The Compulsive Indulgence of Open-World Games
The allure of an open-world game lies in the concept of promise and reward. Players are drawn to areas of a vast explorable world by landmarks they see in the distance or by an odd formation they have marked on their map, hoping to find a secret treasure, exciting battle, or hidden quest that — though they are seldom the only player to discover these joys — they feel belongs only to them on their personal adventure.
Effective open-world games — like 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and 2018’s Red Dead Redemption II — have a memorable story that goes hand-in-hand with the player’s exploration. While many open-world games do not have a scripted story — such as the infinite sandbox adventure Minecraft (2011) and the enormous space exploration simulator No Man’s Sky (2016) — these are distinctly different to RPGs (role-playing games), where the player takes on the story and character of someone like The Witcher’s Geralt of Rivia, and Red Dead’s Arthur Morgan. In Minecraft and No Man’s Sky, the purpose of the gameplay is entirely up to the player. But in games with a scripted story, the player must almost always return to the main quest after diverging from the beaten trail.
The Lasting Legacy of Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been a massively transformative force in the open-world gaming landscape. Its release in 2011 sparked a significant shift in the scale, immersion, and player freedom present in open-world games. Its diverse environment brimming with rich lore and detailed side-quests established a new standard for world-building. Its impact can be felt in the rise of large-scale, open-world RPGs such as The Witcher 3, Horizon Zero Dawn, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Skyrim’s adoption of a non-linear narrative structure inspired games to provide players with more agency, allowing them to shape their own stories and make meaningful choices. The thriving gaming community around Skyrim has demonstrated the longevity and adaptability of open-world games, leading to the continued support and enhancement of open-world titles well beyond their initial releases in the form of official additional downloadable content and community-generated ‘mods’.
‘The Witcher’ and ‘Horizon’: The Distractions of Geralt and Aloy
Skyrim’s influence has also extended the average gameplay length for triple-A game titles. A player can complete the main story of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt within 50 hours but spend over an additional 100 hours exploring the world, completing side quests, going on treasure hunts, and fulfilling contracts. The rich allure of Andrzej Sapkowski’s dark fantasy world realised in game form has side-tracked many players for hours or even days and weeks at a time, leaving the urgency of the main story far behind. Returning to the main quest after such an extensive hiatus can lead the player to question Geralt’s determination to find his adopted daughter, Ciri, as he has spent the last twenty in-world days hunting for the perfect armour, the shiniest sword, the juiciest monster organs, and the most elusive missing frying pans (all while struggling with a crippling gambling addiction, as he engages every possible NPC in a round of Gwent in his attempt to collect every in-world Pokemon card, the most powerful of which, is, of course, himself). Similarly, in 2022’s Horizon Forbidden West, one wonders if Aloy hasn’t forgotten that the second apocalypse seems just around the corner, as she hunts relentlessly for crabs, squirrels, and birds, all to craft a bigger satchel, so she can hold more arrows, which take all of one second to craft in the heat of battle.
But gamers have been suspending their disbelief like this for over a decade, and many open-world enthusiasts are okay with that. It would be impractical and contentious to generate a game mechanic that punishes players for exploring game environments. At the core of the open-world game experience is the player’s choice of how to devote their time. They may choose to pursue the main story and leave the exploration for later or sprinkle the exploration evenly. For the most part, exploration is rewarded, whether with upgrade materials, entertaining side quests, or hidden lore. However, completing upgrade quests, treasure hunts, and knocking out ‘unknown’ marks on a map can sometimes feel much more like ticking items off a checklist than freely exploring a game world. This is known as ‘checklist syndrome’, which has become increasingly common in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series.
The ‘Assassin’s Creed Problem’
Ubisoft’s game design has been criticised by fans and critics alike for being repetitive and shallow. Although their open worlds are often stunning and large, they’re full of unrewarding content, loot, and side content and have been said to prioritise quantity over quality. Intriguing treasure hunts and raids populate the maps, but a player will often travel long distances and fight many enemies only to be rewarded with loot chests that contain useless, generic gear that provides no significant benefits or noteworthy lore. These symptoms of checklist syndrome can not only lead to a player becoming dispirited and quitting a game, but it may mean that they miss out on later content and storylines they were looking forward to.
So, how do developers avoid checklist syndrome? Why are the worlds of Skyrim, The Witcher and Red Dead Redemption lauded, while those of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Odyssey are criticised? It all comes back to promise and reward. Without enough rewards, gamers become dispirited; they start to feel as if their efforts are not worthwhile. And if all they receive is repetitive and meaningless loot with arbitrary numbers, stats, and designs, there is no reward beyond the grim satisfaction of completionism.
