Playing games like Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, The Witcher 3, Mad Max, Metal Gear Solid V, and other open-world games has made me increasingly weary of open-world gaming. Narrative-based, open world games like these suffer from a problem that I have started calling "open world limbo" (or "open world purgatory"). This is a sort of paradoxical offshoot of the concept of ludonarrative dissonance. The game's open world "sandbox" design seems to directly conflict with the narrative that the game is trying to tell. It specifically refers to the conflict between the story and the game's open world, rather than a conflict between the game's story and any particular game system(s). Generally, this manifests as the game designers setting the stakes so high that the player should feel pressured to progress the narrative, but the game's open world design never follows through with any real consequences for not progressing.

Metal Gear Solid V - open desert
More and more big-budget games are going open world. is this a good thing?

This leads to problems in which the player can spend hours, weeks, or months doing tangential, or completely unrelated, tasks and pushing the game's story objectives down to the bottom of their priority list. For people who just like to play the game, this may not be much of a problem. They get a massive sandbox in which to do anything they want. That is actually one of the back-of-the-box selling point for most of these games.

But as one of those "games as art" kind of snobs, I also really like to have an engaging narrative that flows seamlessly with the gameplay. So if a game offers a narrative of any kind, you bet I'm going to judge the game based (at least in part) by how well that narrative works and how fully it is integrated into the core gameplay experience. And when a game tries to convince the player that they are destined to save the world from impending doom (as is often the case with big-budget, open world games), then I get really peeved when I find myself able to completely eschew that destiny in favor of picking flowers and peddling salvaged bandit armor for the next 100 hours.

A world in stasis

The source of most of the "limbo" comes down to the fact that these games' worlds (despite being big and detailed) often feel static and devoid of life. They don't change on their own. No one seems to have any sense of agency, and nothing ever happens unless the player is there to make it happen. Quest-givers sit around outside their house forever waiting for the player to come along and help them kill the wolves that are attacking their livestock, or find their missing heirloom, or deliver their special package to someone in the next town over, or whatever else they want done. The situation never resolves itself, the quest-giver never gets tired of waiting for you and hires another adventurer, those wolves never manage to eat all the remaining livestock, the heirloom never shows up in lost-and-found, and the statute of limitations on that package never expires. Emergencies can always wait [indefinitely] for the player to resolve them.

Witcher 3 - idle quest-giver
Quest-givers will wait forever for the player character to show up and solve their problems.

But worst of all is that the big, bad villain (if there is one) just doesn't feel very threatening or intimidating if he (or she, or it) isn't actually doing anything to actively antagonize the player or the world...

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Until Dawn - game title

Here is a game that somehow managed to slip under the radar for me. As a snob for strong narrative-based games, I was surprised that a project like Until Dawn managed to escape my attention until a couple weeks prior to its release. Once I heard about it though, I was immediately intrigued. I knew it wasn't going to be a proper survival horror game, but it looked to have a lot of potential to move the horror genre (and gaming in general) in interesting directions. I was doubly surprised when I went to go by the game a couple days after its release so that I could play it over the weekend, only for it to be sold out in the two stores that I went to. It's the first time in about ten years that I've had trouble finding a game on store shelves within a week of its release, but I doubt that I'll have to break my long-standing boycott for pre-orders. So I had to resort to ordering it off of Amazon Prime with 2-day delivery and play it the next weekend.

Suspend your disbelief - and your common sense

Don't be fooled into thinking that Until Dawn is something other than what it is. It is an interactive movie with branching story. It is not an open-ended survival game! Anyone familiar with Heavy Rain or the Telltale Games will have a good idea of how the game will play out. The things you do and the actions and dialogue available are very tightly scripted. You won't be making decisions on how the group splits up, who goes where, or even what any individual character might be doing at any given time. Large chunks of the game are just dialogue and cutscenes, stopping you every now and then to let you make one of two choices, or showing a button prompt on screen to keep the action going (and sometimes keep the character alive). There are even some action sequences that could have been playable, but which are strictly non-interactive cutscenes.

Until Dawn - can't light candles
How about lighting some friggin' candles instead of groping around in the dark?

The only time that the game opens up more is when you must explore rooms for clues or evidence. In these cases, you have complete control of character movement and can walk around mostly freely. But interactions are severely limited. You can only interact with the select few objects that the developers intended for you to interact with.

These limitations can be very frustrating because the game doesn't let you do some obvious, common sense things. Upon entering the lodge, I'd like to have been able to light the candles instead of having to wander around in the dark for the next few chapters. Later, when investigating something crashing through a window, I'd like to have been able to take the rifle I just found on the wall. And even later, after the rifle didn't have enough bullets to shoot the murderer, it would be nice to have been able to open up the revolver I just found to make sure that it's loaded and find out how many bullets are in the chamber. And the list of dumb oversights goes on...

Common sense precautions like taking a melee weapon or checking that your new gun is loaded are not possible.

These limitations are further exacerbated by the esoteric nature of some of the decisions. Since all decision are binary (usually consisting of a "helpful" / "safe" option or an "antagonistic" / "risky" option), it's often unclear exactly what the character will do, and the outcome often plays out in a non-interactive cutscene. The character may not say or do exactly what the option described, which might lead the player to think "that's not what I meant to do / say!", and sometimes a decision might railroad you into following through in a way that you don't want to.

Granted, the options need to be somewhat vague, and the consequences shouldn't be obvious. That would make the game too easy and dull. The game has to utilize some of the classic horror movie tropes in order for the narrative to work. After all, the characters don't have the foresight to know that they're in a horror movie game. I accept that there needs to be limitations on the precautions that the player can take, but the player also needs to feel like they have more agency.

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A gamer's thoughts

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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