I recently got to watch my friend play Ghosts of Tsushima for the first time–a game I was excited about based on what little I had seen of it as well as its stellar reputation. Watching him play, however, I was suddenly hit by a lightning bolt of how much this game, and virtually all high budget open-world games, rehash the exact same tired mechanics.
It's not just that open-world mechanics have been done before. After all, platformers have been done before, and I still think games like Celeste breathe fresh life into a genre as old as video games themselves. It's that, in my opinion, many open-world game mechanics undermine what should be the core ethos of open-world games. I've listed what I believe to be the three biggest offenders below:
1) Quest Markers
2) Fast Travel
Open-world games, if their genre is to be believed, ought to be about exploring a vast, open world. These games tend to (and ought to) focus on nonlinearity, player agency, exploration, and discovery. However, the three mechanics I listed do nothing to enhance those aspects of a game, and are instead aimed at decreasing inconvenience, difficulty, and frustration–both for players as well as developers. It's much easier to show a quest marker rather than write context clues; it's easier to allow the player to teleport wherever they want rather than consider distance and pacing. It's much easier to copy-paste a hundred collectibles to populate the world rather than design unique encounters.
However, the side-effect is that playing through these worlds feels more like ticking items off a grocery list than truly exploring. These games, in spite of their gorgeous visuals and open worlds, often use cheap Skinner box mechanics as their core gameplay.
The two most satisfying open-world games I've played recently have been The Long Dark and Outward. Both games refuse to bend to many conventions that one expects games to have these days: both games have no fast travel, no quick-saves, and an intentionally limited map, requiring the player to use their wits to figure out where they are at any given moment. Both games can be extremely frustrating at times. And you know what? They've made for some of the most memorable gaming experiences I've had in the past decade. Slowly freezing to death in a blizzard in the Long Dark, panicking as I tried in futility to find my way to my house while ultimately running in circles, ultimately losing a playthrough I had invested dozens of hours into… was the most memorable death I've had in a video game since EverQuest. Was it fun? No. Was it awesome? At the time, hell no. But looking back on it, absolutely.
I wish more games would have the courage of games like The Long Dark and Outward. It's not that I want quest markers, fast travel, and padding to not exist… I just want them to be considered more carefully before being implemented. It feels like at the moment, these mechanics are implemented for the sake of convenience. I'd like players and developers to ask themselves, "Do these mechanics enhance or detract from the underlying ethos of this game/genre?" There's nothing inherently wrong with a game trying to be more convenient, but I do think that in order for a game to simulate exploration and adventure, it must also simulate risk, danger, and the unknown. If I can mouse over an enemy and immediately know its level, if I can zip away or quick-load to before I ran into that monster… then I'm not really exploring, I'm not really doing anything dangerous. I'd like more games to aim at capturing a real sense of adventure, rather than aiming at being yet another risk-free combat collect-a-thon in a giant playground.
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