The Many Guises of Open-Worlding

After vowing a few weeks ago that this blog wouldn’t descend into a shrine to Nintendo following my systematic indoctrination that the giant Ninty offer as a complimentary service to all those able to get their mortal paws on a Switch (and presumably either of their ‘mini’ consoles given the pace they race off the shelves/pre-order virtual shelves), it has nonetheless been the focus of my gaming for the past month with at least 85% of that devoted to the open world beast of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I do want to put down my thoughts on that particular title as a whole, but I just don’t feel quite qualified yet, so watch this space for future ramblings on the subject. As my first Zelda outing it has been a great experience, despite being warned on a few occasions that it wasn’t necessarily representative of the traditional Zelda romp and that as an open world title some people didn’t think it was the best example. I would agree that it is a slow starter and does rely on the player giving it the time to absorb them into that world, but once I was enthralled, it really is a well crafted title worthy of the premium price-point (something I’m really not so familiar with coming in from a PC gaming background where every game is generally knocked down within the first few months).

As far as open-world goes, I wouldn’t have necessarily said I was an expert either; I tell people that I generally favour games with a tighter narrative and ones that require a little less time devoted to them, however sitting down to write about it, I do have a pretty extensive open-world back-catalogue including the Fallouts since 3, FarCry3, Dying Light, and even a few weirder ones that I’ve devoted some hours to like Deadly Premonition and LA Noire (Which looks to be making its way to the Switch as was announced recently in some over-reported press release). The upshot is that I have a pretty good beat on how these games work and also discovered that I have pretty specific ways that I approach the open-world nature that I wasn’t aware of necessarily. When the Switch arrived in the Hundstrasse & Soup household a month ago my wife and I had the idea that we would tag-team BOTW; we’d chatted to some of our other friends who had done this with Skyrim and it sounded fun. We were both quite taken with the idea of just being a passenger in the experience for half of the time and as long as we were both present for the pivotal story moment then there wouldn’t be a problem… right?

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So where are we headed today?

The problems with this plan became apparent almost immediately; unlike other games that we had just watched the other play, here there was a huge variety in the approach we were taking in each session some days the player would want to just explore and cruise around picking things up, other times they would want to barrel on headlong toward an objective or far off point just to get there; in short, our play goals were rarely aligned. Luckily the solution to this was simple and very quickly instigated we are now concurrently playing the game on our individual profiles and with a little effort in considerate gaming havn’t managed to spoil the experience for the other. The whole misadventure started some wheels turning about the different ways that I approach open-world games depending on my mood. The first thing I realised was that I’m rarely consistent: I know some people who stick almost religiously to the story to begin with and then scout around after completion, others who do everything they can but the story, some who methodically clear areas of all activity before moving on, and just about every variation on these themes in between.

The first play-style that I spotted in myself was what I’ll assign the moniker ‘plot session’: I’d usually make the decision to attempt to progress the main quests right from switching the console on before a period where I know I’m unlikely to be interrupted. I enjoy becoming absorbed in the events of the world and don’t want to have to duck out half way through a critical sequence. The weird part is that I rarely progress the plot part-way through a gaming session; I’m either pushing the plot or not, there’s no half measures, I also tend to stop playing once that specific part in the plot is complete.

So if I’m not progressing the plot what else am I doing? Side quests is the most obvious answer, but in a typical (and I’m essentially using BOTW for the purposes of discussion) open-world, this can have different facets. The first type of side questing I like to indulge in is ‘mopping up’: sometimes there’s nothing quite like rigorously retreading explored areas to pick up all those little things that you missed or left the first time. No stepping into new territory and no leaving the familiar, ‘mopping up’ is the domain of the 100%-er and can sound like a chore when describing it to those not familiar with the sense of achievement that it can bring. The next type of side questing I like to involve myself in is ‘troubleshooting’; picking that one side quest that has been sat on the incomplete list for some time that seems to be eluding you. I spent a good few hours searching the mountain wilderness of the Gerudo highlands on the trail of an awkward quest. Outside of these pretty specific methods of ‘side-questing’ I often find myself adhering to certain ‘rules’ depending on my some more general goal. For example I could be targeting a specific outcome such as obtaining another heart container (BOTW example) this would mean that I need to hunt down shrines to complete the final goal.

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This outfit is pretty awesome!

The third mode of open-world play that I’ve spotted in my gaming moods is that of exploration, of course one of the best parts of the relatively recently created open-world genre is the feeling that you can go anywhere and do anything and that is best expressed when there are blank areas of the map that you, as the player, have yet to fill in. Exploration can be “hmmm.. I wonder what’s over this hill?“, or ,”I’m heading to that thing I can see in the distance to find out what it is“, or even as specific as “I don’t seem to have trampled across this particular strip of land, but gosh-darn-it I bet there’s something interesting there!“. There’s no real motive other than just the joy of exploration and with that dealing with whatever pops up along the way.

