I recently finished playing the most God of War (2018), which I'll refer to hereafter as GoW, and really enjoyed it. One of the more eye-catching features of the game that I found myself personally falling in love with is the canoeing as it allowed for the world the game is set in to believably expand without stretching it thin by providing the player with expansive but relatively empty open fields for the player to wade through such as in other titles.
In other words, my problem with open fields to expand the world is that they contain distinctly less events to partake in compared to the other areas in the game — there is a difference between a "level" area which contains people, puzzles, enemies, nooks, secrets…etc and an open field which is just there for you to move through and to give an impression of a bigger world.
The problem, of course, is that filling such an open area would be a daunting task for both the developer and the player. I can already imagine how burnt out I could get from such expansive fields containing so many events within them that separate me from my actual goal. It's a lose-lose situation where there is no clear solution for it.
Despite that, there have been some efforts to mitigate these problems; mainly, with the inclusion of a steed for the player to mount — depending on the setting, other games also use vehicles however my focus will be on horses as they affect the type of setting that games like GoW take place. And here's where it gets even more subjective: I don't think I've ever ridden a horse in a game that I liked. They've always felt so finicky and less responsive than just moving around on your own, but they're fast enough that I would rather ride them, but then when I pass by an interesting event they make the experience awkward once again through either their own movement as I attempt to reach the interesting event, or by creating this stop-and-go effect where I dismount, interact with the event, and then remount the horse. Unless the event was something grand, the horse makes interacting with events in the open fields very awkward and discourages me from either using the horse or interacting with the events. Calling forth the horse when you enter an open field is quite awkward in most games, with Red Dead Redemption (I haven't played the sequel) being the only game that makes it smooth by letting the horse dash right by the player, even if the player is running, and stay by them until the player mounts and continues to dash in that direction — in every other game, it's back to the stop-and-go interactions.
The canoes in GoW don't have to suffer from any of those problems, as the waters have their own interactions that don't require you to leave the boat; these interactions are admittedly simple, but the rewards are equally pedestrian and they keep the pace going with the more impactful events taking place on land giving them the time and focus they deserve. On horseback, whether an event is big or small, you would have to unmount from the horse, go to the event, interact with the event, return to your horse, mount on your horse, and finally be on your way. The canoe smoothes out the humbler events through making them smoothly interactable on the canoe, while keeping the more important events as they are, on land where they can get the player's full attention.
The alternative for openfields, then, is not having these open areas in the first place. Dark Souls (DS) serves as the perfect example of a game that builds a great world without the need for expansive fields; every part of the map matters, or as I described earlier, is a "level" area.
It's the best counter to the idea of having any of these open areas, whether land or water, and I can't think of a counter to GoW's canoes. That said, I really liked the canoe rides in GoW and found myself enjoying moving with it to explore what seemed to be this ever-expanding world. It was really great, and I'm curious to see how the developers will expand on it in the sequel, or whether they would forgo it completely, seeing how the ending of the game could allow for such a situation, and how they would adapt to this change.
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