When we talk about video games, we have a tendency to classify them by the nature of their mechanics (first-person, strategy) as often as by narrative or thematic content, the way other works of art are usually described. Sometimes the two are used together to describe a game – Halo is a “sci-fi shooter.” It’s an important distinction, since video games are made up of more than narrative content. A game’s mechanics define it just as much as, if not more than, what it’s about. They’re the way we interact with and affect a game world, and without them, we’d just be watching a movie.
One such descriptor, popularized by Grand Theft Auto, is the “open world” game, a genre that allows players a larger degree of freedom than more traditional linear titles. That freedom applies to where players go, what they do, how they behave in that game world, and even what parts of the game they complete first. Often in open world games, exploration can be its own reward, or can lead to more obvious perks like side missions or new items. They’re almost always set in cities, the natural urban playgrounds for superheroes, gangsters and reckless drivers.
Grand Theft Auto IV nearly perfected the open world game in its current form; the environment is large enough to feel realistic, while it’s not so big that players feel lost or have too long to travel at a given time. Yet Liberty CIty is also packed with a huge amount of detail and polish. It’s a believable setting for players’ escapades. Likewise, series like Fallout, Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed have practically perfected other types of environments: nuclear wasteland, war-torn Africa and historic Italy, respectively.
But there’s got to be something more for the open world game, something left for developers to explore so that players’ explorations can in turn be even more rewarding. Where can the open world genre go from here?
The most obvious answer is to make the game worlds bigger and bigger, but I say that would be a mistake. I used to dream of a game in which you could traverse the entire world in any manner you chose, doing literally anything, with no limits or borders. Basically, a real-life simulator, like a more structured Second Life (and probably with less bondage dungeons). But the jump from GTA: San Andreas to GTA IV’s much smaller but more detailed world proved that bigger isn’t always better.
Instead, I think the key is in exactly how players interact with the environment itself. In a linear game, the environment exists as a backdrop for the narrative and action, pushing players along to the next checkpoint or cut scene until the game is done. In an open world game, though, the city/fantasy realm/capital wasteland is the gameplay; GTA’s car chases and Prototype’s building-demolishing battles with the armed forces wouldn’t be possible if those cities and their inhabitants didn’t behave exactly as they do. An open world title is more than a series of corridors to be cleared of enemies and surpassed. At its best, it’s a living world that reacts to players’ actions.
Too often in open world games the space between missions is just that – empty space. Developers have yet to find a solution to this problem, especially when a mission starts out with a long drive or dialogue sequence. Red Dead Redemption’s repetitive conversations, hashed out over and over again at the beginning of almost every mission, are no solution to the problem.
The obvious solution is to simply make it easier to get around, and to place mission objectives closer together, so that entire cities don’t have to be traversed every time you start or replay a mission. The more difficult solution – and the one that will help open world games evolve – is to make the game world as much a part of the narrative as it is part of the mechanics.
Every shot of a great movie is calculated down to the smallest detail to have the maximum desired effect on the audience. Not so in a video game, especially one set in a wide-open, relatively nondescript environment. This is partly due to the interactive nature of games; when players have so much control over where they go and what they do, it’s difficult for the designers to pick and choose specific elements to highlight what they’re trying to say. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Another problem is the randomness intrinsic to an environment that’s constantly recycling itself. The endless parade of faceless pedestrians and vehicles detracts from the personality that should be inherent in a city or other habitable environment – even a wasteland or a jungle. Think The Watchmen – graphic novel artists have plenty of freedom to explore minor characters and other narrative elements, but there’s no reason game designers shouldn’t take the same liberties. The newspaperman and the kid reading the Tales of The Black Freighter comic go miles toward fleshing out the city, and little details like that are what’s missing from open world games. A recreation of New York City or the Wild West can be as visually faithful as it likes, but without those little narrative elements, it’ll never reach its full potential.
There are plenty of unique environments, art styles and gameplay mechanics that have yet to be explored in the open world style, but it’s improved storytelling – and more deliberate use of the environment as a storytelling element – that will ultimately take open world games to the next level. Just Cause 2’s grappling hook hijinks were a hell of a lot of fun, but the jungle was just as unsophisticated as that of any other open world game. Considering the environment is the one thing these games really have over those in other genres, it’s time developers started thinking up new ways for players to experience them.
Of course, they could always just give us more shit to blow up. Either way.