Game On or Game Over: It’s a small world after-all
Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?
Andy: I had a conversation with a friend over the weekend that surprised me. Not that I have friends, or that they talk to me once and awhile, but what he said. It should come as a shock that I like to talk about video games – who knew right – but we were talking about games and what each of us liked. We talked about style, genre and all the usual suspects when having a conversation like this. Then he said something that stopped me in my tracks and I was flabbergasted. He said, “I won’t play again unless it’s open world.” Even though the premise of that statement is absurd due to the amount of games that are linear he did have a couple good points about it. Before I go to in-depth though on his reasoning and my responses to him, I thought I’d get your input and see what you think.
It seems one of the industry’s current buzzwords is “open world” or “sandbox” when describing a game. It’s often followed by, “You can do whatever you want.” Looking at some big release games of this year and last year, several of them were in fact open world, but there were still quite a few that weren’t that were equally as entertaining. What’s your thought on open world games versus more linear stories? Is there still a place in gaming for linear storytelling?
Nicholas: To begin, I’d say that open-world isn’t just the current industry buzzword, but one that gamers have been talking about (and demanding) for a while now. I can recall in every instalment to the Need For Speed franchise since Underground 2, that whether the game would have an open-world or not was a major point of discussion for my friends and I. We would always want the next game to have open-world only because it seemed to offer so much more at the time. Make no mistake, both Underground and Underground 2 were (and are) amazing titles, but having the choice to drive your car in free-roam and pick which races you wanted to do when you wanted to do them just seemed to make the entire experience a whole lot greater.
This all said though, there have certainly been cases where I felt a linear style of game was more appropriate (and more enjoyable) than an open-world one. For me, the greatest example is the Batman franchise. Batman: Arkham Asylum was without a doubt, one of my favourite games of the last generation. It’s sequel though, while I might be in the minority here, just didn’t seem to hold up to the game before it. Sure, being able to fly around Gotham as Bats was nice, but I didn’t find myself enjoying the game nearly as much as I did the first. I think there needs to be that sweet-spot between having an open world that gamers can explore, but without overwhelming the player with so many choices that they have no idea what to do or where to start next.
So with all that said, yes, I completely believe that there is still a place for linear storytelling. While open-world gameplay is nice, any game, whether it’s open world or not, as long as it’s fun and engaging to play, should be successful. How about you though? What are your opinions on linear vs. open world games, and is there any examples where you felt an open world wasn’t appropriate, or didn’t do its job as well as you would have liked?
Andy: Make no mistake about it, I really do enjoy open world games but with the caveat that it has to make sense for it to be open world. It’s funny you mention Arkham Asylum, that’s a game I enjoyed quite a bit as well and when I played Arkham City it felt like Rocksteady tried to stuff as much content as they could in it and it lost some of the magic and charm that made Asylum so good. The thing that bothers me at times with open world games is some do it not because the story demands it, but to artificially inflate game time. A lot of open world games force players to backtrack to the same areas several times to keep doing missions, side quests etc. Look at the original Assassin’s Creed as a prime example. It was touted as a huge world – but in reality it was three cities and the greater kingdom. Furthermore, you had to backtrack to each city after unlocking the assassination somewhere else. Yes, it’s technically an open world game but felt much more linear to me.
I’ve made it no secret how much of a fan of Fallout 3 I am (you really didn’t think I go through this article and not mention it did you?) I loved just walking around and discovering things, instead of a linear experience where I find something at a set time under set circumstances. The world was as big of a feature in that game as were rad scorpions and super mutants. With that said, I can still enjoy a well done linear experience too, or even a hybrid of the two – a game like Splinter Cell: Blacklist for example. It’s a linear game, start a mission, know your objective go there and do it. The hybrid approach being that you can go about it in a number of ways. The end result is almost always the same but the journey makes it that much more fun.
If it truly makes sense for a game to be open world I’m all for it, but when it’s done to fluff up the gameplay time, or to sidestep lack of story or something else then it bothers me. From a developer point of view I’d think a linear game is much more easy to create. Like I said above, in a linear game the developer has full control over when a player experiences something and under what circumstances they experience it. Whereas an open world game there are an infinite amount of variables around when events can happen and how the player gets to that point. It makes me wonder, with the amount of headaches that are incumbent when you make an open world game, what do you think the reason is behind the fact that it seems like more and more games are going for that route?
