Open World Games - A Curse or a Blessing?
Great and terrible open world games can be two sides of the same coin. For every Witcher 3: Wild Hunt we have a broken glitchy mess such as Driv3r. For every Grand Theft Auto 5, a less than amazing Amazing SpiderMan sandbox. Luckily the friendly neighborhood hero seems to have struck gold with his latest iteration. The Average score on Metacritic is an impressive 87. Showing that developers are growing to learn the key ingredients of well baked open world games.
Many open world games are deceivingly average and after 10 hours of play time you realise there is just not that much to do!
Even games that spent ages in development purgatory often release with depressingly empty worlds, devoid of activity despite aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Case in point being Final Fantasy XV where look closely and the environments and NPCs all look the same. It is also hampered by mind numbing irritating fetch quests and “go here, fight this” quests. Furthermore the environment looks stunning yet is painfully passive in its’ implmentation and cannot be interacted with as well as all looking the same.
Other examples disappointing can border on shameless laziness as shown by Driv3r and The Amazing Spiderman 1 and 2. both horrendous iterations of a trope that when done well can excel in today’s content hungry market.
There are certain essential things that open world games must possess to be effective as an addition to the genre. Here are GameStarter’s Top Five.
1) A Strong Story
Horizon Zero Dawn is an excellent example of an open world game with a strong, enticing story. The plot and narrative is not too convoluted yet complex enough to maintain the player’s engagement. Essentially it is a story about a rough and tumble orphan on a journey to discover her past and battle a viscous evil along the way. Oh.. and it has robot dinosaurs. What’s not to love eh?
A strong narrative will always endear the protagonist to the player and drives the players return to the story once the world becomes stretched with the player seeking a change of pace.
Open world games often focus on a wealth of additional quests and content. Forgetting that the majority of the time the final impression they leave on the player will be the strength of the story. Eventually the player will need to finish the game therefore if the story is weak, overly complex or dull, many players will just not bother.
2) Variety in the environment
A beautiful world is nice but not essential. What is crucial is the variety the world should offer. Not only in terms of tasks but also in terms of environment and aesthetic. People of different areas of the map must clearly show what differentiates them. Otherwise where is the fun in exploring. The natural environment is required to be varied. Boggy marshlands in some areas to urban sprawling metropolises in other areas.
Part of the attraction of The Witcher 3 was surveying the scenery around you. It was clear to see the difference between the Skellige isles and Velen. Even the expansion pack of Toussaint had a clear light uniqueness when compared with the rest of the world.
Some may question if a world is not expansiveness enough to show clear differences, how can you vary locations? For instance a game taking place in a city? Even in these instances different areas of the city look different and have different features. Cities have ghettos, upmarket areas, business areas, rural areas. Developers can leverage these differentiating features in open world games to create a world where variety is clear and the eyes do not become bored.
3) Meaningful Quests to complete
As well as being well thought out and logical, the world crafted in open world games must be packed with a variety of things to do. The key word here is VARIETY. A game with hundreds of fetch or fight quests that takes hundreds of hours to complete is not a good open world game. Many players will become bored and the game will gather dust on a shelf.
One of the main criticisms leveled at Final Fantasy XV among others was the quest seemed mundane and pointless to the NPC you were completing them for. Quests in open world games need context and background. They need to feel worth it to those you are completing them for. In the Witcher 3 even the most mundane task of finding an old lady’s frying pan feels meaningful. The side quests in The Witcher 3 feel like main stories in their own right.
The side quests require a story with a beginning, middle and an end. The NPCs who present them must as well written as the main characters with clear or mysterious motives, but motives nonetheless. Reasons are to given to understand why the situation has come to pass to complement the narrative. It needs to promote abundantly clear reason as to why these people have sought help. The Witcher shows this as Geralt’s assistance constructed through the nature of his job and finally the conclusions to the side quests are often unexpected and varied meaning even if a side quest feels similar to previous one it has enough changes to make it worthwhile to complete.
Essential every side quest, treasure search or monster hunt in open world games must be able to be written as a fictional story in its’ own right.
4) A World that you can Interact with
One of the clear strengths of open world games like Grand Theft Auto V is the components and environments are active rather than passive. A passive world is purely there for looking at. Buildings not accessible, caverns that can be entered all look the same whilst more inviting points of interest are inaccessible.
Within GTAV, you can hijack all manner of vehicles. Enter shops, strip clubs, beaches, houses, film sets, mountains. The world is very much an action point of the game. Compare this to the likes of Final Fantasy XV where the only accessible locations are one town whereby the majority of building are passive, generic gas station that all look the same and sprawling fields of beautiful yet empty content.
If there is a car in the game, it best serve a purpose. If there is a building in the game, it should be accessible and finally NPCs should have a reason for being there and be able to offer something to the character and story.
5) A world that exists without you
There is a key test as to whether open world games have built an effective sandbox.
Remove your character from the game.
Does the world still function?
Do the NPCs still have stuff to do?
Would the story continue?
If the answer to any of the above is no. The world is not immersive enough to be an effective, believable sandbox. Look at the cities of Solitude in Skyrim, or Novigrad in The Witcher 3. If the main protagonist were to cease to be, these cities would continue to thrive and have their own stories. Smiths would still be sharpening their swords and merchants would still be paddling their wares and workers would be earning for their families. The world does not exist to push the narrative of the main characters plot and the NPCs do not simply wait around for the player to speak to them. Rather the character must ply themselves in a living breathing world.
In contrast to this poorly build open world games will have NPCs and habitats that only seem to exist at the convenience of your character. Without which the world would cease to function. The general populous seems only as a plot point in the protagonists story, their primary function to wait to be interacted with by the main player. This is not immersive or realistic and therefore belies a poorly built open world game.
The video above by RoboKast illustrates perfectly how Rockstar acheives a lived in open world that continually entertains and engages its’ audience and why they continue to be one of the masters in the genre of open world games.
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