Finally I often find myself self-imposing challenges, or goals to achieve in game. Those who’ve delved into my writing in the past will know that I’m easily distracted by character customisation and one of the best self imposed challenges is that of obtaining a specific costume. I’ve yet to find a costume (or part thereof) in BOTW that I havn’t thought is super-cool and I’m pretty sure that main plot aside, I’ll only consider that I’ve beaten the game once Link is carrying around the complete wardrobe in his back-pocket. In short I’m not lacking in self-imposing the goal of “I want this item of clothing” and setting to achieving that; it could involve shrines, or exploration… or just heading out to the mountains, stone hammer in hand, to do some hard graft mining just to afford to buy it from the trader.

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Hmmmm… can’t quite afford it… at the moment

The level of variety in open-world games is genuinely amazing when I compare it to the types of games I grew up playing. I don’t always like that level of freedom as it can dilute the core experience, but an open-world title that’s done well is often incredibly captivating because it allows the player to indulge in whatever aspect of gaming they happen to be hungry for on that particular day.

11 thoughts on “The Many Guises of Open-Worlding

  1. There was a really great video I watched about the differences between modern Fallout and the first two, that explained quite well the problems with open world structure when not done properly. A lack of structure can lead to narrative dissonance, like when a player can choose to ignore what would be time-sensitive goals in the interest of a mundane task.

    Bethesda games like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls suffer from this, like in Oblivion, where you can choose to ignore the crisis at hand to go picking Nirnroot, or in Fallout 4, where the parent-player can choose to not go looking for his/her son despite the main character stating a motivation to do so.

    Of course, many problems with open world games are as simple as being given too much filler crap to do, instead of being provided with meaningful tasks or objectives.

    I both love and hate open world games. When they’re done well, they’re amazing and immersive. When they’re done poorly, it’s a boring slog filled with stupid crap.

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    1. I was very disappointed with Fallout 4, I just didn’t care about the main plot at all and none of the factions really appealed. I suspect some of our was to do with how diluted the plot was amongst everything else. 😕

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s definitely a problem with open world games done poorly… it’s hard to hold onto the plot threads while you’re doing all the, as Shelby said, “boring slog full of stupid crap.”

        …which is also my new favorite way to describe poor open world games…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I absolutely love open-world games but it can be difficult to fit them into adult life sometimes due to how big they are. Saying that though, it’s nice to be able to do a bit of grinding or exploring when you only have an hour to spare and still feel as though you’ve made some progress.

    I have a habit of trying to complete every single side-quest before touching the main storyline… and often by the time I get there, I’m starting to get tired of the game and want a change!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, finding time is difficult… I don’t usually want to commit so much time to a single game, but it is worth it when you find one with a world that grabs you.

      … also totally with you on that side questing thing, I’m not usually too bad, but have certainly in the past managed to use up all my enthusiasm for a game without touching the plot.

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      1. I guess the developers feel the need to give us as much game as possible – which is great, but at the same time it can be overwhelming! I need to find a way to play open-world titles that gives a better balance between the storyline and the added-extras.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Mandatory main questing every 10 minutes… All the NPC’s just keep saying ” no, you can’t collect 100 ladybirds for me, you should be doing the main quest”… Might remove some of the freedom…

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      3. Yeah, I can see how that might become a problem ha ha ha! You might have something with the ‘mandatory main questing’ schedule though… I’m going to give it a go and see how it works out.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I go back and forth with open world games. If they’re filled with interesting stuff they can be great fun, but often I find myself getting impatient when a game allows me so much freedom, and I lose interest. That said, I haven’t yet played Breath of the Wild, and hearing all the positive talk about it makes me feel like I could spend hours in that world.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What interesting observations! My friend and I “tag teamed” a game once, and it went about as well as you’d expect, so I’m glad to see we weren’t just bad at playing well with others! But I think that’s the beauty of open-world games: there is freedom to play so many ways based on what’s important to you, and what’s important to you *in that moment.*

    I had a weird moment with playing styles during Andromeda… Part of me really wanted to build the galaxy up into a habitable place, but that resulted in losing sight of the main story line and it coming across as wishy-washy (which is really isn’t). After pretty much 100%-ing all the worlds, I ditched one whole planet at the end of the game in favor of just completing the storyline, and it wound up being a much more rewarding experience…

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