Discovering worlds without borders.
Did you see that? I didn’t think so. That’s the problem with your eyes. They can only point in one place at a time. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn’t waiting for you to watch.
That’s what real-life is like. It’s what makes it so wonderful. Behind every door, in every corner of the planet, something is happening. An intricate story plays out – a tale of sadness, or joy, or the one about the horse and the frankfurter. Shit happens, if you will. All the time.
Games do something different. Our open worlds are geographically free, with huge expanses to cover. It takes more than two hours to walk the sun-drenched streets of Grand Theft Auto V’s San Andreas and Blaine County. Roughly the same (and a few dips in the drink) to cover The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s Northern Realms.
But while the landscapes roll on and on, time stands still just over the horizon.
And I’m starting to wonder if that’s a problem.
Games wait for us. Blame brains.
Gaming’s worlds tend to stand still until we’re there to witness them. That’s exactly what you’d expect from a medium that’s traditionally been built around closure.
Many of us are compelled to seek closure. Psychologists have looked at this very human trait time and time again, and developed a number of different theories.
Maybe it’s the self-preserving function of the brain to remember incomplete actions better than the ones we finish. After all, that’s essential in day-to-day life, when forgetting you’ve turned the gas on presents a very real danger. Maybe it’s our need to enforce narrative on the world, ordering chaotic events into chains of cause and effect with beginnings, middles, and ends.
Or maybe it’s the simple need to draw all possible value from a product that we’re spending our hard-earned money on.
Games have historically pandered to that need. Their stories keep us pushing forwards until the resolution arrives and the end-credits roll. The promise of an alternate ending or unlockable bonus take us even further, collecting gizmos and gadgets galore in the pursuit of true completion.
But, for me, it’s that compulsion to see and do everything that undermines what makes open world gaming so spectacular – and turns the joy of a title into a checklist chore.
Hitting the open world’s walls
I’ll be honest. Open worlds are impressive, but they’re all-too-often intimidating. With the promise of so much to see and do, I start to wonder if I’ll ever find the time to see it all. So I made a decision to stop. And I think that might be a good thing.
See, when you wring every ounce of gameplay from an open world, you’re coming up against the artifice. It’s when you run out of side quests and random events that it’s made clear this world isn’t alive. It’s a to-do list of tasks and cut-scenes that, ultimately, leads to a dead end.
That’s how we digest a film or a novel. We press on to a point of completion and resolution. But it’s not how the world works, not really.
What the scale and complexity of recent open worlds offers, for me, isn’t more to see and do. By allowing the random to feel random and the minor to feel minor, the worlds feel rich and textured.
Finally, open worlds feel bigger than me, bigger than my story, and full to the brim of life – whether I’m there to see it or not.