At some point over the past year, I played two seemingly unconnected games: The first was Red Dead Redemption 2, courtesy of a loaned PS4, and the second was the re-release of Knights of the Old Republic on Switch. Superficially there doesn’t seem to be much connecting them, aside from each carrying a useful and thankfully short acronym to assist in blogging, however both are… at least at the time of their original release… considered to be ‘Open World Games’. Both allow the player to freely explore the game world, both present a core narrative to follow whilst allowing for optional side-quests ,and both contain RPG elements such as character progression, trading, and building a supporting team of NPC puppets. The main difference of course is that RDR2 was released some 15 years after KotOR (Dang, those are convenient acronyms).
… And at this point I guess I should give a little more flavour as to why I chose to play these games. RDR2 was a no-brainer once a PS4 had arrived in the house; I love a rooting-tooting wild west romp, and RDR2 is about as rooty-tooty-rompy as wild west games get. By contrast, I’m a fairly average on the Star-Wars-Fan-O-Meter and my turn offs include turn based combat. But it was on sale, and I’d heard good things, so I decided to pick it up.
Having carefully primed an obvious twist, my big reveal is that ultimately I gave up with RDR2 having barely scratched the surface, whilst KotOR I played fully and would have 100% completed had it not been for a soft-lock bug on one of the side missions. A hefty chunk of this can be explained through the multiple demands of adult life; I get a few evenings a week where I can grab a three to four hours of gaming then maybe an extra hour or two on the commute for a Switch game… depending on the weather, as even a hint of sunshine makes the screen unusable. Even without these constraints however, I just don’t think I’d have the stamina to bother with RDR2. My first week in the wild west was just spent in a slow-burning tutorial section and things didn’t pick up when I finally made it to my first settlement. One evening I went to a town, stopped in a shop, got drunk in a bar, and still ended up going to bed late because I had to ride back to the camp to make sure that my fellow wild-westians had enough shoes or bullets or whatever. Another session was spent trying to win a few hands of Texas Hold’em which ended in me switching off the console and lamenting that I hadn’t just spent the evening playing Poker Night at the Inventory; at least I would have had a few cheap laughs from reference humour squarely targeting my gaming generation.
Over on the flip-side of the coin, in a galaxy far far away, I was having way more fun progressing story and characters, even with early misgivings about turn based combat. There were moments where to think of KotOR as open world could easily have been seen as ironic. My favourite was being told by the powerful and wise Jedi council to go on an epic quest in search of some ancient lost caves… that I found less than 60 seconds walk from their chamber. Seriously, I think they could have just looked out the window and rediscovered these lost caves. Exploring vast forests that contained convenient walls, an endless desert where you can only walk within a denoted boundary, and the many many other examples of quests that could be completed a laughably short distance from where they were set, all seemed to un-ashamedly stand tall and flip-off the concept of open-world. Yet I happily muted the part of my brain that screamed about how ridiculous this all was because I was actually making progress, achieving goals, and unlocking the story.
I guess these are extreme examples, but there are definitely sweeter regions in the swamps between them, largely determined by what I want from an open-world game. We all play games for different reasons, but a key requirement for me is that my character needs to have agency in their own narrative; something that developers need to work harder and harder at in a bigger game world. Our online gaming Mondays recently tried out No Man’s Sky for a few weeks. In a seemingly infinite universe I found myself bored, my actions having no notable impact on the world around me and the vague meandering objectives seemingly having the same relevance whether I spent a hour ticking them off, or just left them to languish on the to-do list. Not only this, but I also want the other characters I meet and the locations I visit to reel rich, and full of their own stories, independent to my own. Having enjoyed Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I desperately wanted to feel the same about Fallout 4, but (and I say this without a hint of irony) that wasteland felt empty. Too large for the number of interesting facets within and filled out with bland cookie cutter settlements and inhabitants. Finally I need to feel like I’m progressing. Not performing the 100th menial task because a studio decreed that players should be getting a minimum 80 hour ‘experience’, or mashing away at enemies to watch some level-up progress bar creep towards the next level.
Hopefully you’ve realised by now, but to be clear, this is an opinion based on what I want from an open world game; I’m not using one of my monkey paw wishes to erase RDR2 from existence; if it’s your thing then fill your boots… although I would ask, what are you doing wasting your time reading this when there is an outstanding reward for hunting 3 of [insert animal type here] in exchange for [some dollars]? I just can’t escape the feeling that bigger and bigger open game worlds aren’t being matched by the experience designers are trying to pour in to them. In contrast older open-world games seemed happy to throw the player in to a densely populated world of ideas all packed in to the space of a single CD/DVD (delete as appropriate). A few years ago I played ‘Bully‘; not a sophisticated game by anyone’s standards, but dang if it didn’t pack a good number of locations, variety, and fun into a small game world. Yes, during my short time in the Bullworth (Bullington? Bullsworthy?) Academy, I really felt like I was getting stuff done, getting noticed, and having an impact on that polygon riddled school. And what about Dead Rising?? 72 ingame hours or you’re toast! It’s impossible to feel like your character has no agency when there is literally a countdown and the game seems to scream “Do Stuff!” at you continually. Sure, the close quarters and not-so-subtle play boundaries force the player to suspend some disbelief around the plausibility of the environment, but at least I feel like I’m doing something.