Open World Problems

A simple, oft repeated arrow remark goes down in gaming history... and spawns a thousand spin-offs

As a teenager, I fell in love with role-playing games. To this day, I can remember strolling off the boat in Morrowind, spending a good hour customising my character to look just like I wanted and walking out into the tiny, swamp-surrounded village of SeydaNeen. My mind boggled as I wondered at the possibilities; no walls forced me onwards; there was no set path; I was free to do as I willed. But with such freedom comes great peril…

This is because the entire concept of freedom suffers from limitations, and this is where my problem with the RPG genre lies. It may be a tragic mark of increased maturity, but these days I find myself far fussier about the games that I play, and the worlds that I choose to immerse myself in. Part of the problem stems from what I believe is one of the central aims of any good RPG: to immerse the player in an exciting and different world. It’s when this immersion falters, that the experience is ruined and the limits of the RPG are painfully felt.

I’ll give you a recent example: there I was, a level 21 DokkalfarDuelist, happily strolling through the Faelands, killing bogarts and suchlike. Heading into a nearby village to sell my loot, I suddenly stopped moving forwards. Looking downwards, I discovered the obstacle that had so abruptly impeded my progress: it’s a two-inch-high slab of rock, lying across the path. In that moment, the entire world of Kingdoms of Amalur fell apart in my mind; I realised that I was simply playing a game, and that my experience in it was horribly limited. The fact that my all-powerful, fate-changing rogue – who had previously leapt from mountain tops and slain enormous trolls – was utterly incapable of stepping over a two inch high rock, perfectly embodied the destruction of my immersion.

Other examples are common; how many times in Dragon Age has a beautiful view presented itself, only for an ankle high obstacle to block the way (although with cut-and-paste dungeons, this should be the least of your issues)?  Swim far enough North in Skyrim and you will hit the invisible wall and be told to turn back. Certainly, these are subtle intrusions and demonstrate the limitations of technology and time as much as they reveal the boundaries of creativity, but they still ruin, albeit for only a moment, the illusion that the world you inhabit is real and unique. While not game-breaking, such experiences do dull the joy a little.

But it’s not just the low, yet unpassable walls and invisible barriers that do this; it’s the way that the worlds work (or don’t) around the player. Voice-acting is one thing that can make or break a game. We all know about that guard who took an arrow to the knee. While it’s hilarious to think that pretty much every guard in Skyrim has shoddy knees, the repetition of such catchphrases yet again undermines the illusion that the world is a living, breathing place, where every person you encounter is different, and possessed of their own traits and back-story. Of course, it is somewhat unreasonable to demand that developers records thousands of unique lines, all for minor characters such as town guards and beige-faced ensigns, but  a little more variety (along with some foresight about the consequences of arrow-to-the-knee-esque lines), could make a huge difference in terms of immersion.

Don't bother fighting, just hide behind that two inch high, impassable rock and moon it

I want to feel as if the world is reacting to what I do, and in more than just a superficial way. While the immediate consequence of killing or helping defenseless merchant/maiden/random NPC is the nature of the reward (often monetary or in the form of items, which rapidly become redundant), it would be so much more satisfying if there were far-reaching consequences too – what if shops in a nearby town offered less stock, or had to close altogether due to a lack of supply, all because you killed the merchant, their main supplier? What if the maiden’s family came to your aid in a later quest, saving you from a potentially impossible situation, and all because you chose to take her home rather than sacrifice her to an evil demon? Touches such as these would add an additional layer to the immersion, rather than making every action seem dislocated from the next; a series of unrelated decisions that require little thought for anything beyond immediate incentive.

Who wouldn't want to be fully immersed in worlds as rich as this one?

Of course, these are all minor gripes, and all of the games that I have mentioned are both excellent and enjoyable. The main point that I want to put forward is that these things – the invisible walls, the repetitive dialogue, etc. – make the difference between an experience that is good, and an experience that is immersive, and great because of it. Hopefully, with videogames boasting bigger budgets, supported by better technology, the levels of immersion will continue to deepen.




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8 Comments

  1. Keegan says:

    I think that, as much as there are still a lot of issues with RPG’s, they have made huge strides and it’s only a matter of time until we get games that have consequences like those that you described.

    On a side note, how cool would that be! I’d love to see a game that has actual consequences for your actions, rather than a smile or a frowny face.

    Loved the article :D

  2. Rich says:

    I hate open world games because they excuse bad (or just no) level design. When done well you get Bully or Saints Row 3 but when done badly you get everything else. Far Cry 2 for example.

    Skyrim needs to be Kingdoms of Amalur. Otherwise I’m never going back.

  3. Ian says:

    Skyrim’s eminently maxable Richie. You owe it to your heritage as a true scorewhore to rinse that mofo if you’re able.
    The guild questlines are straightforward enough (even the dulll mages) and the civil war questline is over quickly too.

