I have a problem with how most open-world game missions are structured. Lots has been said about collectibles and copy and pasted, repetitive side content, and all of that is valid. But I specifically take issue with main missions. I apologise in advance if this is poorly argued rambling but I have difficulty expressing what I take issue with. I'll try!
Most OW games have a standard, linear campaign that comes with a generic mission marker the player must go to, in order to activate a cutscene and begin the mission. They can either do the mission or delay doing the mission, tackling supplementary side content that clearly received less attention than the main stuff. This sucks.
First of all, what incentive does the player have to go to the mission? The incentive is that the game is telling you to. "This is it! This is the meat of the experience that everything else was built around! To progress, you must go here!" It rarely has narrative context. Rockstar replaces the mission marker with an NPC's name, which is better than nothing, but it's still "go here, because."
The player doesn't know what they're getting themselves into. They don't know what direction the story will take, where it will start, really, and they fulfill the objectives because they basically have to. This conflicts with the fundamental design philosophy of an OW experience. The activities are designed almost completely independently from everything else.
Not only do standard missions fail to take advantage of the freedom-oriented design of the world, but they don't feel like they're a part of it. Is there anything more immersion-breaking than a flashing UI icon that tells the player that this is where most of the developers' resources ACTUALLY went? There are exceptions, like Just Cause (that's more of a chaotic playground), but the point is usually to make these worlds feel like real places, so immersion is arguably more important here than in any other genre.
Think about it like this: in Grand Theft Auto, I want to embody the characters. In this case, criminals. Rather than being motivated to perform a criminal activity that's both fun and makes narrative sense, I simply go to the mission icon and find out why after the fact. RPGs solve this in that individual objectives are usually delineated with context, as do games like Batman: Arkham Knight. But most completely fail to provide context for player action.
A notable exception is Breath of the Wild. The main missions are the four divine beasts which are identified as such from the get-go, as well as fighting Ganon. The story organically emerges through the exploration it takes to get there, which aligns with the core mechanics and themes of the game. Meanwhile, games like GTA tell you you're a criminal, but the times you get to do criminal stuff almost exclusively take place in scripted missions you go into with no expectations.
An alternative method could have been filling the map with criminal objectives that exist logically in the world like constantly moving vehicles meant for robbing or assassination targets that exist independently of any scripted event. Basically, objectives tied to places and people in the space. That way, the player makes a choice: "I want to take on the assassination." They go to the location, and a scripted event could still be triggered. This is me coming up with spitballing, so there's probably an issue with that idea but eh.
The recent Ghost of Tsushima gameplay got me thinking. It's one of many OW games that seems to revolve around fighting a single group of enemies that's taken over (like Far Cry, AC Brotherhood, etc). Typically, these games have typical narrative-heavy missions and side content like outposts/enemy hideouts. So the player is torn between their objective of fighting the enemies/taking back the map and doing the missions because they have to and that's where the story is.
What if, alternatively, the game only had the outposts – but each one was given the same treatment as a story mission? There would be unique set-pieces, layouts, objectives, and dialogue that would emerge when the player visits each one. The story then would be designed with non-linearity in mind. Either narrative sequences could occur in any order or would change based on the order outposts were tackled in or a combination of the both. See Uncharted: The Lost Legacy's open-ended Western Ghats puzzles for an example of that. Then, we take that concept of applying narrative and detail to not just the outposts but everything else in the world. Only then, have we achieved a true open-world experience that embraces its own existence. BOTW is probably the only real example of this at the moment.
Anyway, that's my rambling. I feel like I've failed to fully say what I'm trying to say but I'd love to hear thoughts and alternative ideas from others.
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