Nicholas: Developers are always trying to push the envelope as far as how grand and detailed their games are, and I think having an open-world is a part of that. If we stick with our Batman example and put aside that both of us found the original more enjoyable than the sequel, as a developer, and as a gamer, it would seem that a game which allowed you to enjoy all the features of the first title, but in an open world, would make for a much greater game, no? I think a trap that some developers fall into, is that they think an open-world would suit the game and that it’s a feature gamers want, but in the end it just doesn’t fit. In addition, a lot of these developers have been in this game for a long time (pun intended), so above pushing the bar, you’re going to get better at doing it each time as well.
One thing about open world games (particularly sandbox titles) that I love the most is that freedom factor that they offer. With Grand Theft Auto IV for example, while I absolutely loved playing through the story and exploring everything that Liberty City had to offer, the thing that kept me coming back to the game after I had finished it was the fact I could get into a car and do whatever I liked. If I felt like going on a murderous rampage, I could. If I felt like simply cruising around the streets going the speed limit and avoiding hitting anything, I could. What I enjoyed the most though was taking a motorbike to a skate park and jumping off the ramps, or getting into a car and doing burnouts and drifts in car parks or beaches. None of this would really be possible with a linear kind of game. For you, what are some other features of open world games that you like, that just doesn’t work/is possible with linear titles?
Andy: Features that I like that wouldn’t work in more linear titles, that’s actually a really good question. Similar to you, I love free roam and the ability to go in any direction I like and do pretty much whatever I want. I remember when Fallout New Vegas was released, the developers made a comment something to the fact of “don’t go north when you first start, you won’t make it.” I , along with many other gamers, took that as a challenge and went north because I could. For me though the biggest draw of an open world style of game is that I can create my own story to a degree. I can be a good guy, or mischievous, or I can be absolutely evil. I love that I can completely ignore the main story if I want to. Heck, I spent 20 minutes in Skyrim when I first started it chasing butterflies. It’s fun to forget about an objective or quest marker every once and awhile and just look around and appreciate the small stuff.
Conversely though, I also enjoy certain aspects of more linear games as well. I appreciate that I can sit back and the story will progress as the developers intended it. At times I like that I don’t have to open a quest log, search a map, or try to figure out what I’m supposed to do next. Some open world games are so big and vast that they lose themselves and go from being fun to being a grind and a walking simulator. I think to a large extent linear games are also easier to pick up and play whereas some open world games have overly complex controls, and require the player to learn how to use everything. A good example of that is The Witcher 2 on the Xbox 360. I thought the game looked really good, and from what I saw and read it seemed like a game that would interest me. I finally got around to trying it and as beautiful as it was, I just didn’t have the heart to learn a completely new control scheme.
I think you can still have an in-depth meaningful story with a linear game, just look at games like The Last of Us, Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light. Now before anyone gets up in arms I’m not saying the stories of those games are similar. For as great as The Last of Us is, I don’t think anyone would say it’s an open world game, but that didn’t stop all those who played it from enjoying it. Just because a game is linear doesn’t lessen the impact it can have on the player, just see The Walking Dead arcade game (not the rubbish Survival Instinct) which had a huge emotional draw. When done right both types of story delivery can be effective, so it boggles my mind that gamers would be so hell bent on one or the other that they’d completely ignore the other. Do you personally prefer one or the other? Secondly, have you ever passed up a game because it was one or the other?
Nicholas: To answer those questions I first tried to find examples of genres that I felt worked best if they were open-world and not linear. I thought about racing, and how I’d always love for games to be open-world, but then I thought about Forza Motorsport 5 and how much I enjoy that game. I then thought about action titles, but then I remembered Batman: Arkham Asylum and how much I loved that title. I then thought about shooters, but then I remembered playing Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64 (and recently on my Xbox 360) and how much I enjoyed that game too. So for me, as much as I’d love to pick a side, I’d have to say no. Personally, while I’d love for games to be open world, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a winner, and for every open-world game there’s a linear title that works just as well. I also can’t recall ever giving up a game just because it was linear and not open world, or visa-versa.