  4. Leon says:

    In the past, when I was younger and more naive, I always loved the idea of sandbox games – the idea that you could go and do whatever you wanted within the game’s universe. The idea that I could *live* a game rather than simply play it, in a way. I think Zelda: Ocarina of Time was probably the game that immersed me the most – in terms of it’s fleshed out world, and of course my age at the time of playing it. There were so many secrets and little things to find, and every character seemed to have their own personality. Hyrule wasn’t actually huge in terms of design, but it felt massive.

    While developers have managed to create huge, expansive worlds, it’s never truly given me that feeling that I always hoped for. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that the more open a world is, the less detail goes into each individual area. Sure, things can look realistic as such, but in terms of actual content, it often feels more like an illusion of scale. Sure, I could wander off ten random towns in Skyrim, and listen to the one-line responses of NPC’s that will have no relevance to the plot whatsoever, but I’d rather only visit a couple of towns that are fleshed out and brimming with character.

    I got bored of Skyrim so quickly, since I felt absolutely no attachment to the world or it’s characters. Sure, I could save some girl’s brother who’d been kidnapped, but why? She wasn’t someone I knew, nor did her pleas truly make me feel as though ignoring her would actually threaten her future in some way. She would simply sit there, and ask me the same question if I came back in a week’s time (in which she wouldn’t ask anyone else to help, either). It just felt more like connecting the dots to get some money or experience in order to make myself stronger – as much as I love levelling up, immersion is more important to me.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed many open world games – Red Dead Redemption and Yakuza are probably the ones that immersed me the most, but even they had their flaws. I think it’s just that no matter how open a world is, it just makes us push the boundaries even more. GTAIV was a good example of this – the game is supposed to make you feel as though you are in a real, breathing city. But this illusion only stands if you want to do what the game wants you to do – complete the tasks you are given, and interact with the people you are supposed to.

    By the end of the game, I had a crapload of money – but I couldn’t spend it on anything fun, since the game doesn’t allow you to purchase anything more than guns and a few other things. I’m supposed to be in a city, yet even though I’m rich I can’t really do anything. No wonder Niko breaks the law so often, about the only fun things the game allows him to do involve theft and assault! It’s not that the game was bad, but it’s just once you realise you have to act in a certain way and can’t break from the mould, the illusion of freedom is gone and I’m alone once again in a virtual enviroment full of polygons.

    Obviously the same can be said of all games – but I think games with immersive stories capture my imagination more than free, open worlds. Games such as Heavy Rain and Metal Gear are far less open than titles like Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed – but because I am so involved with the current situation, my mind doesn’t worry about what else I could be doing. Metal Gear Solid 3 feels like a massive world to me – it’s only because I’m constantly having to worry about survival and saving the world that I don’t get bored enough to break from the illusion and try and “escape” the boundaries that surroud me. I think that is the real key to immersion – capturing the player in a way that they don’t feel the need to push away from the path that the designers have given you.

  5. Leon says:

    Sorry about the article-long replies, btw. These posts just get me thinking ;)

  6. Mark says:

    @Leon
    Dude, why don’t you start your own blog.

  7. Lorna says:

    It may seem like a stupid thing to gripe about, but what kills immersiveness for me can be something as simple as not having a jump button. Yep, the fact that I may not be able to jump even an inch over a nugget of annoying scenery is stupid and instantly annoys me. As for getting hung up on scenery, I find that a massive irritation too.

    For me, the story is everything, and I can often forgive a few things if the narrative pulls me in and keeps me there – one of the reasons I love adventures. However, with the aforementioned genre, the puzzles and story have to be well balanced, otherwise it can be an issue. Having the story grind to a halt while you cock about with a sliding tile puzzle or an obtuse, broken, or unskippable puzzle is a momentum killer and breaks the immersion in even the best of stories.

  8. Edward says:

    I completely agree with Lorna, but I’ll add that Open World games (or ones like Mass Effect 2 where you can do most the missions in whatever order you want) tend to be the most difficult in getting the stories right because you always have to have the delicate balancing act of urgency in your actions without forcing the player to stay on the path etc. The passage of time in those games can be abysmal, and a lot of actions end up being immersion breaking because elements of urgency can be undermined by you fucking off to go pick some flowers or blow up cougars with dynamite or mine planets for ten hours. Much as I loved GTA4 (and I loved it a lot), I still laugh knowing how Niko basically shat himself and had a mental breakdown over shooting someone he probably shouldn’t have done when I’d probably killed at least 30 people by that point. Mass Effect 2 is so amazingly better than Mass Effect 1 it’s amazing, but when you take away the stunning writing for characterisation and so on, it’s hard to deny that outside that you’re doing random missions in whatever order and nothing really happens if you decide to mine resources instead of helping Miranda get over her daddy issues.
    To me, that is what kills immersion most in open world games, the fact that your actions can contradict or undermine the story they’ve set out, and that when it comes down to it, everything and everyone basically waits for you on your own terms. I mean, if they didn’t it’d be a frustrating affair, but you rarely feel like it’s a living breathing world, but more an interactive Truman show where nothing will happen until you make it so.

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