Another glorious, sunny day outside in the big city. You’re going for a walk. Litter blows by – a burger box caught by the wind – and a homeless man screams obscenities from one of the side streets. Two blocks away, an officer of the law is arguing with the old woman who ran into the back of his car. Trucks drive past on their way to the docks, horns blaring at aimless, daylight prostitutes. A literal world of possibilities lies ahead of you. But you can’t go in there. No, not there either. Yes, you can parachute from the top of a skyscraper onto the back of a moving truck, all while firing rockets at pedestrians. No, you can’t talk to people in the street or look at anything. Unless it’s a gun. Or a mission checkpoint.
Freedom is a big deal in the modern world of video games, apparently. People are always going on about it. Blathering about free exploration, bemoaning the straightforwardness of recent first-person shooters, shrieking excitedly about map sizes. Technology has gifted developers the chance to make amazing and expansive open world games, from Grand Theft Auto to Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed to Just Cause. Meticulously constructed cities, sometimes even continents, replete with nooks, crannies, NPCs and secret feathers.
But what is anyone doing with these virtual dioramas? Mainly using them as very expensive backdrops, actually. We gun down hundreds of the guilty and innocent while Liberty City stands silently as a witness. Rome, Damascus and Boston consent to a little parkour and blood spatter over their lumps and bumps so the assassins can have a pretty playground. The mountains of Skyrim elongate our journey, and make us feel like we really earned those experience points when killing our third ice dragon. The glorious future of interactive entertainment looks suspiciously like mindless busy work.
A proposal, then: make these open worlds more like adventure games. Not everyone is a fan of the point-clicking and thoughtful conversation, but no genre has a better track record when it comes to telling great stories. Living the stories. Games are supposed to be about interaction, after all, and that includes the narrative aspects.
I’m going to step in with a big clarification: open world does not mean sandbox. The intent of a game like Saint’s Row is not to draw you in with a complex story, it’s to give you a big pile of stupid toys and let you go crazy. Borderlands 2 is about shooting midgets with acid, not solving mysteries. Grand Theft Auto, by comparison, has no intention of being a sandbox. It weaves a story around a believable setting. GTA has pedestrians because it’s realistic, Saint’s Row has pedestrians because it’s funny to kick people in the balls. I’m only talking about those games with the intent to involve you in a story beyond the superficial.
While we’re on the subject of GTA, let’s look at how a typical situation plays out. The example applies to most any open world, of course. You have a mission to pick up, so you go to the big marker on your map. A cutscene plays, then you go to the next marker. And probably a few more markers. There’s an exciting shootout, a final cutscene and the mission is finished. You head to another marker.
If things were a little more adventurous, you might get a phone call asking you to meet your contact for the mission. Knowing the address, you head there on the map; but you don’t know what room or floor to go to, so you decide (remember this part) to ask at reception. Meeting a man in his office, you may or may not stop to talk to a woman in red going as you’re coming. The contact tells you what to do, but not how. He gives you the target address and also a possible lead on some people with more information. If you head straight to your man and ignore the option to talk, your exciting shootout plays in parallel to the above universe. If you do talk, the option to resolve things peacefully appears. The mission ends, one way or another, and you’re left with a few loose ends and some unread messages in your email.
The first scenario is you reading a script and pulling a trigger, the second is you becoming part of the fiction. The second option is why we’re playing video games instead of watching films and reading books like normal people. We want to get involved. Affect outcomes.
Imagine playing Assassin’s Creed and being able to actually gather intelligence about your target. Discover their schedule by seducing their housekeeper, then lie in wait. Or successfully pose as a potential business associate to get close. And all it would take to give players this freedom is to remember that gameplay doesn’t always mean action. The consequences for accidentally calling someone’s wife a whore can be just as entertaining as those stemming from stabbing a guard two seconds too early. Probably more so. Having a philosophical debate with Darth Sion in Knights of the Old Republic 2 – working to convince the otherwise-immortal Sith he should let you win because everything he believed in was pointless – was infinitely more rewarding than a simple back and forth of attacks.
Bioware do their bit to inject a little adventure into their adventures. Aside from a few key decisions, the fate of Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard is on one of only a few set paths. Nonetheless, his or her ability to actually have conversations with other human beings, and the player’s ability to dictate the responses, means you actually feel like Shepard and not her stunt double. Dragon Age does an even better job, letting you shape your persona and the world around you with every seemingly insignificant exchange. Sadly, no Bioware game truly does away with the quest system that leads players from place to place. You’re still following dots to more dots so you can do the thing that makes the next dot appear.
I get that, though. These are epics. Space-spanning journeys to save the galaxy. Continents in peril. Putting the player on one side of a haystack and asking them to look for the needle would be horrible. But your average open world title is much smaller in scope, and potential future games could take that into account. Asking people to find an address in a small city isn’t such a big deal, especially if you give them a phone book and a map. Lots of people managed to find Carmen Sandiego without a big, red, flashing C and a GPS arrow.
If that’s still too daunting, imagine this: there’s a murderer on the loose. Someone in this small town is making it smaller, and you have to find out who it is. You’re free to roam around the town all you like, questioning people and investigating, and you can solve the crime whenever you think you’re ready. Lower the scale and suddenly everything can be a lot more complicated. More real. Not the pre-scripted drama of LA Noire – which was a wonderful game and a bloody awful adventure game – but a true world inside the game, changing and reacting beyond physics and cutscene flags.
We can do more than just make obsessively detailed scale models of cities. These are open worlds in the most literal sense only. Expansive tracks on which to play with our dolls. Sandboxes and playgrounds are fun, and I’d never ask them to die off, but there’s plenty of room for something a little more in-depth, and adventure games have already been building the tools for decades. Hopefully in the future our virtual cities will be a bit more holodeck and a bit less theme park ride.