Speaking of open worlds though, it makes me think about the upcoming title from Ubisoft, The Crew. For the longest time I’ve wanted to having a racing game which spanned across most major North American cities, and this game finally appears to be one that will deliver on this. I remember reading a recent article that stated it would take a long time (I forget the exact time, but I believe it was over an hour) to get from one end of the map to another. This then made me think about the grandness of Grand Theft Auto V’s map, and how it made the size of Red Dead Redemption’s open world seem like nothing. As developers harness the power and capabilities of these new consoles, we will only expect titles (and their worlds) to get larger and larger. In your opinion, do you think that developers will properly utilise this space, or do you fear that we’ll been seeing great stretches of deserts plains, mountain ranges and highways with nothing to them between the main parts of the map? For example, the map of Need For Speed Rivals was massive, but as large as it was, it felt like there wasn’t much to it when I think back to how the cities of Bayview and Rockport were in Underground 2 and Most Wanted, respectively.
Andy: I think to a large extent developers can be their own worst enemies to be honest. You can give any developer all the latest and greatest technology but that doesn’t mean a great game will come of it. Conversely, you can give a small independent developer bare bones technology and get an absolute gem of a game. Sure with new technology and a better understanding of it, game worlds can become bigger and bigger, but there are two cautions to that which immediately come to mind. One, like you said, what is going to fill that space? Will there be random encounters, caves to explore, side missions, etc. or will it be a cut and paste of terrain merely there to give an illusion of a huge world but nothing to do. Secondly, does a large world make sense and fit the story. In a game like Red dead Redemption the large world fit and offered a variety of locales and terrain. Yet with Red Dead, while going from point A to point B was fun to look at, aside from hunting animals and picking flowers there really wasn’t a lot going on. The upcoming game Watch_Dogs claims to allow the player to do countless things all across Chicago, but time will tell if Chicago will be full of life or merely point A to point B with long scenic views in between.
While I certainly see the benefit and allure of those large game worlds, titles like Splinter Cell Blacklist, Hitman Absolution, Metro and Sniper Elite prove that you can have linear based level design while at the same time allowing the player to play how they want. Games don’t always have to be this huge massive world to be entertaining or captivating. Look no further than the games we played as kids. We didn’t enjoy them less because they were platformers or small in scale. We enjoyed them because they were fun to play. It’s as simple as that. Making a sandbox type game just for the sake of making it doesn’t do the game any favors. L.A. Noire is another good example, sure it’s open world, but for me personally, the world felt empty and repetitive.
I think part of the issue is also developers trying to make games that appeal to the most possible gamers, instead of picking an audience and making the best game they can for that segment of gamers. To close up this week’s column, do you think the definition of how we define games will change with this next generation of gaming? What I mean is do you think gamers will begin to expect more from a game that uses the term “open world” or “sandbox” in terms of no longer just being a walking/driving simulator to get to the next area. Instead developers will start putting more “meat” on the skeleton of the world. Lastly, where do you see open world gaming going from here?
Nicholas: I’d honestly like to hope so. In a recent article I’ve been working on, I mentioned that a new generation of consoles/games often means a new period of innovation and invention, and a chance for gamers to see real change in what is released by these developers and publishers. I’m really keen to see how Ubisoft’s The Crew turns out. If the world really is as large as they claim and if the world is truly alive, then I think it could potentially set a new bar that other developers will need to reach and ultimately exceed. There’s no doubt games like Grand Theft Auto V showed players how open world and varied a sandbox title could be, but I think with the last generation getting so old, that we were seeing a real decline in true innovation from these developers. With the new consoles now here, and as these companies become more familiar with their capabilities, I think we’re really going to see games go to a new level, where open world really means a massive and living environment for players to explore, and not just a few populated areas with large regions of nothingness in between. Similarly, I hope the same goes for those titles that tote themselves as being ‘sandbox’, and we really see something appear that truly gives players the chance to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want.
So far, ‘open world’ has typically meant just one city, but I think that it’s due to change going forward. Sticking with The Crew, I think we’ll start to see open world expand beyond just one location to multiple cities, if not, an entire country. If not, I hope it means that more places are accessible within these single-city worlds, so rather than you being able to enter just a few buildings and stores, you can potentially enter them all. Once again, it’s just a case of seeing how developers utilise the new technology, if at all.