On the concept of the open world videogame

Tim’s Cyberpunk review was not very remarkable except for the sympathetic guilt I felt for how much effort he dedicated to thoroughly exploring such a boring thing, but I did catch a renewed interest in open world game design after watching it. I’m starting to think of “Open World Videogames” not as the Ubisoft model which is impossible to run away from for too long but rather this thing which Ubisoft derives an incredibly boring style from.

Playing the PS2 GTA trilogy has me thinking that the “point” of open world games may really be movement and the modulation, or pace, of movement across and throughout the open world over any other element like shooting or cutscenes. This is why I think GTA got worse and worse the more they seemed to think driving cars in cool ways wasn’t enough, exposing their terribly limited mission design. San Andreas was so expansive that in order to “do anything” in that game, like progress the story to the point you can unlock Las Venturas, the most exciting part of that world, you just drive really fast between mission start points, and you miss out on all the really interesting world detail and strange emergent stuff that happens in the city streets. After SA, with GTA IV, Rockstar neared brilliance once again by deeply simulating physics, which breathed life into the long neglected core of GTA, which has always been driving. The missions, however, constantly take you out of your car, constantly see you walking down alleys, always put guns in your hand that suck to shoot except when they are rocket launchers. It’s literally not worth playing GTA IV to unlock the whole map. Which is a shame because the weight of cars and the density of traffic and all the simulated things around those make for a really great chase videogame. GTA V is a regression in every way.

RDR2 is actually the best modern Rockstar game because they have struck on the perfect pace to constrain player’s movement. It’s a slow game, you lumber everywhere you go, and this sets a pace slow enough that you can’t help but notice all the world detail and crafted scenario work – which is now the thing Rockstar cares about more than anything. If that world interests you is another matter, but I actually think it’s pretty amazing a lot of the time.

I played through Subnautica and really delighted in the feel of swimming, the way technology gauged mobility as well as my ability to explore the world. It’s a brilliant open world survival game, maybe the best I have played. It is also one of those games that artistically uses a low draw distance, inspiring mystery and dread in the shadowy unknown up ahead (and below you, above you; the shadowy unknown floats all around you in Subnautica, terror).

Death Stranding is also a real strong articulation of the mobility and pacing thesis I’m roughly sketching here. I don’t know why the open world videogame has become the formal structure every studio that hasn’t embarrassed itself into shame for not having exorcised its dumb ass anxiety about producing in an “inferior” storytelling medium has chosen to tell its middle-brow prestige videogame stories through. Death Stranding’s plot is what it is, but the story of Death Stranding is the one which emerges from moving across its map at a pace which is modulated by the challenges that make that movement not always smooth. Bumpy. I wonder if there is anything more that open world videogames can learn from Katamari Damacy.

I could probably appreciate the recent Spider-Man game a bit more now, I think. That’s a good game to sling webs in, but maybe there are better worlds with other things going on in them (to see or perhaps to touch) which would also be more fun to sling in.

The original Dead Rising, and maybe its two sequels, seems legible to this idea of the Open World Videogame. Level progression gating your actual speed, and, in a search action way, but also not, the paths available to you either by unlocking shortcuts or giving you the ability to treat walls of zombies as navigable that once would have slowed or stopped you outright.

If I were to keep this going, which I should be able to, slowly, as these games are always very long and I do get anxious thinking I could play other games, then I will play The Evil Within 2 (it has enough people rooting for it as an underdog) and I am interested in grabbing Days Gone while its on sale for similar reasons. Oh and No More Heroes as a tonic criticism to go along with all the worst examples of Open World Videogames.