Post Script

Call­ing time on the era of the open-world to-do list


At first, Just Cause 3’ s lack of a min­imap feels like an over­sight. Yes, there are mo­ments when it ran­kles – the en­forced trips to the map screen to seek out the fi­nal few ob­jects you need to de­stroy be­fore claim­ing a mil­i­tary base, for in­stance. But over time you re­alise that this is a con­scious de­ci­sion, and an en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate one for a game that puts the player at the heart of so much of what it does. That it does so, in part, by strip­ping away one of the open-world genre’s stan­dard pieces of screen fur­ni­ture shows how few games of its kind ex­tend play­ers the same cour­tesy. In turn it makes you re­alise that the min­imap was not in­vented to meet the needs of the player, but the cre­ator.

Try it. Load up a save file in any As­sas­sin’s Creed, pick an ob­jec­tive, and see how long it takes for some­thing else to ap­pear on the min­imap and dis­tract you. It is en­tirely pos­si­ble to spend an en­tire ses­sion in Ubisoft’s Rome, Paris or Lon­don with­out achiev­ing a sin­gle thing of sub­stance; you’ll have picked up some feath­ers, sure, maybe opened some chests, or chased a few scraps of pa­per across some rooftops. Each will have nudged you closer to a goal you didn’t know ex­isted, and a re­ward which may not in­ter­est you. But all of them are marked on your min­imap, given the same promi­nence as the way­point you set ear­lier. As­sas­sin’s Creed dic­tates that some­thing some­one on the dev team has made is of equal im­por­tance to the thing you, the player, have cho­sen to do. Such dis­trac­tions are made in such vol­ume that it is as if the de­vel­oper is ter­ri­fied of you not hav­ing any­thing to do. So it gives you more than you could ever need, plas­ters it every­where, and makes sure it can’t be missed.

De­spite our as­so­ci­at­ing open-world games with free­dom and agency, they are of­ten more au­thored than they ap­pear. Ubisoft does not sic a staffer on a four­month project to build an in-game Arc De Tri­om­phe be­cause a player might get a kick out of see­ing it there, per­haps even climb­ing it. It does so be­cause set­ting a mis­sion or two in, around and on top of a world-fa­mous land­mark is a bul­let point on the in­tro page of As­sas­sin’s Creed’s de­sign doc­u­ment. Look, we made Big Ben. You’re go­ing to jolly well climb it.

It wouldn’t be fair to sin­gle out Ubisoft, of course, though so much of the pub­lisher’s out­put is set in an open world that it is surely the most fre­quent of­fender, if not the worst. Avalanche’s New York stu­dio made Just Cause 3, but its Stockholm par­ent made a col­lec­tathon of its own ear­lier this year with Mad Max. And the New York team’s game has its share of col­lectibles too. Weapon parts are buried in far-off cor­ners, a full set giv­ing you pow­er­ful new guns. Light all Medici’s lit­tle road­side shrines to fallen rebels, and you un­lock fast travel, for free, to any­where on the map. There are Gen­eral Di Ravello’s au­dio diaries. There are even hid­den an­cient tombs. Ac­cord­ing to the stats screen, any­way. Forty hours in, we’ve found a few weapon parts, lit a few shrines, played back a few crackly old tapes. But tombs? We are yet to find a sin­gle one.

That’s pre­cisely as it should be, surely: we should have to ac­tu­ally find this stuff. They should be called dis­cov­er­ables, not col­lectibles; a re­ward for ex­plo­ration, not just for mov­ing from dot to dot on a map that is over­flow­ing with icons. Avalanche even treats Medici’s towns, out­posts and mil­i­tary bases in this way: you have to find them be­fore they’re marked on your map. With six of seven set­tle­ments in a given prov­ince set free, you con­sult your map for po­ten­tial signs of the fi­nal one. Is it that clus­ter of build­ings by a road­side? Per­haps that clear­ing half­way up a moun­tain? Or the small is­land a few miles off in the dis­tance? There’s only one way to be sure. Use your grap­ple hook, parachute and wing­suit to get up in the air, then go and find out for your­self. Per­haps, then, it is Just Cause 3’ s unique ap­proach to tra­ver­sal that en­ables its de­vel­oper to take away the reins. Comb­ing ev­ery inch of a Rock­star or Ubisoft world would be painstak­ing in the ex­treme – driv­ing cars up ev­ery hill­side, set­ting foot on ev­ery rooftop. You can quickly ex­plore Medici by he­li­copter or aero­plane, your map fill­ing in as you soar on high in the sky. But Ro­driguez’s abil­i­ties work so well in con­cert with one an­other, and are so sat­is­fy­ing to use, that a speed­ier al­ter­na­tive feels a lit­tle like us­ing a cheat code.

And along the way you make up your own things to do – just as you should in a game that fan­cies it­self a sand­box. Those road­side build­ings were, in fact, a petrol sta­tion; can you send the whole lot up in flames with a sin­gle bul­let? It turns out there was noth­ing up that moun­tain, but can you wing­suit down through the for­est on the other side? It must be the far-off is­land, then – can you cross four kilo­me­tres of sea us­ing only your abil­i­ties, grap­pling to the odd pass­ing ve­hi­cle for a handy boost of mo­men­tum?

Through­out, you’ll have a gen­tle de­signer’s hand pulling you along. A glimpse of some­thing red and sil­ver in the dis­tance, per­haps, in need of blow­ing up. The re­al­time leader­boards telling you a pal has beaten your freefall record when you’re hang­ing up­side down from a he­li­copter, half a mile up in the sky.

Avalanche doesn’t com­pletely get out of the way, then, but it does at least know to keep its dis­tance. Games with more pro­saic move­ment sys­tems may not be able to copy the stu­dio’s play­book to the let­ter, but Just Cause 3 is a con­vinc­ing case study that less can definitely be more. Games are get­ting big­ger all the time; do we really need them to be busier as well?

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