Critical Examination: Open World vs Open Levels

I’m about to make an argument that is more than a bit unpopular in today’s gaming world – open world games are really starting to suck.  It’s true.  As I was playing Final Fantasy XV, I was in awe of the beautiful visuals and the fun gameplay.  However, after a while, so much of the open world got very dull.  Why?  For the same reason that most open world games are suffering, these days – lack of stuff to do.  It’s easy to have a big, open space that has nothing in it.  That was the biggest flaw with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.  Well, that and the fact that the game was clearly incomplete.  Funny, that’s the same feeling I have about Final Fantasy XV, too.  The plot to both games was stupid in the extreme, while the gameplay was fun beyond all reason.

The simple reality is that with more and more games looking to go open world, they are sacrificing making the most of the space they have to just give the player more area to be bored.  Sure, there are the games that do it right, like the Grand Theft Auto franchise, or The Witcher 3, but the reality is that they are the exceptions, not the rule.  And both of those games have a mix of open levels to open world.

I can hear your question – what’s the difference?  What separates an open level from an open world?  It’s easy – open levels are contained spaces where things happen.  There are rigid boundaries that dictate where the player can and cannot go.  The common gaming culture says that this is nothing but making things linear, and while there is some amount of truth to that, I think people with that perspective are not seeing the bigger picture.  Just because it is a limited space doesn’t mean that it is a corridor.  Before we get into that, let’s analyze why an open world is not always a good thing, by showing when it goes wrong.

Games that do Open World wrong

The first big example – Watch Dogs.  Didn’t play the sequel.  Never will.  Was burned enough by the original game.  The original game had a vast, very tacky open world.  And like most Ubisoft sandbox games, something about that open world – it was boring.  There was virtually nothing to do.  It was the same repetitive shit, over and over again.  Without anything truly interesting to look at, the whole concept got dull almost like that.  However, then there were the internal areas.  Once you were cut loose inside of buildings or levels you had to infiltrate, using your hacking tools was infinitely more fun.  You could get through a whole mission without a single bit of violence, if you knew what you were doing.  Those were the best moments in the game.

Next up, let’s talk about Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.  I actually do really like that game.  When you are doing what the game was meant to do, it is loads of fun.  Sneaking through a base, never killing a single soldier, is an awesome experience.  Sure, sometimes Quiet would blow someone’s head off because they spotted me, but that’s why I have her with me.  The base is on alert, but that just makes sneaking easier.  Now I can quietly get around in the confusion and tranq a few soldiers who just happened to be dumb.  The base levels are awesome, and make me feel like a stealth agent.  But then there is the overworld.  In Afghanistan, I’ll at least give that the overworld is fun to look at.  Hell, it’s downright beautiful.  The desert they rendered was simply fantastic.  Made me wish the entire game could have taken place there, because Africa was butt-ugly.

Speaking of games with an overworld that is nice to look at, but boring to traverse through – Final Fantasy XV.  The world of that game is sublime.  No joke, I love looking at it.  But the problem is that the overworld is really big, with not one fucking thing to do.  Sure, there are the monster hunts, and those are genuinely fun.  Aside from the nighttime ones, when you can’t see shit.  Or the wasp ones, where they spray the confusion stuff and make fighting them so much more difficult.  However, that game had the unfortunate distinction to not having many cool contained areas to explore.  Were it not for how fun the gameplay is, this game really would have fared much worse, in my eyes.

So, what have we learned?  Hopefully, that an open space means that you just have more opportunities for the player to get bored.  It’s impossible to have some massive space and have enough stuff to keep a player’s attention.  Ask the makers of No Man’s Sky how that works.  Let’s look at some games that took the open level design motif.

Games that did Open Level right

Let’s look back at 2016, and talk about Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.  This game was very linear, but was still able to use open spaces within its levels to give the player options.  Whether it be the driving segments in Madagascar that allowed you to explore a frankly-gorgeous terrain, or the areas in an action space that allow you to make use of stealth or go all-out, guns blazing, the game has lots of variety in its environments while still keeping it contained.  That was part of the fun.  Another Naughty Dog game, The Last of Us, used a similar style.  Anywhere that there was sneaking to be done, the game gave you lots of options in each level.  Each area had a ton of choke points or hiding spaces to make use of.

I haven’t played the newest iteration of Hitman, because of the episodic bullshit and the always-online DRM crap (planning on getting it when it comes out on disc so I don’t have to deal with that), but from what I was told, the use of open levels was done brilliantly.  The levels are large, and have a lot of moving parts, but because it is still a contained space, the game lets you play around within its space.  You have more tools at your disposal to get your signature kill done.  That’s smart.

Another example of doing it right is in most JRPG games like Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch or Skies of Arcadia.  In both of those games, they have a large overworld that you can explore at your leisure, but the details are vague and travel is implied to be over a period of time.  This is smart because it gives the player the chance to explore and find hidden secret areas, while having the individual levels be really open and interesting.  I have actually been missing such an overworld.  Been missing a good JRPG, too.

Both of these styles of games have their advantages.  The best example of both concepts coming together was in The Witcher 3.  That game not only had a very dynamic open world, but also very dynamic smaller levels to play around with.  It was right brilliant.  However, that game was the exception, not the rule.  Ubisoft has become the punching bag of the Internet for doing the concept wrong.  Sometimes they catch lighting in a bottle, like with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, but that game REALLY was the exception.  Developers needs to learn that it’s okay to sometimes make things linear.  Just balance it out by letting the player have more open spaces to play around it.  Linear can be good for moving the story along.  Sometimes you don’t need a huge amount of space to fuck around in.  All you need is a hallway to walk down, or a building to explore.  However, then you go to a place where the game lets you unwind and explore at your own pace.  It has to be a balancing act.

Part of me is hoping that we’re going to be stepping away from these big open-world games for a while.  It’s become not only a hassle for developers, but also a crutch for games to lean on.  After all, if you can have a huge world for players to grind and do busy-work in, then that keeps them playing for hours and hours.  Makes them a lot of money.  However, true inspiration comes from when you are able to make the most of what you have.  Open levels give players the best of both worlds.  The linearity that gives games smooth plot progression, and a way for them to feel like they have control over the pace of how they play.

What are your thoughts?  Let me know in the Comments.

Until next time, a quote,

“Choice.  The problem is choice.” – Neo, The Matrix Reloaded

Peace out,

Maverick

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