Why Open World is Overwhelming & Not What I Want

The Witcher 3 was revealed via Game Informer earlier this week and the world went wild. More Witcher in and of itself is enough of a reason for the ecstatic reaction, though the gaming community focused its extra excitement on claims that the third and final game in CD Projekt RED’s successful fantasy series would sport a truly open world design 30 times larger than the last franchise release. After all, who doesn’t adore their expansive sandboxes?

Oh yeah, me.

In my eyes, the ever-important narrative elements always take a dive when developers opt for the open world approach. From inFamous to Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls and even MMOs, openness comes at the expense of focus. Perhaps one could argue that sandbox environments shift the responsibility of an ideal experience from the writers to the player, allowing the latter to create whatever tale he or she most enjoys while still including a separate audience seeking something else entirely.

Unfortunately, I feel like I’m thrown into a situation without a winning option.

Blame it on an acute case of OCD, but those mini-map mission blips inherent of open world games bother me. When discovered, I must complete the associated quest required to clear the marker immediately regardless of whatever else I’m supposed to be doing. Ignoring these hot spots is not in my dealt deck of cards. What if they include something important? Crucial, even, either an essential item or engrossing story element that serves up necessary answers? Or worse, what if sticking to the main campaign means I can never go back? The mere thought makes me anxious; I’d never consider it for a second.

However, if I drive on in the other direction with a determination to only do the primary duties needed to reach the elusive credits, I’m knowingly skipping a significant portion of the package. Personally, such an act is equivalent to buying an album yet willingly skipping songs six and seven because they aren’t necessary to understand the overall feel of the musical collection. Preposterous, right? But remain committed to completing it all and the core motivation dissolves. The overarching push to move forward no longer holds any sense of urgency when put on pause to address the ancillary tasks.

Lost trying to decide what to do, which unnecessary errands to undertake, I eventually cry out for linearity.

Final Fantasy XIII LinearNo, this is no the linear I’m looking for.

Linearity has become such a bad buzzword bursting with negative connotations when attributed to video games, but why? Because all linear games are bad? No, because bad games have been linear. Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t a disappointment because of its linear design. Rather, it was simply boring, but critics were quick to directly tie this boredom to the game’s deviation from the typical branching Final Fantasy environments. As a contrasting case, the Uncharted trilogy is terrific while fiercely linear. Same goes for Batman: Arkham Asylum, albeit a little less so. Still, although Asylum presented some side distractions, there is a notable difference between collectibles and fully-featured side missions. Hidden treasures are incidental additions tucked away with no real impact on the total narrative experience. These trinkets — tantalizing time-sinks for completionists — can be safely avoided without sacrificing the core.

In Arkham City, Batman’s open world adventures saw a new breed of distribution and I instantly had issues with them. A shadow in the night, I’d be soaring over the city with a fixed intent when suddenly my mini-map revealed a mugger threatening to kill someone. No sooner had I rescued the innocent than the Riddler spoke of his own hostage. Turn the corner and Victor Zsasz is calling about another soon-to-be murder seconds away. I could ignore them, sure, but Batman is supposed to save everyone. To disregard these deadly situations would ruin the character Rocksteady so carefully crafted as an authentic representation of the comic book counterpart. Thus, Batman must be perfect. If he isn’t, Bruce Wayne will wither away for eight years crying over Maggie Gyllenhaal. And nobody wants to see that again.

Is that the point, then? Is the open world design with so much to do masochistic on purpose, meant to display the overwhelming odds against a flawless hero? Or is a go-anywhere, do-anything expansive landscape supposed to provide an endless sense of mystery, wonder, and discovery? This “emergent gameplay” concept that’s sprung up in popularity over the past few years? Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t want a haphazard mish-mash of a story, despite the promise of a totally unique Encounter of the Ages to tell your friends and favorite forums. Instead, I want writers to woo me, to take me on a journey more special than something I could stumble upon on my own.

Skyrim: A wide-open world where you find your own fun. Great…

As is so often the case with my eccentric tastes, I realize I’m rather alone in this opinion. Know that I’m not labeling all open world games as garbage and neither do I frown upon the people that play them. Sandbox environments just aren’t for me, coming across as stressful, tedious, and burdensome. The opposite of inviting, they never encourage me to come back. Unlike in linear design, there is no guarantee that returning to an open world for an hour will produce any meaningful progression beyond minor experience-based character growth or an inventory bulging with slightly better items. We likely disagree, but seeing those stats increase or swinging a bigger sword is not enough to keep me engaged.

Still, everyone else seems to love the open world, to play in the sandbox without a chaperon pointing out which toys you should play with (I don’t even need to write “Skryim” to know where our minds reside). Because of this preference for personal experiences, The Witcher 3 is already deemed an automatic improvement because of its touted open world. Unless my minority voice acquires converts in the coming years, I expect this and other excellent releases to fail to ensnare me the way they suck in so many of you. A pity, but in a medium with creative expression as its essence, I would never suggest forced development in any other direction. Play on, just try not to be offended when I don’t join you.

Written by: Luke Frazier

Gaming industry addict. Twitter fiend. Unabashed lover of Kingdom Hearts. Other favorites include The Legend of Zelda, Portal, Bioshock, Journey, and peanut butter & banana sandwiches. Also, oatmeal. Let's be friends. @LukeAFrazier – Steam/PSN: GodAlliz

  • Gibarian

    The witcher 1 and 2 arn’t linear games! Why people keep saying they are?! Non open world, true, but also nonlinear. Skyrim’s plot was by far more linear than TW2.

  • Ridge

    Space to roam around itself isn’t a bad thing as long as story elements are still good when you find them.
    That being said, I’m not a fan of huge open worlds. It can cross a line where there is just too much stuff for me to want to bother caring about any of it.

  • Don’t worry, Luke. It’s okay to be wrong.

  • Hrmmmm. I am divided here. Linearity is great and I TOTALLY AGREE that it’s unfairly been tagged as a negative. But …
    Dude …

    The Elder Scrolls. Guild Wars 2. Hello Kitty Island Adventure.