Nothing quite like the freedom of a nice, wide open sandbox game, is there? You’ve got your island paradises á la Far Cry and Just Cause, your urban sprawls in Saints Row and GTA, and your vast wastelands in Red Faction and Fallout. This is of course by no means exhaustive, but it just goes to show how ubiquitous the genre has become. Surely that’s a good thing… right?
Well, maybe not. The fact is that in the last ten years, many open world games have become – to put a fine point on it – mediocre. The open world has become a choice a developer can make to boost sales rather than a conscious element of design. After all, who doesn’t want a game that offers ‘unlimited freedom’ in a ‘beautiful open sandbox’?
Very rarely is that even close to accurate. More often than not, you get a huge map filled to the brim with jack shit. Take Watch_Dogs, for example. I love this game: while the writing is questionable, the setting is fascinating and relevant, and the hacking mechanics add a great deal of fun and contribute to intelligent, dynamic gameplay. The open world, however, adds next to nothing. Driving down identical grey streets full of flat-textured storefronts that have barely progressed since Spider-Man 2 is not thrilling, and although the game’s online makes good use of the city itself, the missions hardly do.
A thought I often have in open world games where the sandbox element feels arbitrary is that I’d have much more fun with the game if it had been done as a linear sequence of chapters in discrete, conscientiously designed areas, like Deus Ex or Splinter Cell. Even Half-Life 2, which anchors you to the most linear path a game could possibly have, never feels suffocating for it. Would that game have been improved with half an hour of wandering through the featureless Russian wastes? Almost certainly not – so why shoehorn it in when it does nothing but pad out shallow gameplay?
Therein lies the answer, I think. After all, why design two dozen hours of fun, engaging gameplay when you can supposedly get two hundred hours out of a giant map with fifty identical sidequests and a few hundred hidden collectables? You can’t, of course, but the player doesn’t need to know that.
This is a problem which will not go away on its own. However, it’s by no means a problem which has prevented good and, in many cases, truly great open world titles from seeing release. Some personal highlights include Grand Theft Auto V, Red Dead Redemption, Breath of the Wild, Saints Row 2, Red Faction Guerrilla and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. For the sake of argument, we’ll use the latter as a case study.
The Witcher 3, first and foremost, uses its open world as a living, breathing entity. This is absolutely vital to a good open world game, and the impact of the many little touches that go into doing so cannot be understated. Weather, and weather’s effects on the environment and the people who inhabit it is a big one. Clouds roll in over the horizon, gather into thick grey sheets, drizzle and downpour whilst the wind rips at tree canopies and Geralt’s silver mane. A bad open world game puts you on a map, but a good one puts you inside it. The world should react to the players, yes, but the player should react just as much to the world.
Villages feel populated. People have schedules, routines, concerns, problems, agendas, secrets. I never played a sidequest I felt like I’d done before and I sure as hell didn’t run around in a field collecting 10 animal pelts for a handful of coins and a how-do-you-do. The witcher contracts are a work of genius design which takes the boredom and futile monotony out of resource collection. You’re not just gathering wildflowers for a mild stat increase or, worse still, an achievement’s sake; you’re brewing potions to give you an edge over a mythical beast which genuinely feels too dangerous to face unprepared, and there’s a world of difference there.
A bad open world game puts you on a map, but a good one puts you inside it
You don’t get sick of roaming the vast expanses of The Witcher 3, and when I say vast I do mean vast. The world feels big, but more importantly, it feels deep, too. This is the core of what separates a good open world game from one that tacks on a sandbox for hollow longevity. It’s the world I care about, one that always has more to offer and always tells you a little less than it knows – the rest you’d damn well better believe you have to find out for yourself, and you’ll have a fun time doing so.
What it is, in essence, is rich. It doesn’t make you do sidequests simply for the sake of killing time; you do them because you enjoy them, and they’re compelling. It doesn’t drag you around the map on a lead, making you look at each area in turn; you explore because the mystery is exciting, and you know you’ll find something worth the journey when you get there. And it doesn’t force pointless collectables down your throat, either.
We’ll step away from The Witcher 3, now. The truth is that what I’ve come to view as the Assassin’s Creed (or, a bit more harshly, Ubisoft) brand of unstimulating open world design is a blight. It’s shamelessly cashing in on games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and many others which brought the open world game to the fore of mainstream gaming.
The size of the world should be the very first decision that should be made about a game, and it should shape every single aspect of it – the gameplay, how quests or missions will work, even something as fundamental as the direction the story will take. Perhaps that sounds harsh, but we can’t keep on accepting mediocre worlds and pretending they’re fun just so we feel like we got our money’s worth. If you’re going to build a sandbox, you’d damn well better fill it with sand.