I think the last few years have brought us to a bit of an inflection point for open world video games -- which I feel have been in kind of a rut for the better part of the last decade. Long-time readers of my personal blog will probably be very familiar with my complaints. The two core complaints that I've had with this particular game design paradigm are:

  1. That the map itself rarely feels meaningful as a game space, and instead serves primarily as a convoluted mission-select screen full of time-wasting filler content.
  2. That the sandboxy nature of the game design means that the world and narrative often feel stagnant (as if in a kind of "limbo").
This blog is mostly a transcript of a YouTube video that I posted.

These problems can be traced back at least to 2001's Grand Theft Auto III, which set many of the conventions of open world games for the next two decades. Companies from Ubisoft to Bethesda, and many others, would copy GTAIII's structure of going to a location on the map to trigger a mission in an aggressively linear, cinematic story, while spending free time on time-wasting filler content that did nothing to move the story forward.

Grand Theft Auto III set many of the standards
for open world games over the past 20 years.

Aside from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Far Cry series, these problems have been present to varying degrees in everything from Skyrim to The Saboteur to Mad Max to Just Cause to The Amazing Spider-Man to Fallout 4 to Metal Gear Solid V, and many more. It started getting to the point that when I would see a game advertise the size of its map, I'd roll my eyes and lose interest. "Great, that's just more wasting my time walking from place to place with nothing meaningful or interesting or challenging to do."

Where you are on the map, where you're going, and how you get there was almost completely irrelevant in these games, which made the map itself (no matter how big and scenic it might be) feel mostly irrelevant. In fact, some games started introducing mechanics that let you bypass the map entirely by letting you fly, glide, or zipline to points of interest without having to engage with the space in between. In the case of Metal Gear Solid V's Afghanistan map, the roads are lined with sheer cliffs, funneling the player along linear paths from enemy outpost to enemy outpost, with practically nothing for you to do in the space between outposts. Even though the stealth action at those outposts was some of the best in the series, I couldn't help but think that Snake Eater provided a much more fulfilling experience of living within an open-ended game world.

I would roll my eyes whenever a game advertised the size of its map or hours of content.

The maps themselves weren't playspaces anymore; they were just the spaces in between towns, dungeons, and set pieces where the actual gameplay would take place. Just point in the direction of a waypoint and walk in a straight line, stopping every minute or so to pick up an umpteenth collectible, or climb an umpteenth tower, or sneak into an umpteenth enemy base and kill the umpteenth recycled mini-boss. Stop me if you've done all this before... A majority of the time with the game was just travelling around the map without any engagement in any gameplay systems or mechanics or strategies, and then playing some rote, recycled filler content to pass the time. And as the maps got bigger and bigger, the filler content just kept multiplying.

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The Evil Within 2 - title

Okay, I said I would give up on Shinji Mikami after the first Evil Within game, but here I am giving that IP a second chance. I had heard that the expansions for Evil Within were actually pretty good, and that they even made the base game better by filling in some of the narrative gaps. But I was so furious with the base game that I sure as hell was not going to shell out more money for DLCs. If they were that integral to the core game, then they should have been included with the core game. Now that my furor over the original has faded a bit, I was hearing that the sequel is also much better than the original game and leans more heavily in the horror camp than the action shooter camp. I was dismissive of the game's announcement, and I was skeptical of the claims that the sequel was actually good, so I picked up a [relatively] cheap used copy off eBay so that I could give it a chance over the Halloween week without necessarily giving any more money to Bethesda.

The Evil Within 2 - Kidman
I feel like I missed something...
Maybe I should've played the DLC?

Besides, Shinji Mikami isn't the director this time around. Instead the sequel is directed by John Johanas, who was the director of the [supposedly] good DLC expansion packs. The first game actually did have some good ideas and set pieces within, so maybe a different directorial approach could bring those ideas out to their full potential?

A more focused package

To Johanas' credit, the game, as a whole, definitely has a more "unified" presentation. The first game felt very scattershot with regard to how it wanted the player to play. It's early chapters (which were also the most enjoyable parts of the game) were focused mostly on stealth, with a few pursuit and escape moments thrown in. It was slow, somewhat atmospheric, and built incredible tension. But those mechanics were quickly dropped in favor of shooting gallery set pieces, constant scripted ambushes, set piece boss encounters, and frantic, funhouse-ish trap / puzzle rooms. The sequel, thankfully, is much more focused. I didn't feel like I was wasting my resources by putting points into Sebastian's stealth skills (a skill tree that was completely absent from the previous game), as you can actually continue to use them over the course of the entire game. Sure, there's still scripted ambushes and puzzle rooms, but the focus is much more firmly planted in sneaking around, exploring the environments, and generally avoiding detection.

Unfortunately, there's still a bit too much of a focus on frenzied action. It detracts significantly from any sort of horror or tension that the game might be trying to build up. The autosaves are fairly generous (even though there are also manual save points in each of the game's safe houses), so enemies come in hordes, hit very hard, and deaths are going to happen. Chapter 3 basically completely desensitized me to death and put me in the habit of just standing up and letting the monsters kill me if I ever screwed up the stealth.

The Evil Within 2 - learning curve
The early combat encounters are not gentle, as they put you up against hordes of enemies.

There's a greater focus on open-ended exploration this time around, and Chapter 3 is the first open map that the player is free to explore. There's basically two main paths through it: the hard one and the easy one. The easy path is basically a straight line due north from where you start, but the game throws some curveball objectives at you that basically encourage you to try the other paths that end up being much harder. You're told about weapon caches and NPCs that you're supposed to try to save. One such weapon is the crossbow, which is actually a pretty necessary tool (because, you know, every game has to have a crossbow). It's right off to the side of where you start, but picking it up can easily lead you down a much harder path to your actual mission objective...

