Open World Fatigue
I’ve heard the term ‘Open World Fatigue’ mentioned a few times recently, particularly due to the imminent release of Horizon Zero Dawn. Are we now so saturated with massive playable areas that we have become a little lost as gamers? Are we beginning to feel the need to go back to more tightly scripted linear experiences? Well, for what it is worth, here are my thoughts.
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Are Open World Games a Waste of Time
I have voiced my opinions about this before in a post I published at the end of 2015 called ‘Are Open World Games a Waste of Time?‘ the answer to the question was, not if they are done well. The problem we have is Open World has become a marketing buzz word, rather than a gameplay system.
Developers have felt the need to shoehorn open world elements into their games to satisfy a suggested demand, some games have suffered as a result. I am going to look at a few games that took open environments and introduced them to games with varying results.
Uncharted 4 A Thief’s End
“But Mike!” I hear you cry “Uncharted 4 Isn’t Open World”. True, but it did bring open world elements into the game to enrich exploration. Naughty Dog called it broad linear, certain areas open up to encourage the player to explore. Alternative paths gave options on how to approach different areas; the Madagascan and tropical island areas created huge beautiful areas to loose yourself in. At the same time, they didn’t cram their open areas with unnecessary busy work. No quest markers, no twinkling icons and nothing to draw you away from the narrative. These massive areas artfully moved you through the narrative but altered the pacing of the game to allow you to appreciate it more.
This was a good mix of gameplay elements that enhanced the experience rather interrupting them. I felt like a bad-ass treasure hunter with the world at my feet. This was an excellent use of open areas to add to the narrative and to enhance gameplay. Not distracting, not stuffed in to appeal to a demographic but used instead to create an engaging environment. I am very interested to see how Naughty Dog implement this design into the Last of Us 2. Coz that’s is just going to be awesome!
Final Fantasy 15
In development hell, for nearly 10 years we were all happy when Final Fantasy XV actually turned out to be very good indeed. I must admit my heart sank when “it will be OPEN WORLD” was fist mooted, but the open world is really brilliant. You could argue that the majority of Final Fantasy Games have been open world; that’s true to an extent. Final Fantasies 7 through to 12 allowed freedom to move around the vast worlds they created, but this openness wasn’t the driving force of the games. What you had was a strong linear narrative with some minor distractions. Nothing that would tear you away from the story for too long. Although I did sink about 40 hours into breeding a gold Chocobo to get the Knights of the Round materia. The narrative was king and the world was a huge sideline.
Final Fantasy 15 gives you a big, not huge, open world to explore with so much to do. It never felt like busy work, hunts were fun and got you great items, XP and AP boosts. Side quests were actually interesting and hunting down all the Arms and upgrading weapons was never a chore. But, towards the end, I was drawn out of my lovely open world into a highly linear experience to complete the story. Although this was necessary to complete the narrative, to suddenly have no option to explore was a little jarring. Perhaps Naughty Dog’s wide linear approach in the dying stages would have been less intrusive?
Still, Final Fantasy XV is a great game and despite finishing the story I am still buzzing around the world having fun. Actually, it is likely to be the very first game I Platinum!! A great open world let down in this case but poor linear gameplay.
The Rise of the Tomb Raider
The Tomb Raider reboot was an excellent game with interesting open levels and manageable collectables. As someone who played the original on PlayStation 1, I was happy to see Lara return to form so emphatically. As a PS4 owner, I had to wait a year to get my mitts on Rise of the Tomb Raider. I did enjoy the game, but this was my first real experience of Open World Fatigue.
The problem with Rise of the Tomb Raider is that it’s a linear game trying to be open world. Rather than going to Naughty Dog’s wide linear approach they went with the UbiSoft approach. What is the Ubisoft approach? get a map and cram it with icons to pad out the game! Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs and The Division all suffered from this; a map crammed full of little icons to give an impression of content rather than a cohesive game.
Rise of the Tomb Raider filled its levels with so many collectables that it actually became overwhelming. I did get all the collectables in Tomb Raider, there were a manageable number and a benefit to collecting them. The sequel, however, padded maps out with unengaging rubbish that were a distraction rather than a compelling addition. I don’t mind being distracted by things in games, provided the distraction adds value to my experience.
It’s a shame because I did disengage from the game as a result, the story was a bit rubbish and Lara was annoying, which didn’t help. But the game itself looked lovely and the mechanics were really solid, traversal, stealth and combat were excellent and level design was exceptional. They should have left it at that and I would have enjoyed the game more. Give me desirable, actionable content, not time filling, irrelevant fluff!
Skyrim – Special Edition
The big daddy of open world games is a timeless classic. I played the original on PS3 and have the special edition for PS4. The absolute pinnacle of open-ended gameplay. You can create pretty much any character you like, go anywhere you like and do anything you like all in a vast world filled with intrigue and wonder. When I first played Skyrim I hardly touched the main story and didn’t complete any of the faction quests. I had a max level character who had explored far and wide, slain dragons, demons and bandits by the hundred and was satisfied with doing just that.
Skyrim’s linear stories are not the focus, they are the distraction. The whole point is to sink yourself into the open world and discover the game for yourself; everyone will have a different experience and different stories to tell. Every tantalising icon on your HUD, every overheard conversation, every corner you turn, promises and delivers superb content.
It never bothered me that I didn’t finish it because the 50/60 hours I spent with it gave me all I wanted from the game. A pure Open World done right and not a whiff of Open World Fatigue. The fact is that going back to it on PS4 is a fresh and wondrous experience and I’ve fallen in love with it again (I still haven’t finished the story!!)
I think the thing to take away from this is what we really want is gameplay that adds to our experience rather than taking it away. Open worlds have become a trend rather than a gameplay mechanic, it has worked with some but not with others. Open World Fatigue is a good thing as it will drive developers to revisit what open environments mean to them and their players. If linear serves the game best, be linear; if open world is best, be open world.
From what reviewers and internet sources have said so far this is a balance that Horizon Zero Dawn draws very well. Apparently, a strong story is complemented by an immersive open world creating a benchmark game. I guess I’ll find out on 1st March when I get my mitts on a copy. Until then I’ll be riding my Chocobo into a rich sunset of open world glory.