Traditional and Modern Linear Game Design
On the other side of the fence to open-world games, we have linear, story-focused games. Linearity in video games, once a staple in the industry, gradually lost favour as open-world games rose to prominence. Linear games have inherent limitations; they constrain players to predetermined events, offering little room for exploration and making players acutely aware of the boundaries imposed upon them. On the other hand, open-world games empower players to carve their own unique paths, increasing their investment in the game. As gaming technology advanced, developers seized opportunities to create expansive, highly detailed worlds, offering players endless possibilities for exploration. This freedom of choice, often touted in marketing campaigns, appealed to gamers who craved personalised playstyles. Open-world games also allow developers to monetise additional in-game items, expansions, and downloadable content (DLC) to extend the game’s lifespan and profitability.
Naughty Dog’s Linear Game Design
Game developer Naughty Dog found massive success in linear franchises Uncharted and The Last of Us, beginning in 2007 and 2013, respectively. These games hold plenty of world-building and history implicated by dialogue, set-pieces, art design, collectibles, and the cutscenes, which transition seamlessly between gameplay and often feel like a well-directed movie. While players can go off the trail and explore playable areas, and there are several open levels like Downtown Seattle in The Last of Us Part II and the Madagascar mountains in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (notably more recent entries; older games lacked significant explorable areas),players cannot ‘deselect’ a main quest, and cannot go beyond the limits of those areas or return to previously explored regions. The story’s priority streamlines the narrative and ensures the player is never disengaged. This makes the game’s length shorter but increases the replay value of the story.
Meanwhile, it will take a player much longer to replay Red Dead Redemption II, but a single playthrough can last as long as several playthroughs of any of the Uncharted games. With less content but consistently high-quality storytelling, there’s no pressure on the player to explore and collect items. They can feel their every action contribute to the story rather than filling out a shopping list of armour and weapons.
The Punishing Difficulty of the Dark Souls Games
On yet another side of a many-sided fence, we have the From Software formula, seen in the infamous Dark Souls series. These challenging RPGs feature interconnected worlds, profound lore, punishing difficulty, and tactical combat. Players traverse grim, atmospheric environments, engaging in tense battles against formidable enemies and bosses. The games emphasise exploration, character customisation, and choice of playstyle. The Dark Souls series is not strictly open-world but offers interconnected, semi-open-world environments. Players can explore connected regions through a seamless, intricate level design. While there’s a general progression path, players can often choose how they tackle areas and enemies, fostering a sense of freedom and exploration.
Elden Ring: More or Less an Open-World Dark Souls
As announced at The Game Awards, 2022’s Game of the Year is From Software’s massive venture Elden Ring (directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, developed by From Software and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment), the latest action-adventure role-playing game to follow and expand upon the formula they created and developed through the popular Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Sekiro titles. Elden Ring generated more discussion and excitement than any title that From Software or Hidetaka Miyazaki has produced. This hype was directive to the game’s massive sales, influence, and the eventual storm of accolades. Integral to the anticipation of the game was the involvement of A Song of Ice and Fire author George R. R. Martin, who provided world-building and lore. This was especially important to the release because Elden Ring, unlike any From Software game, was marketed fully as an open-world game and was described as the biggest and best title the company had released. On developing their first open-world game, Miyazaki said:
It was a challenging process because it was, of course, our first experience creating a world of this size, on this scale. So we don’t know if our approach was the right one, but we generally approached it with the same strategy we’ve used with all of our games up until now, in the physical sense of how we lay it out, and how we break it down as a game world.Hidetaka Miyazaki, interview By Jason Killingsworth at GamesRadar.
The promise of venturing out into a great, high-fantasy world with nothing limiting your exploration and the excitement of stumbling across difficult, frightening new enemies proved to be Elden Ring’s selling point, because sell it did; within two weeks of release, the game had sold 12 million copies, making it one of the best-selling games of all time on the US charts. While there is still the decades-long argument of whether heavily combat-based games like these should have an ‘easy mode’, Elden Ring was mainly praised for its quality of life improvements that reduce gamers’ frustration during difficult portions.
Like previous From Software games, Elden Ring’s story and lore are not laid out clearly in cutscenes and quests, but rather, it is in the world, the items, and the boss encounters. Some might say it steps back from the evolution present in 2019’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which had the most accessible storyline of any Soulsborne game. Like Sekiro and Bloodborne, however, it has multiple endings, each of which can be accessed in obscure ways, by the player having completed a missable NPC quest, engaging in repeated dialogue options, or having obtained an item from an optional boss. In this way, the game rewards the work of the wandering (or wiki-searching) player but alienates those who want the story laid out for them and want the combat to be the ‘in-between’ of narrative beats.
