Over the past few years, the open world genre has become massively popular – the industry has become bloated with these huge, sprawling game maps. It seems that we as players just can get enough of massive digital worlds that we can spend hours upon hours residing in.
There is nothing better than having the freedom and experience to walk from one side of the map to the other; having the choice to explore every nook and cranny on the way, from being able to dive into the depths of every ocean, to being able to climb your way to the top of monstrous mountains. It gives us the time to tackle the game at our own pace; to look over the beautiful open world the developers have painstakingly created. Having that initial freedom feels fantastic… but when do open world games become too open?
I ask this question to myself as I travel my way through Defiance Bay in Pillars of Eternity. I feel like I have talked to thousands of NPCs and listened to each of their their stories; I feel like I have spent years on the road fighting my way through endless hordes of monsters and bandits who stand in my way. I feel… tired.
This is no one’s fault but my own. I choose to explore every inch of the map; I choose to digest every NPC’s story; I choose to take on what feels like a million side quests. I don’t need to do all these things to play the game, but for some reason I want to. Developers give us a main quest line that we must stick to in order to learn more and complete the game they have so lovingly created, and the rest is sometimes just filler. Side quests, bounties and tower capturing are all technically optional, but for most of us it’s not a choice; it’s essential.
The problem that most people encounter when playing open world games is being over-encumbered with these “optional” quests. Straying away from the main story to help Bob pick some plants or help Grace find some shiny rocks seems important now, but what happens when all of them rocks build up, and you are no longer looking at that main quest, but instead a wall of text filled with side quests and missions you promised you would do for all your new NPC pals? Look at Skyrim for example. I take on the role of the mighty Dragon Born, but instead of destroying my enemies and helping to prevent a war, I am in a cave mining some ore for a lovely armour set I’ve seen posted in a forum online. The rest of this war-torn land can wait; I’m busy trying to look bad ass! This is what seems to happen in open world games: we become too “busy” to focus on the task at hand. We have so much to do that we lose focus on the real goal of a game: to complete it. We seem to forget that we need to finish the well-crafted story and find out how it all comes to an end; to reap the rewards of the Dragon Born, the Inquisitor and the Witcher.
Dragon Age Origins is one of the great RPGs of our time. It contains great storytelling, interesting characters and a rich world to explore. The game isn’t exactly “open world” in the traditional sense of the term; you are given a great amount of choice in terms of story/dialogue and where you want to go, however the game strongly encourages you to stick to the main story line. Compare that to the more recent Dragon Age Inquisition; I have never felt so overwhelmed with the amount of things to do than I have with this game. Don’t get me wrong, I love it but I remember once taking a look at the amount of time I spent in game. Twenty hours. In that 20 hours I’d not even touched the main quest or even left the first area. What on earth had I been doing for all that time?
Well, I’d escorted a druffalo to one place to another. I’d made potions and passed a message from one ranger to another. All filler. In some cases after a developer creates a huge world and finishes up the main plot, they need to fill these worlds with side quests and tasks to keep us busy and prevent us from becoming bored. The more open the world is, the more they have to fill. It is hard to devote so much time and quality to all the hundreds of quests in an open world game; developers can’t afford countless hours of their AAA time to be spent on every single little quest that some people may or may not do, so they just give us little quests to fill our time up. Sometimes this filler is not to the highest quality; popular bemoaned side missions include the likes of fetch quests, material picking and “kill 10 of these “quests. Generally, we play games to escape every day menial tasks, so we don’t want our escapism to become menial too. Unfortunately I feel that open world games do face the risk of doing so. This sometimes results in people leaving the game aside altogether. We start to burn out and need a break from our time in Tamriel, Thedas or Los Santos.
So are we as players given too much choice; are open world games too open?
Personally, I love the open world genre, but I do at times struggle to playing these games to completion. Spending hundreds of hours on one game isn’t ideal for most people who have work or personal real-life commitments. That said, as long as a developer fills the game with good quality quests that are worth playing, then we are getting good value for our well-earned money. Games are only too open if the space they are filling isn’t worth our time and commitment.
Open world games should keep us entertained, not just “busy”. When playing, you should be having fun; at the end of the day it is a game. Enjoy your quests, explore the worlds and chat to the characters… just don’t lose that spark of fun in the process.