Can they go beyond minigames and giant brawlscapes?
Like most people, I loved Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s the best that Rockstar has offered in terms of storytelling, characters, and dialogue. However, I have a hard time classifying it as my favourite Rockstar game and that’s mainly because the overall gameplay just isn’t all that great.
After more than an entire decade of playing the Grand Theft Autos and also the first Red Dead Redemption, I couldn’t help but think that no one else could make open world sandbox games as fun as Rockstar did. A lot of developers tried but they never seem to have reached the same level of polish and creativity.
I don’t blame them. Making fun and interesting sandbox games is anything but simple, and I believe Rockstar is reaching their limits too.
When Enough Is Enough
I take RDR2 as the yardstick here because its open world is at worst still one of the best in the industry. From the muddy soils of Valentine to the snow-capped mountains in the Grizzlies, everything feels detailed and alive. Just woke up at camp and noticed that you buy some more ammo? Well, you might just get robbed on your way to town.
Being the critically-acclaimed giant that they are, there’s no doubt that Rockstar knew about the whole “wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle” criticism that a lot of open world games were getting. And it’s obvious they did their very best to make sure RDR2 would be spared from such scathing words. But alas, the open world has probably reached its limits. Its own invisible walls.
About 30% through the game, I had already come across similar “random” encounters at least twice. I’d fall asleep more than a handful of times while tapping X to get to my destination. And when I do get to my destination, I realise there wasn’t much fun to be had anyway. It was just another “talk to mission giver, ride with mission giver to location, kill enemies at location” session.
Forgoing linearity for the sake of “freedom” is (to me) the main cause of this stagnation in game design. A purpose has to be given to a big world because without one, it would be too obvious that a big world was never a necessity. If the purpose is to merely give a sense of freedom and expansiveness, then the most important question in gaming has to be asked yet again: Do those things make the game fun?
Not Your First Open World Rodeo
There’s no need to look back at last year to understand this conundrum. Everyone’s got bullet points of what they didn’t like about Bioware’s looter-shooter Anthem and variations of “beautiful but ultimately unremarkable open world” is almost always one of the points. The developers hyped up the idea of having your own Iron Man suit and having the freedom to fly anywhere you want. They forgot to add that it was only for anywhere devoid of interesting content.
And it’s not just games everyone likes to crap on that has this problem. Of course, RDR2 was a good enough example of this but for the sake of showing how it isn’t uncommon, take a look at other past releases that boasted their open worlds. Final Fantasy XV, GOTY material to many, had invisible walls and pretty much on-rails driving mechanics (comfy though, according to many people).
Dragon Age Inquisition, again a popular choice for GOTY, had a single-player MMORPG design which made its huge and beautiful areas feel like chores to travel through.
What Should Be Done?
So at this point, it’s only appropriate that I provide some sort of counter-idea to open world games and fortunately for me, there’s been a bunch of very good linear or non-sandbox games which were released quite recently.
Look at the Resident Evil 2 remake. Look at its design. Look at how it ignores the idea of “bigger worlds, hundreds of hours of gameplay” and just stands there atop its pyramid stack of 10/10 scores.
Heck, the game literally challenges you to replay it and see if you can beat it under 3 hours and so far I’ve seen nobody complain about that. One of us here even thinks it’s the gold standard for video game replayability.
But it has to be said that RE2 is a horror game and almost all great horror games are linear by design to emphasise the lack of freedom and thus the player’s ability to escape whatever scares them.
To that, I bring up Devil May Cry 5.
Fast-paced hack and slash combat with deep mechanics? Hell yeah. Colourful visuals with high-resolution details and particle effects? The RE Engine got you covered. Big open world for you to express your freedom and desire to run around aimlessly? No thanks!
DMC5 sticks to its regular 20-mission structure and excels at pacing your enjoyment. There are puzzles from time to time to make you think for a bit but 90% of the time you’re just seconds away from kicking more demons ass. No 10-minute drive to your next destination. No exposition dialogue to make it feel as if the travelling is necessary. Just you having fun with a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The truth of this matter has always been spouted endlessly in cliche lines used by businessmen and writing editors: quality, not quantity.
Perhaps it’s time for developers to rethink about their efforts in creating gigantic worlds and trying to fill them with interesting and fun interactions. Maybe create interesting and fun scenarios then try filling a world with them. A world of just traversing from one fun setpiece to another.