Like recent Assassin’s Creed titles, there is an argument to be made of ‘more is less’ with Elden Ring. There is no denying the game has introduced many new players to the sub-genre of action RPGs commonly dubbed as ‘Souls-like’ (in reference to the original Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls titles) and is the most accessible of the From Software games, mainly due to its open-world design that allows players to back out from brutal fights, explore the world, level up, and return to boss battles stronger, more skilled, and with more powerful weapons and spells at their disposal. But with well over 200 total boss battles in the game, the excitement and adrenaline of entering a new fight can be lost. The introduction of the ‘Field Boss’ (boss battles found through exploring the world; there are often duplicates of these that the player can defeat multiple times) is exciting, but the sheer number of them and repeat encounters take away some of the surprises that players of ‘Souls-like’ games have come to expect.
The Horror of Bloodborne’s More Intimate World Design
In From Software’s Lovecraftian horror game Bloodborne (2015), there is a moment where strong enemies called’ snatchers’ start appearing once the player progresses past a particular boss. At first, they seem like regular enemies. But if the player dies to them, they are transported to a dark, haunting location. One of the paths out of this prison — easily stumbled upon by running in a blind panic from more of those terrifying ‘snatchers’ — leads to what looks like an escape route. However, as the player drops down from the ledge, unsure, their eye is caught by the suspicious mound in the middle of the clearing. A pile of bones? They look away, scanning for an exit. Suddenly, the mound starts sparking, standing, roaring, and they hear an ominous, intense score kick in — it is a terrifying boss that they are vastly underprepared for. And they are plunged into the fight, fingers slick with sweat, eyes wide and fixed on this powerful enemy, entirely out of their comfort zone but loving it. They will do their best to defeat this boss and escape with their hard-earned spoils, lest they die and their ‘blood echoes’ be lost. Because moments like these are so rare and well-paced in Bloodborne (and there is less content overall), they stand out and have a greater impact. Not to mention, the twisting architecture of the gothic city of Yharnam and its surrounding areas rewards the player’s exploration of the interconnecting regions with valuable items, horrifying sights, and challenging encounters.
The Problem with Elden Ring
Elden Ring, however, is a gargantuan accomplishment that is a little too enormous for its own good. Its faults, while few, mainly lie in the smaller things: items. Discoverable items are indicated by a glowing white or blue light, often observable from a great distance. As the player enters Leyndell, the Royal Capital, and looks out over the vast golden city where an enormous dead dragon rests, they can see many of these lights and make plans to reach them. Through well-planned movements (and many deaths), they reach the item and interact with it, only to discover it is a regular, common item they could have picked up anywhere, that they have numerous copies of, that it was not worth their time. What was promised by what seemed to be a difficult or hidden path, where surely, there must be something worth their while, was not rewarded appropriately. And it is this outcome that leads the player to become dispirited with exploring. Sadly, this means they may miss out on future delights because they decided that exploring such a vast world was not worth it.
Even the ‘legacy dungeons’ (contained sections of the world such as Volcano Manor, Stormveil Castle and The Royal Academy of Raya Lucaria) can be wildly confusing and offer too many alternate paths that don’t reward the player with enough Elden Bling. Because the game is so long, with so many areas, we can hardly expect to find a legendary armament around every corner. As Miyazaki said, the game was developed in the same style as previous games, but it is much bigger, so the rewards are more spread out. At least, we can always rely on the major boss battles (with the Elden Lords) to deliver sufficient adrenaline-fuelled spectacle.
These faults have not deterred Elden Ring’s monumental success; at the end of 2022 (a big year for gaming), it won ‘Game of the Year’ at the Golden Joystick Awards, received seven key nominations at The Game Awards and won 4 (including Game of the Year, Best Art Direction, Best Role Playing and Best Game Direction). At the end of the day, Elden Ring has achieved what previously seemed very unlikely: it translated the linear and often-times frustrating Dark Souls formula into an open-world exploration RPG with familiar but more accommodating combat, opening up this once-niche area of video games to a broader world of consumers, and near-universal critical acclaim. If only the next From Software game could perfect the translation and offer more suitable rewards for players’ exploration, then they will have created a true gaming masterpiece.
The Accolades of Open-world Games
Since the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in 2011, open-world games have dominated the world of mainstream gaming. The 2022 nominees for ‘Game of the Year’ included the open-world action RPGs Horizon: Forbidden West, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and Elden Ring, as well as the mostly linear but semi-open God of War: Ragnarok, the historical stealth horror title A Plague Tale: Requiem and the adorable cat game Stray, making half (more than half, if we include God of War: Ragnarok) of the main ‘Game of the Year’ contenders open-world games in some form, and the final winner being a highly unique open-world game: Elden Ring.
