We talked a lot about open-world games this week, starting with Clayton Purdom’s look at how Nintendo’s two big 2017 hits—Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and Super Mario Odyssey—make some smart alterations to that all-too-prevalent structure. In the comments, SingingBrakeman ran with the topic:
I had been very skeptical of both due to the pre-release coverage emphasizing their size, but I was pleasantly surprised by the discovery that they used their space not for the checking off of boxes in pursuit of some goal—though you can play them this way—but rather to bring joy through the very act of exploration.
By removing most of the long-term incentives for completion of goals, both games switched the focus onto the tasks being engaging in their own right. A player could collect all of the Korok seeds in Hyrule, but he or she would not end up with any narrative development or bauble beyond a humorous joke item. A player could collect all of the moons in Odyssey’s various kingdoms, but the major rewards stop being doled out after collecting only 50 percent of them. With no progression system, narrative development, or material reward, a player loses that Skinner-box mentality designed to keep him or her pushing onward due to a tight input/output loop; instead, the player will just seek out and complete goals that are, themselves, interesting. A Korok seed puzzle is effectively just a little brain-engaging reward for paying attention to the environment in Breath Of The Wild, and a Moon in Odyssey tends to be a reward for creatively ascending some peak or outrunning a Koopa Troopa, so they are being collected in pursuit of fun, rather than as a goal in their own right.
It’s a fascinating design principle, and reminds me of 2016's The Witness, where a player could seek assistance on puzzles, but no rewards were available other than more complex puzzles; the puzzles, and the accompanying sense of mastery, were their own reward, so a player would only stay invested as long as he or she was enjoying the act of playing.
Clayton contrasted Mario and Zelda with the likes of Horizon Zero Dawn (more on that later) and Assassin’s Creed, the latest entry in which Patrick Lee reviewed for us this week. Building off a comment where WolfmanJew likened the lavish environments of Assassin’s Creed to little more than set dressing, Once I Was ImpromptuJ told us why the series has continually let them down:
That’s it exactly. My favorite open-world games feature maps with distinct pockets of civilization, each with their own unique local flavor and variety of citizens. Whether we’re talking about the holds of Skyrim, the villages of Witcher 3, the towns of Red Dead Redemption, or even the neighborhoods of GTA V, these games are all about the thrill of discovery—even (or especially) when you’re not fighting bandits or monsters out in the wilderness somewhere.
And the AC games, which are usually entirely set in urban environments, never really provide that thrill. Aside from the famous historic landmarks and a few surface details, one part of the city always pretty much looks like the next, especially when you’re skulking around the rooftops. And the people teaming around below are so uniform and uninteresting they may as well be slow-moving gray blobs with the word “obstacle” stamped on their foreheads.
As long as there are still haylofts to dive into and dudes shouting “Hey, get down from there!” to avoid, it’s probably still the same routine—fling yourself around a blandly attractive 3-D painting of a historical setting, stabbing whomever and collecting what-have-you. It was fun at first, but I just can’t imagine enjoying going back to that well again.
And going back to that certain PlayStation 4 exclusive game with the robot dinosaurs, as tends to happen whenever we talk about our displeasure with Horizon Zero Dawn, many commenters came out to defend it. AmaltheaElanor made a good argument for why they think it’s an example of what open-world games should be:
I know The A.V. Club didn’t really go for Horizon in general, but I found its approach to open-world exactly what I want it to be. And it’s the model, quite frankly, I’d love to see more developers follow. Practically every open-world game I’ve played (including beloved titles like Skyrim and Witcher 3) tends to lean toward the “quantity over quality” approach. By which I mean, they make the world as massive as possible, with as much content as they can cram into it, guaranteeing the player hundreds of hours of playtime—and it always comes at the cost of at least something, be it gameplay, technical quality, graphics, and/or story. Witcher 3 has solid storytelling, but its combat is really underwhelming. Bethesda worlds are fun to get lost in, but they’re also glitchy as hell. Mass Effect: Andromeda sacrificed story for content. Dragon Age: Inquisition basically gave up trying to be a traditional CRPG in favor of more content and simplistic gaming mechanics. And anything Ubisoft is practically guaranteed to be loaded down with filler.
I loved HZD because it showed restraint. It had a big open world, but it didn’t go crazy on the size. It has a lot of content, but there’s still a finite amount of quests, and they’re meaningful and well developed. There are optional collectibles, but they enhance and fill out the game’s world. At no point did I really feel like the game was just putting something in to bulk up the playtime. I finished in 70 hours and found every minute worth it. I’d love to see more games take their cues from this one.
Also this week, William Hughes dropped the final installment in his Wolfenstein II Game In Progress review. And although it doesn’t seem like something MachineGames would go for considering the message it’s trying to send with these games, TheREALBOJACK made a pretty solid case for why things may not be as they seem for the back half of Terror-Billy’s Nazi-slaying ride. Yes, plot details are coming up, so beware:
William pointed out the drastic tone shift that happens after BJ gets his head cut off. What if that’s because the rest of the game doesn’t actually happen?
What if BJ getting his head cut off kills him (obvi), and in his last few seconds of consciousness a bunch of random synapses fire and give him some delusional fictional closure before he dies? His first words to Anya in the hospital bed are “Is this real?”, after all. It would also explain the bombastic nature of the rest of the game, even though it’s not that far out of the realm of possibility in the Wolfenstein universe. Things like Anya and the rest of the gang surviving and getting away from the Nazis after Super-Spesh died, even though there’s no way they would have actually gotten out of there alive; there being absolutely no security around Frau Engel at the end of the game; the very existence of a Venus base; actually running into Hitler himself at a casting call for an actor; etc.
I’m kind of expecting them to reveal that that’s what it was at the end of Wolfenstein III, when BJ & The Gang inevitably “Kill all the Nazis and save the world,” it’ll turn out to have all been a delusional last-second fantasy of a dying man. That fits into the Wolfenstein universe much more thematically.
That’ll do it for this week, Gameologinauts. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!