Games have become huge, with massive, open worlds that players can explore and inhabit for dozens or hundreds of hours. But that doesn’t make them masterpieces; far from it.
Liberty City and Vice City, the scenes of past Grand Theft Auto titles, no longer seem that impressive next to the entire states and continents in more recent games like Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin’s Creed IV and The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. But those newer games are missing something, too.
Developers’ preoccupation with upping the ante when it comes to creating these vast worlds has seemingly led them to forget an important rule: size isn’t everything. These seven tips should help them raise the bar in more meaningful ways.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS
It’s one thing for a game to have a huge world, and it’s quite another for it to make that world actually memorable. In too many open-world games, you’re simply running around wreaking havoc without really giving a thought to where you are, or following objective markers and mini-map routes without really knowing where you’re going.
The Witcher 3 is one exception. It does an excellent job of making every village feel like a place of its own, completely different from the other little towns scattered across the map. There’s a little village with a tavern called the Seven Cats Inn, a mob of felines roaming around its yard. It’s just a nice little detail for you to notice, a flavoring for this particular place, but it goes a long way. More of that, please.
A DEARTH OF CHARACTER
Non-playable characters—i.e. “NPCs,” in gaming parlance—in open-world games are not really characters at all. In games like Infamous and Grand Theft Auto the random people simply going about their business are more like scenery used to prop up the illusion of a bustling city.
Watch Dogs, for all its flaws, did try to make its characters seem more life-like by letting you spy on them and see their personal records, but rarely could you do anything with that information besides decide who to murder and steal money from. What if you could actually chat with them, or even ask a random stranger on a date? Something—anything!—that makes these hollow robots seem more like actual people walking around a city.
EASE UP ON THE MURDER
Open-world games love to tell you to kill things. So often the promise of a game offering you a huge world to play around in is brought low when its missions are nothing more than murders, assassinations and killings, or the boring lead-ups to said acts—tracking someone from a distance until the game decides it’s OK for you to kill them, or gathering intel on someone and then, some time later, killing them.
In contrast, Fallout 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both allow players to intimidate or charm their way out of some dangerous situations. Wouldn’t it be nice to play more big, expansive games where the goal of most missions wasn’t simply to snuff someone out?
STOP WITH THE CHECKLISTS
Collectibles are a huge pain in open-world games where you often find yourself searching every inch of a huge landscape to find pieces of some random jerk’s science project. And unsurprisingly, amassing all these collectibles feels more like checking items off a list than any sort of meaningful gameplay.
If you’re going to scatter a bunch of random crap across your vast virtual continent in the hopes that players will seek it out, at least tie that crap to rewards that makes the time investment worth the trouble. The creepy stories present in System Shock 2’s audio logs were once a good example, although the BioShock games have overused that particular trope. Even better are the sea shanties for your crew to sing in Assassin’s Creed IV, unlocked when you find the sheet music blowing in the breeze.
FOR THAT MATTER, SCREW THE CODEX TOO
A game’s “codex,” essentially a lore glossary, can be a helpful miniature encyclopedia that fills in the background story of a game’s fictional universe. But developers have started leaning on the codex as a primary storytelling device.
One of biggest issues with The Witcher 3, a game I’m mostly enamored with, is its refusal to introduce new characters properly, requiring you to open up the codex to figure out who people are. Dragon Age: Inquisition, too, left too many important world details in the text of codex entries instead of actively explained. Game developers: if you have to stow away important, must-know details inside a series of menus, then your story probably needs another draft.
DON’T WASTE MY TIME
If I finish a mission or chapter in a game, and then have to do 10-15 minutes of walking or galloping to get to a “fast travel” location so I can warp to the next mission’s starting point, chances are I’ll probably turn off the game to go do something else. What’s the point?
The Witcher 3 could have used a few more fast travel points on the outskirts of the game’s map to give adventurous explorers a way back to civilization. And as cute having to use a taxi driver to fast travel anywhere in Grand Theft Auto is, it can be bothersome, especially when you’re out in the middle of the country and a cab can’t get to you because they keep rolling off a mountain and into a nearby lake.
The argument against this point is that players won’t stop to appreciate a game’s world if they can just warp around limitlessly. The solution is easy: games with good fast travel need to also make their worlds interesting enough that you’ll want to explore the wildernesses between major locations anyway. Which brings me to my last point…
STOP CHASING SKYRIM
For the love of Sheogorath, game makers need to stop chasing Skyrim.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was astoundingly successful, but it illustrates the open-world genre’s failures as well as its highlights. It gives you a huge place to traverse in search of quests and weapons and armor, letting you create your own story as an adventurer. But it’s also stretched incredibly thin, peppered with dull quests that come off more like chores.
Tons of modern open-world games, from Dragon Age: Inquisition to Far Cry 4, have embraced design elements of Skyrim and have suffered for it. They toss meaningful storytelling aside, instead focusing on making their worlds as large as possible. Time that could be spent chatting with individuals in your party or commanding armies is wasted on picking elfroot or dealing with half-assed mechanics that should have been scrapped altogether.
The Witcher 3 is one game that does the Skyrim thing well, but that’s just not good enough. Open world games need to evolve in more meaningful ways.
Now, who’s excited for the upcoming open-world Mad Max game?