EVEN IN A BIG OPEN WORLD, I WANT THE SENSE OF SOMEBODY BEING THERE, ORCHESTRATING MY ACTIONS TOWARDS A CONCLUSION.
Absolute freedom is not absolute fun
Whenever I sit down in front of Netflix or Amazon Prime I find myself adrift. The amount of choice there is paralysing. It’s as if the station bosses have become so fed up trying to hold my attention they’ve sarcastically handed over all control. As I sit there, scrolling past one award-winning film after another, I wish someone would come back and tell me what to watch.
I feel the same about open-world games. There is so much to do – so many gadgets, side-missions and customisation options – that I feel, rather than enthused or like I’m having fun, just lost. It might not seem it, but absolute freedom in videogames is a curse. After you’ve detonated, effortlessly, your 15th petrol station in Just Cause 3, how can you not feel a bit listless? When faced with the enormous world map of Fallout 4, and all its blinking, demanding icons, who wouldn’t be overwhelmed?
Story missions are supposed to guide us through all this “content.” By explaining and letting us try out new mechanics and modes, they act as a sort of curator, putting all the open world’s disparate elements into context. But in games like Ghost Recon Wildlands and Nier: Automata, where you can either complete the main missions in any order you want or your objective is vague, sometimes outright hidden, it seems as though we players are being increasingly left to construe open worlds for ourselves, and that to me is acutely distressing. Any spectacle, repeated whenever I want and without at least some narrative basis, becomes boring, and it doesn’t matter if it’s bloody murder, explosions, or a gun that fires dubstep. And although they claim otherwise, by giving me dozens of options, avenues and possibilities, these games don’t actually care what I’m doing. When they insist “play however you want,” it’s as if the author, or game’s creator, or whoever, is walking away and abandoning me, and doesn’t have any interest in whether or not I’m entertained. Even in a big open world, I want the sense of somebody being there, orchestrating my actions towards a conclusion.
WE WANT MORE
Mafia 3 is excellent at leading the player. It’s a huge, dynamic sandbox, wherein you kill, and kill, and kill, but the cutscenes, dialogue, and even your character’s facial expressions remind you why you’re doing it – you never lose sight of the overarching revenge mission nor the big, bad antagonist waiting at the end. The same goes for Dark Souls. You can go on side-quests and customise yourself for hours, but there’s always a sense of progress and drawing inexorably to a climax. It’s the difference between kicking a ball around and playing a game of five-aside: absolute freedom can be fun, but playing is much more enjoyable when it’s combined with some mechanical boundaries and narrative borders.
I don’t think we, as videogame players in 2017, are only or even best fulfilled by sheer escapism. I think we like stories. We’ve matured enough that we can still feel like we’re getting our money’s worth out of games, even if they aren’t always giving us exactly our own way. And I believe open worlds, done well, can meet these contemporary tastes; I think faced today by a more discerning audience, telling us to do whatever we want is probably just a cop out.