A lateral journey
I really don’t like the idea that open world design is an evolution of gaming. I think it’s progressive in the fact that our technology can now handle it, and that we can create such things, but a game going from linear or another design to open world is not necessarily an evolution. I think it’s a lateral change.
Like most things in design, from art to games, changing the rulesets always have consequences. You can’t change the variables in your style and design without consequence, no matter how abstract you make it seem. In abstraction you willingly remove authorial interpretation and put it up for the consumer. I’ve probably said this a million times, and I will say again, I believe authorial intent to be important. The mistake is always believing it to be the most important. How important authorial intent is depends on the context of who made it and who is consuming it.
Open world styles will give up some paths for others. It’s difficult in a linear game to have the Red Dead Redemption moments that are the source of much hilarity or amazing feats. You won’t get that in DOOM, but you won’t get the level designs in Red Dead unless you’re playing a mission or something. Open world isn’t so much an evolution as it is a choice in design. It could be that a game’s style better matches the open world setting, and even then we sacrifice much.
One of the things that tends to be commonly sacrificed is story. To have a story work well in an open world means spreading content. You give up pacing if the player is allowed to go on a 20 hour journey into those mountains on the map. Subnautica would be very unfortunate as a linear game, but there is a story in there and the writers are restricted to building it in a way that allows it to be approached in any way and timing the player chooses. You can indeed choose to go view that beacon that popped up on your HUD, or you can spend more time harvesting that copper.
You give up development time for the advanced writing you’re going to have to make if the player wants to get creative with their progress. As I previously wrote in an article, most open world games have custom characters, and that means sacrificing some story telling developments of your choice. Sacrificing these things are not necessarily bad things, but they’re exactly that: sacrifices.
An unfortunate example of not sacrificing things just to fit your bill is Far Cry 5. The game is a fun open world sandbox, but too many things are squished in just to try and be the open world sand box game. They want a story, but they don’t want it on the terms of an open world. You are constantly interrupted by the story and the open world feels staggered because of it. You are restricted in some points in the story, and then it openly mocks how bad your “choices” were when you couldn’t really make choices at all. The whole time I was just kind of thinking, “Well, I was just trying to wander around and do stuff.” I felt pushed to the point where the story was an annoyance and felt unworthy of my time. Far Cry 5 could have been good if it was story based shooter or the open world jaunt, but it chose both, and it did not work. Can you implement a story into an open world well? Yes, you can, but you have to play within the consequences of your designs. Otherwise your designs will end up competing with each other.
The linear world is easier to control. As a designer you can set the stage, and you can arrange the scenes. What do you want the player to see? What do you want the player to feel? You can get some of these things in the open world. How far along the spectrum of the two extremes do you want to pull it?
I think the other difficult thing is changing development mindset when designing open world games. I don’t think The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is some sort of evolution. It’s just an open world with a lot of design implementations in it. They made sure climbing, running, and gliding felt good. And yet, those are not things that need to be in an open world game. They took into account how locations looked at different angles as players were approaching them. Hills, mountains, trees and all geography was taken into account. Where they hid treasure and secrets were considered in the design of the landscape. These are all things that you also consider in more linear games. It all goes back to design, and how well you implement it.
You can always create a systemic game and plop large swathes of land and say it’s an open world game, and you will get those open world moments naturally, but designing the world to also be a huge, explorable set piece is what sets Breath of the Wild apart from other games. Red Dead Redemption 2 leans towards the large swathes of land with random events, but that’s the whole feel of Red Dead. It is a large, untamed land full of animals, mystery, and highwaymen. There is a balance between what is handcrafted and what is meant to be accidentally encountered. You can say they handcrafted what wouldn’t be handcrafted. What you intend to do with your open world can be a guidepost to how you want it to be designed.
There are a fair amount of games where it’s just a content dump. You can feel some of that in the Assassin’s Creed series, especially in the earlier games. Dynasty Warriors 9 takes the franchise and sets it in the open world, but it really doesn’t adapt the series well to the new design. What you do and what your guidepost is, which is usually some sort of franchise core concept, is what can really hold your game design together.
There is nothing wrong with having open world design. There is nothing wrong with having linear design. The only thing wrong is not having good design.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’re all staying safe out there.