Many of the most acclaimed triple-A games in the past decade have been open-world titles, such as the previously mentioned Red Dead Redemption II and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, as well as Marvel’s Spider-man, Grand Theft Auto V, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Ghost of Tsushima, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and many more. But just as many open-world games fail to garner acclaim and accolades. Sometimes they miss the mark by not offering anything new in a market now oversaturated by the typical open-world formula. Sometimes they attempt too much, are too overwhelming, or deliver too little. Too often, diving into a vast open-world game is like gorging yourself at an all-you-can-eat buffet: there are too many options, too much filler, and the result is a lot of enjoyment mixed in with a heap of regret.
So, What Should a Great Open-world Game Include?
Open-world games should have character, care, detail, but most of all, the pièce de résistance: reward.
At the end of the Witcher 3 side quest ‘There Can Only Be One’ from the Blood and Wine expansion, the player receives a powerful sword that levels up with their character. Even better than the reward is how the player earned it: by exhibiting the five virtues, not in this quest, but at critical moments in the main story. If the player makes the right choices, helps the right people, and says the right things, they become worthy of the best sword in the game. It’s rare that a side quest will depend so heavily on main quests and the choices the player makes during them. The player is rewarded for exploring the sunny fields of Toussaint and, moreover, for making morally complex choices accurate to Geralt — the character they play. Side quests like this are quintessential to the Witcher 3’s world, story, and lore, as they deepen the player’s investment and reward them for their time, choices, and playstyle.
In the side quest, ‘The Noblest of Men, and a Woman,’ from Red Dead Redemption II, the player tracks down and duels four legendary gunslingers, each with their own unique backstory and personality. This quest promotes the game’s combat mechanics and duelling system and rewards the player with a unique revolver from each gunslinger. This quest delves into the era’s history, emphasises the fading outlaw lifestyle that is the game’s theme, and encourages exploration across the map littered with events and wonders to discover.
The fan-favourite ‘Dark Brotherhood’ questline in Skyrim involves joining a secret society of assassins and completing a quest chain that tests the player’s skills in stealth and combat. The story features memorable characters and unexpected twists. The rewards for completing the questline are a set of unique armour that makes the player nearly invincible in stealth and a powerful weapon that steals health from enemies.
These quests are perfect examples of how to do an open-world game right. These games’ promise and reward systems engage players and keep them invested in the world. Their curiosity and desire to see what’s around the next corner, down that rabbit hole, or on top of that mountain are rewarded with meaningful, unique content and satisfying rewards; an item that impacts the gameplay and story; powerful weapons or abilities; memorable cutscenes; rich lore and world-building. These rewards give players a sense of progression and agency as they delve deeper into the game, making them glad they took the time to explore.
Unfortunately, the ‘checklist syndrome’ that plagues other open-world games can lead to players compulsively indulging in subpar side content simply for the sake of completion. A lack of meaningful rewards can make players feel unfulfilled and frustrated, causing them to abandon the game and miss out on the rest of their experience. Developers balance engaging side content and satisfying rewards to keep players motivated to come back for more. Players can enter a virtuous cycle of exploration, promise, discovery, and reward when they get quality over quantity. By designing side quests and activities inseparable from the game’s world and narrative, developers can nurture a cohesive and captivating experience that enriches the player’s journey and the game’s lore.
When It’s All Worthwhile
There is no discounting how difficult it is to make exploration in a video game engaging throughout hours upon hours of playtime. Regardless of how many awards a game receives or copies it sells, its success is determined by how well it rewards its players. The special moments and rewards that a player earns, not the main story beats, make up the true pièce de résistance of an open-world game. Gaining a massive high from defeating a suddenly discovered boss in the corner of the map in Elden Ring; forming personalised friendships and rivalries in Red Dead Redemption II; leaping from the highest peak and gliding over the kingdom in Breath of the Wild; discovering enormous robotic corpses amidst the colourful jungles of Horizon: Forbidden West; receiving a legendary weapon after helping crown Skellige’s new ruler in The Witcher 3; receiving the Sanguine Rose staff after a wild drinking contest in Skyrim… these are the rewards that open-world games so tantalisingly promise players in exchange for their time. These moments complement the story, characters, and world and leave the player content with the energy they have expended pursuing them. There is always the argument that open-world games can spiral into a ‘collectathon’ or a checklist of chores and side-quests. But as long as players are rewarded for their time and receive what they are promised, these games will continue to be a worthwhile and enjoyable experience, ensuring their prominent presence and value for many years to come.
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