Are Open Worlds Just Full of Hot Air? (or, Did I Enjoy GTA V?)

“With MGS up to now, we could only build the interior of wherever you were infiltrating. How you got there was shown in a cutscene, and the player would just suddenly be in front of the entrance. Once you finished the mission, there’d be another cutscene, a helicopter or whatever would come by, and you’d escape. It’s not that linear games are bad […] but really, it’d be fun if you were the one thinking about how and where to infiltrate, what sort of equipment to bring, and how to get out of there…. I feel that games are interactive media, and the rush comes in being able to use what you’re given freely to play. Open worlds create that for you, and I think the future of gaming lies in them.” – Hideo Kojima, speaking toward the new open-world interface of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. (Polygon)

I, on the other hand, miss linear games. I miss their intricacy, and more importantly, I miss their focus. (Look at Jonathan Blow’s example of corridor shooters, which can be fairly complex.) And let’s face it–you’re not going to be “free” to do whatever you want; games are limited by their scripting (as The Stanley Parable illustrates), and there’s only so much that a main mission can accommodate before breaking. If anything, the open-world approach is lazy: it trusts that gamers will find ways to occupy themselves, such that developers don’t even need to spend time padding content–at least, not beyond creating basic objectives that you can they rely on players to mindlessly grind out, in a thankless sort of repetition. (Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed are prime offenders.) It seems silly to say that this is the “future,” when games like Dishonored, Bioshock, and Deus Ex prove that the best sort of experience is a middle-ground, in which there are specific missions and locations, but with enough scripting within them to allow various approaches. More ironic, considering Kojima’s penchant for “cinematic” games–is the way that he glosses over the real movie-like games: action-packed and highly linear ones like The Last of Us, or even the recent Tomb Raider reboot (which allowed you to revisit and further explore locations).

I think the most perfect example of excess used to diminishing returns is with Grand Theft Auto V. There’s too much to do, and it comes at a generalized cost–there isn’t a single thing that GTA V does better than other games (or even as well as). Instead, it just happens to do everything other games do . . . but then again, if I wanted to play video game golf or tennis, it wouldn’t be in GTA V. Even the actual core gameplay, which alternates between driving sequences and run-and-cover shooting, is stuff I’d rather do in other games, like Need for Speed or Uncharted. I enjoyed scuba diving and piloting a submarine in the main game–when it was story related, and I had characters talking to me so as to alleviate the boredom–but the thought of searching for thirty pieces of nuclear waste in sullen silence? I don’t care how pretty the reefs look, or how much better the water’s gotten (from when it used to kill you instantly): this is gamification at its worst. Don’t get me wrong: I know collect-a-thons are up some people’s alley, and the inclusion of Grand Theft Auto Online offers incentives for players to muck around with all of these features for more chaotic, murderous purposes.

And that’s not even the worst of the padding–it’s simply the distraction. If you look at how “much” the game has to offer, perhaps you’ll forget how shallow it really is. No matter how dressed up it gets, you’re just driving (or flying) from A to B, and occasionally shooting things in between. This might be so bad if the game itself were different, but let’s not forget that you have to drive to each mission, too–so you’re driving to get to a point where you can drive some more, the only difference being that when you’re on a mission, you’ll probably have someone keeping you company, entertainingly yammering on as you drive. It’s the writing, then, that saves Grand Theft Auto V, just as the over-the-top insanity and nonsense of Saint’s Row III (and IV) helped to turn things around, and avoid the failures of other open-world games, like Infamous or, far worse, Prototype. But in general, bigger is generally badder–the best of these games are carefully constructed and have clear limits, like Batman: Arkham City, or adapt arcade-like conventions to keep overworld travel from getting boring (as with the “shifting” ability introduced in Driver: San Francisco, which worked far better than the somewhat random shifting of GTA V).

When I think about what I enjoyed about GTA V, it had little to do with the gameplay itself, which was more likely to frustrate than thrill me. (I’m talking about police randomly chasing me, seeing through walls; cars getting stuck in absurd places, or freaking out on simple turns; and the auto-aim simplification of any shooting sequence.) Instead, I was in love with hearing these characters speak–and there was already a satirical in-game talk radio station to fulfill those needs (and it goes for a lot of easy humor; nothing too subtle). That’s a bit of a simplification (the first time bicycling, diving, stunt jumping, rappelling, etc., was always a blast), but GTA V was a hamster wheel for me: I’d spin around in it simply to earn story-related treats, and get intensely bored whenever the voices stopped talking. (No, I assure you, this is not a symptom of insanity.) When the game ended, leaving me with millions to spend on each character, I didn’t rush out to buy property or vehicles; I powered down and ejected the disc. I didn’t want to spend time making money from cab fares, towing junked cars, running drugs in a prop plane, or stylishly skydiving (not even from an RV): without a bigger picture, the fantasy of this virtual lifestyle was no longer appealing. (Seeing what others have come up with, on the other hand, is priceless, so I guess I don’t really care what’s thrown into a game, so long as it doesn’t getting in the way with the core of the game itself.)

In conclusion, the more open a game gets, the harder the developers have to work to fill it within enough content to excuse all the empty space/filler. GTA V succeeds by using crackling dialogue to distracts from the repetition (much as those who drive use the radio to numb the tedium), and I have every expectation that Metal Gear Solid V will do the same, especially if codec conversations no longer have to take place while immobile. But let’s not hope for a future of ever bigger and broader video games–we don’t need them to imitate life, after all, so much as we need them to be specific enough to distract and challenge us. (That’s what makes something as absurd as Bayonetta so enjoyable.) Here’s to a focused future!


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