Chi-Coder: Is open world a good thing?

I picked up The Witcher 3 over the weekend and I’m loving it (like a Big Mac).  If you keep an eye on game reviews it’s basically everything that all the reviewers say it is.  Sure, it has a few minor flaws, and I’m not far enough in to completely give you my full critique (nor am I here to do that).  Rather, I’m interested in discussing the points raised in this article.  The author of the article raises some really interesting questions about the validity of open-world as a concept.  They’re questions that I think merit some thought.

Before I move on to the topic of open-world though, I’d like to lay some ground work for an anti-open-world example.  In addition to playing The Witcher 3, I’ve been working my way through Metroid Prime Trilogy.  My Wii U hasn’t seen action in a couple of months so I figured I’d give it something to do.  To clarify, yes, my idea of utilizing my Wii U is playing old GameCube games re-released on Wii and then emulated on Wii U.

Metroid Prime is an utterly fantastic game, but that’s not news.  It’s also decidedly not open-world.  It uses a few tricks to give you the feeling that you can go wherever you want, but you need only go back and play it for a few hours to realize that it’s an extremely guided experience.  You go where you weapons and items dictate that you’re allowed to go.  This isn’t a knock on the game.  In point of fact it’s high praise.  Metroid Prime’s level design is near perfect.  The flow is amazing.  There is a bit of back-tracking, but because elevators to areas are laid out so well, it feels really minimal.  It’s an awesome, non-open-world game.

Open-world is technically difficult.

Open world games are, by nature, incredibly complicated.  The amount quests/missions to undertake, ways to solve them, and order in which they’re done make these games nearly impossible to perfect.  No amount of QA or testing can account for every single possibility in a game like The Witcher 3, and trying to is an NP problem of the highest order, so it’s not even worth attempting.  By contrast, Metroid Prime only allows you to go where it wants you to.  By doing this it cuts down the number of variables by orders of magnitude.  In open-world games you often hear this critique, “the occasional side-quest was broken”.  You won’t find that in Metroid Prime, it’s experience is pure and focused.  There are a few design decisions about Metroid Prime that I don’t love, but from a technical perspective it’s nearly perfect.  There are no glitches, no “broken quests”, no buggy AI patterns because some NPC exists when they shouldn’t.  The variance that plagues open-world simply doesn’t exist in Metroid Prime.

Open-world is difficult in non-technical ways too.

Skyrim is one of my favorite games of all time.  I’ve poured hundreds of hours into it, none of which I regret.  I’m going to pick on it a little bit here though.  Because open-world games offer so much freedom, they often disguise their lack of choice.  In Skyrim this is most apparent in the extremely homogeneous combat.  When you boil Skyrim’s combat down to it’s most basic there are really only two choices that matter; to stealth or not to stealth, and ranged or melee combat.  If you stealth you either shoot your bow or you run up and stab someone.  If you choose not to stealth you either do ranged damage as a mage-type (or with the bow), or you run up and bash people.  You can specialize in certain weapons or magic types but most of those choices are very unspectacular.

Beyond that, encounters in Skyrim tend to be extremely bland.  Most enemies have one of a few different, equally stupid AI patterns.  Most run straight at you begging you to kill them.  A few attempt to kill you from range, and dragons fly around.  Play a few hours of Skyrim and you’ll realize that none of these encounter types are interesting or challenging.  Dragons are especially lackluster.  The first time you kill one it’s pretty awesome but after dragon kill #453, it becomes very rinse-and-repeat.

All of this is to point out the incredible amount of homogony in Skyrim.  The game gives freedom without necessarily giving you choice.  None of the gear in Skyrim is interesting.  None of the abilities are interesting.  Everything basically feels the same.  A melee mage and a melee fighter are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing.  A lot of this comes down to the technical difficulty I described above.  Encounter design has to be informed by what abilities you as the player have available, and if you can do anything then the AI has to account for everything.  Since that’s pretty much impossible, the game opts to do what most open-world games do; present the player with the illusion of choice.

One other major gripe I have with Skyrim actually has to do with the opposite problem I just described.  To a large degree, open-world games choose to homogenize things, but occasionally they pull a 180 on you.  Here’s what happened to me…  The first time I played it I went full cloak-and-dagger stealth.  It was a fine choice until about 10 hours into the game when I decided to start killing dragons.  Guess what, it’s impossible to stealth kill a dragon (at least early on).  With 90% of my damage tied up in stealth backstabs I was all but useless against the flying menaces.  Nowhere did the game ever mention that maybe stealth wasn’t the best choice right off the bat.  Sure, I could avoid the dragons (and I did), but that’s not a good answer.  I wanted to kill them; after all, it’s a major part of the game.  I ended up having to start over as a warrior type just so I could get past parts of the game that were poorly designed.

Go away jerk.

Open-world is unfocused.

One of the core things that bugs me about open-world games is the odd nature of the storytelling.  There is this odd dichotomy between the world and the story that are being presented to you.  In most open world games you’re presented with some main quest to complete.  Typically it’s epic in nature and often times involves you saving the entire world.  At the same time open-world games provide you with this huge sandbox to go play around in.  So wait, does the game want you to go save the world or kill endless hordes of rats and bandits?  Skyrim feels especially unfocused in this way.  Your main quest is more important than anything else in the world, and yet, the story’s main antagonist seems content to just wait around as you clear every cave and mine in the game.  Why doesn’t he just kill everyone while you’re rooting around in Labrynthian for 3 hours?

This problem plagues open-world games.  These games are the antithesis of focus, and yet they seem hell-bent on weaving in the common tropes of linear single-player games.  To be honest, Skyrim would almost be a better game without the main quest, in my opinion.  In fact, if they had taken it out in favor of 20 more hours of side-content and just said, “here’s a sandbox, go and play”, I would have been so happy.  It would have made all of the existing side-content (which is better than the main quest) feel more epic in scale, and it would have removed the albatross around my neck.

But is it bad?

Games like Metroid Prime are decidedly more focused, and because of this there are more opportunities for really well designed encounters.  From boss fights to arena-type rooms, the guided single-player experience is one that is hard not to enjoy when it’s done well.  Is it better than the muddled, unfocused experience of the open-world sandbox though?  I wish I could take a more defined stance on the issue, but I can’t.  The truth is that despite all of the flaws that open-world presents I still find myself excited to play those types of games whenever they come out.  Even when a game doesn’t necessarily fall into my preferred genre, if it’s open-world, I’m interested.

Open-world, in it’s current iteration is still pretty young, anyway.  I’d say that Grand Theft Auto III was the first game to really introduce us to this style of game and that was only 14 years ago.  The linear single-player experience has had a lot more time to grow.  With big name game designers like Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto throwing their hats into the open-world ring, I think there is a lot of room for the genre to get better and more polished.  Maybe Miyamoto can contribute something similar to the open world genre like he did with z-targeting in Ocarina of Time.  Open-world, as it stands, has its fair share of glaring flaws, but with time and polish the genre will surely improve.