should behave, or want to behave, and predisposes us to judge on the basis of how it entices us to go somewhere that the game itself hasn't suggested, and on how it then deals with that action.
Further, there seems to be a need for us to feel more embedded, as if our actions matter more where we can come back to the scene of our actions. In Far Cry 2 I didn't expect the enemies I'd killed at a checkpoint to reappear: the open world had led me to expect some level of persistence. In Fallout 3 I didn't expect to be constrained by the ropes of the story, or the level structure, because that moment stepping outside the vault said: the horizon is the limit to this. Perhaps my own suspension of disbelief simply becomes less easy to manage, because the illusion of "worldiness" isn't strong enough, or the game is really a linear experience in a very wide corridor, with no real reason for us to stray off the path.
One day I should like to see a game perform the incredible genre-splicing process required to marry up the elements that make various successful open worlds so strong. I should like that game to give me a direction, a purpose, without telling me exactly what I need to be doing. I should like it to ignore me, but nevertheless carry my mark when I choose make it. This imaginary game will, I hope, dump me on the midst of a strange place, perhaps with with a pyre of smoke on the horizon, and instruct me: "survive".
I'd like that.
(Also, it would have an absolutely incredible map, but that's another blog post.)