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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Resident Evil 2 - title

Capcom's remake of Resident Evil 2 is a pretty difficult game. Much of its design is based on classic survival horror paradigms, which many players may not be familiar with. Classic survival horror has been essentially dead since the release of Resident Evil 4 all the way back in 2005. (And if you want to know what I think of Resident Evil 4, you can listen to my commentary in a playthrough for On the Branch's Let's Play channel). Since then, every mainstream horror game has either followed a formula similar to RE4 (such as Dead Space and The Evil Within), or it has gone the Amnesia route and been about running and hiding from foes rather than confronting them (such as Outlast and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories).

If you didn't play Resident Evil 7 or the REmake of the first Resident Evil, then you probably haven't played a true survival horror game in over 10 years (if ever).

Even though it has an over-the-back, third-person camera, Resident Evil 2's remake firmly follows most of the design conventions of the classic (pre-Resident Evil 4) survival horror genre -- minus the tank controls. Here's some observations of mine that I hope will help you survive Raccoon City, whether you're an experienced survival horror gamer (like me) or a newbie.

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Firewatch - title

I made it through the big winter game releases, my play-time with Civilization VI's first expansion has slowed down, and the lackluster Green Cities expansion means that I'm not sinking tons of time into Cities: Skylines anymore. This has left me free to finally dive into my Steam back-log once again and try to finally cross off some of the games that have been sitting there for a year or longer. Oh, sure, I have some big games that I'm still playing off and on, like Monster Hunter: World and the 2.0 update of Stellaris, and those reviews will come in time.

Firewatch was released in February 2016, and has been sitting in my Steam library since the summer sale of that same year. I was actually surprised that it had only been two years. I was half afraid that I'd find the game had been sitting around since like 2012 or something like that. Two years isn't that bad, right? I'm not too late to this party, am I?

Firewatch is a summer job to just ... get away from it all.

The life you left behind

Basically, the game is about a middle-aged man dealing with a mid-life crisis. Except that it isn't the stereotypical "mid-life crisis" in which a 40-year-old man goes out and buys a sports car to feel young and "cool" again. In this case, Henry takes a job as a fire look-out at a national park in order to escape the very real life crisis of dealing with his wife suffering from early-onset Alzheimers. He's trying to escape from the very real trauma of losing his wife, Julia. Julia is actually still alive, but the illness means that she isn't the same person, and Henry is struggling with whether he can even stand to visit her anymore, and whether she's effectively "dead to him".

Not only is he losing his wife, but he's also dealing with the guilt and grief of not ever having really given her the life that she wanted. His own selfish desires and apathy meant that they kept putting off having kids, Julia never got to live where she wanted to live and have the job that she wanted to have, and so forth. And now Henry and Julia are suddenly out of time. Not only can he not have the life with Julia that they both want, but he's not young enough to really start over either. He's stuck with the life choices that he's made, and he doesn't want to have to face that.

The game that follows is an exploration of choice, and how a person copes with the consequences of their choices.

There won't always be a "later"...

I'm in my early 30's (a good decade younger than Henry), but I'm starting to get to the age when this sort of thing really hits me hard as well. I'm not 20 years old anymore. I'm becoming very much aware of the ticking clock as well. The pressure to have children soon or accept that we never will weighs on my girlfriend an I. Fortunately, she has a child from a previous relationship, so we did both have the opportunity to raise at least one child together.

My 7-year-old proxy daughter, by the way, asked me who my character in the game is and what he looks like. I told her that he's a "kind of pudgy, balding, middle-aged man with a beard, named Henry." To which she responded, "like you?". Sigh. Yes, sweetie, just like me...

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Civilization VI - title

I really like Civilization VI! Of course, it has its share of nagging problems (some of which have been resolved already) - any game of this size and scope is likely to have issues at release. I've already been thinking of some ideas for how the game could be improved in expansions and DLC, and I'd like to spend a few posts to share some of those ideas with you now.

In my review of the game, I mentioned that oceans feel like they've regressed a bit since Beyond Earth: Rising Tide, in that they've returned to feeling like lifeless dead space on the map. Even though they're more important for Holy Sites and Campuses, mountains are also still mostly dead space on the map. They act as obstacles, and that's basically it. In expansions and DLC, I would like to see some of this space become more alive and useful. I'd like to spend this first suggestion post going over some ideas that I have for expanding the ocean mechanics, and for taking advantage of more of the map's dead space.

I have posted a link to this blog on Civfanatics at:
https://forums.civfanatics.com/threads/using-more-of-the-dead-space-in-the-map.610171/.
Feel free to discuss through the comments on this post, or via the linked forum topic!

Improve coastal cities

I'm very underwhelmed with coastal cities right now. Water tiles have very little utility. They provide small yield, can't have districts (other than a single harbor per city), and generally lack production. Coastal cities with lots of water are, thus, very unproductive and not really worth building. I think there's a couple ways to resolve this.

Harbors could provide a small amount of production. Or perhaps Harbors could act similarly to lighthouses from Civ V and provide production on sea resources. Or they could provide production on all adjacent sea tiles (so that placement is still important, and more of those empty sea tiles become useful and worth working, and you actually have to work them in order to get the benefit (as opposed to the Harbor just having an adjacency bonus). If we want to only use adjacency bonuses, then another alternative might be for Harbors to provide +1 production per adjacent coastal resource and +0.5 gold per adjacent water tile. That way, even cities that don't have clustered water resources can still have valuable locations for harbors.

Civilization VI - island city
Coastal and island cities lack production and have limited space to build districts.

Another way to improve coastal cities would be to have some more early policies that benefit coastal cities. Perhaps the Maritime Industries policy could be changed to "+1 production in coastal cities, and +1 production from Harbors". Alternatively, Maritime Industries could be similar to the Veterancy policy, and it could provide "+33% production towards Harbor districts and buildings for that district". Or we could have policies that do both! A new policy could be added that provides the bonus production for early naval units. Maybe there can even be a whole extra early-game civic (maybe called "Seafaring" or "Way-finding") that has some policies and buffs towards coastal and island civilizations.

The lack of production for coastal cities could also be offset by giving them more gold and/or food for growth (in order to support a specialist economy)...

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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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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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