Open world games: yes, the world’s getting bigger, but don’t let it lose depth

Thoughtlessly sandboxing games puts them at risk of becoming litter boxes

As more is revealed about future video game releases for the next year in the aftermath of E3 and in the midst of Gamescom, it is clear that open-world games are becoming increasingly fashionable. Alongside dedicated open world games where freedom is king such as No Man’s Sky and Just Cause 3, franchises such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, Homefront 2, and Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst are making an active effort to expand their worlds and encourage players to explore outside of the main story. Having a bigger in-game world to traverse is always exciting but this focus on expansion is only good when it doesn’t lead to the sacrifice of depth.

There are many existing open world games which balance a main story and a large explorable world, for example Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto and the Arkham series. But they never do it quite perfectly. Balancing a linear story alongside a sprawling open world is difficult to do well and so shoving sandbox features into games like a child on the beach with their first bucket and spade can sometimes end in a game that’s not quite sure what it wants; an impactful main story that it is necessary to keep up with or endless player freedom.

Don’t get me wrong, I love open world games; longer playing hours, more to see, let me escape a little longer. Despite this, sometimes I’ve felt that I would have enjoyed a game’s otherwise excellent linear main story if the gameplay had been slightly more linear to match, and my freedom to decide how to proceed was equal to my freedom to move around. Or, I would have enjoyed exploration more if it had felt more worth my time than the main story. So often there are worlds you can explore but don’t really have to in order to progress the main storyline and it can leave story-based missions and the rest of the world you’re playing in feel awfully disparate. For example, when I’m running around Florence as Ezio Auditore in Assassin’s Creed II, flooring guards and collecting eagle feathers, I do kind of lose the sense of him as a man facing a great personal tragedies as he becomes embroiled in a global conspiracy.

Image: Flickr © marvelousRoland

To make a sandbox game with a main story, a balance needs to be struck. The main story needs to be kept strong enough that players don’t lose all interest in completing it, and all the stupid things done on the side don’t detract from its resonance. But at the same time the world of the game needs to feel alive and worth exploring, with interesting side missions that aren’t repetitive. Sometimes it’s better simply to de-emphasise any core story missions like Fallout and Skyrim, and just let people feel like everything is something worth pursuing, allow them to become invested in their character’s story because it develops through interacting with this world it was so important to create, rather than specific missions. At the very least exploration of the world should be made integral to player progress; I don’t want to be fobbed off with collectables that offer me nothing more than an empty achievement. I want my exploration of a game’s massive map to be a narrative necessity rather than a waste of pixels.

It might even be best for a game to simply add storytelling features which acknowledge the disparity between its open world and its linear story. inFAMOUS used the device of ‘x days later’ and skipping large sections of time whilst developing context, making me feel less bothered about exploring because I knew the story was taking place over a long period of time. It’s nice to go back into the main story without feeling like the NPC should turn to you and say ‘nah man, you’re too late, the world ended while you were trying to swim to the very edge of the map.’

Image: Flickr © Chang Ming

Sometimes you need linearity for a truly engaging story and character development and sometimes the world is better for the longing to explore it rather than the ability to actually do so. Take Bioshock Infinite as an example; it was a world that felt huge and I desperately wanted to see more of it, but its narrative was engaging and being able to explore any more would not have necessarily made the game better. Just because systems can handle a huge open world doesn’t mean they have to. There’s no doubt that a lot of time is put into developing these massive worlds and creating their engaging stories but sometimes how they connect needs to be considered more. It’s all very well having a massive explorable game world, just as long as its scope is worth the player’s time and doesn’t squander depth of story in order to increase gameplay hours and drive completionists to the brink of their sanity.

Main image via Flickr © Etahos