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My past two blog posts have been focused on open world gaming. These posts have been continuations of an earlier post about the narrative "limbo" that many open world games create via their quest structures. In the first post in this second series, I pointed out what I perceive to be a problem with open world games that insist on turning their sandbox worlds into little more than convoluted mission-select screens and collectible checklists. In the following post, I described some games that I think managed to make successful open worlds by including features or mechanics that made traveling through the space (or knowledge of the space) into a meaningful mechanic. This time, I want to go back to some of the games that I singled-out in the first post in this series, and brainstorm some ways that they could have made better use of the large spaces that their maps offered so that traveling around the world wouldn't become so boring later in the game.

But before I do that, I want to re-emphasize that I don't hate these games. They're just not very good at using their space, and that's what I'm criticizing. Well, the newer Assassin's Creed games have been pretty terrible. Anyway, I pick on games like Skyrim and The Witcher III a lot, but I like them just fine - I bought the DLC for both. I pick on them, not because I hate them, but because I do like them and I want them to get better (or for their sequels to get better). Rather, my objective here is to find ways for these games to make better use of the large, open spaces that they provide the player, so that exploring the map feels more mechanically relevant, more interesting, or more rewarding; and to feel less like a time-sink.

Games like Skyrim and The Witcher III have massive worlds, but do a poor job of utilizing the space.

Bethesda's Skyrim and Fallout titles, as well as CD Projeckt Red's Witcher III and Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto V, already have open worlds that transcend being simple, convoluted mission-select screens like games like Assassin's Creed and Metal Gear Solid V. They populate their worlds with little narrative world-building details that make their worlds feel alive and lived-in (even though they may feel stagnant). So what could a game like Skyrim or The Witcher III have done to improve its open world?

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Last time, I discussed what I perceive as a problem in the way that most open world games (specifically, sandbox games) design their maps and use the space that the maps offer - or fail to use that space, to be more specific. So many open world maps end up feeling less like actually playing the game, and more like a convoluted mission-select and collectible checklist screens. This problem is especially bad in the Ubisoft model of design, and is also a problem (to a lesser extent) in Bethesda's open worlds. Due to the popularity of these developers' franchises, many other developers have been cloning these styles of games to one extent or the other, to the point at which Ubisoft's open world model seems to be the go-to template for any developer trying to make an open world game. These games aren't necessarily bad. They just aren't very good at making the space of their maps feel meaningful in its own right.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate - zipline
Many open world games have large, expansive maps that mostly feel empty and pointless,
as the player rushes through them simply to get to the next map marker or checklist item.

But now that I've established what I see as a problem, I want to focus on positive feedback. In this discussion, I'm going to look at a handful of games that should serve as inspirations for would-be open world developers. Ironically, some of these games aren't even open world games, but they still pose valuable lessons for how games that are open world could better use their game spaces. That isn't to say that the games discussed here are perfect. In fact, many of them have their own major flaws. But each of them has some element of design that utilizes the actual game map as a component of active play, rather than just a space in which game sequences exist. First, let's take a look at a game that was re-made recently, and use it as a "before and after" case study of map design...

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I wrote a lengthy blog late last year about the stagnant, "limbo"-like feel of most open world games' narratives. I had written that blog mostly before I played Metal Gear Solid V, and so I wasn't able to incorporate my thoughts regarding that game into the blog. But I did come to a new realization about open world gaming while I was playing MGSV. In my review of that game, I noted that:

"Even the open world itself feels constrained, as sheer cliffs prevent you from travelling too far off of the roads and serve to functionally railroad the player towards the small set-piece outposts and villages."
    - from my Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain review

I realized while playing MGSV that the game had built this large, open world (well, two large, open worlds really, but I hadn't gotten that far yet), but it didn't really care to let the player actually traverse that space or use it in any meaningful way other than scavenger hunting for collectibles. At least those collectibles felt relevant to gameplay though! Roughly half the map is dead space that the player can't even access. There was also this strange focus on using the helicopter to drop in and drop out of missions, rather than actually living in the game world, as the character had to do in Snake Eater. The map started to feel less and less like a place, and more like a convoluted mission-select screen. At first, this seemed like a strange, isolated example of an open world game that really doesn't want the player actually exploring its world. But as I thought about it, I realized that this isn't really a new phenomenon; it's actually just a very extreme example of what has become a sort of defacto state in most open world games.

Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain - restricted world map
The Afghanistan map of Metal Gear Solid V feels heavily constrained by sheer cliffs.

Think about it this way: in a linear game with rooms and corridors, every hallway and room should serve some purpose or function. In most games, this function will be some kind of skill or system mastery test. An action game like Devil May Cry will throw enemies at you to fight; a puzzle game like Portal will have a puzzle (or a piece of a puzzle) in the room to solve; a stealth game like Metal Gear Solid 3 will have a sneaking challenge or obstacle to pass; and so on. In the best games, each of these challenges will also provide a unique or novel test of skill or system mastery: unique combinations of enemies, unique puzzles, or novel arrangements of enemies and obstacles. Other games can use those rooms for thematic or narrative purposes. A survival horror game like Resident Evil or Silent Hill will usually put enemies, puzzle items, or supplies in a room, but some rooms might instead contain a scripted scare. In some cases, a room might even be left completely empty in order to build some kind of tension or anticipation, or to delay the release of already-built tension or anticipation.

So what is the gameplay purpose of an open world map? ...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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