By Kyle B. Stiff
Like a lightning bolt to the skull, I had an epiphany about open-world games. The idea blasted my head open not only with its power, but also its utter simplicity.
In my time, I’ve played a lot of Fallout (even the old ones) and I’ve watched others play a shit-ton of Grand Theft Auto, so I feel like I know what I’m talkin’ about. This epiphany happened while I was playing Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (my excuse is that I was hung over and thus not fit to do anything worthwhile).
Before I get into the epiphany, I have to say that I was struck, like so many others, by the utter absurdity of how “realistic” everyone’s schedule is in Oblivion. You want to go to a shop in the middle of the night? Nope, can’t do it, the shop owner is in his house. Yes, the freaking shop owner has a house; you can even follow him after he closes up and find out where it is. So what do you do? You go through the motions of telling your character to “wait” until morning. Your character effectively stands and stares at the wall until the shop owner walks past him and opens up.
It’s ridiculous, but that’s what happens when you try to make games too realistic. It seems like an impressive thing to do, but people don’t really want a realistic game. The ultimate in gaming realism would be a game that when you turn it on, you have to do something repetitive, and you have to do it for eight hours and you can’t turn off the game during that time, and there’s also a bonus “commute” stage at the beginning and end of the session which lasts for about an hour. Plus the characters would have to be flat and uninteresting, and you could never kill the “final boss” because you would have to go to prison if you did. That’s realism. And it sucks. You play games to get away from that stuff.
So an open-world sandbox game shouldn’t try for hyper-realism. Day and night cycles are cool, changes in the weather are nice, but chain the shop owner to his shop 24-7.
But then there’s also the story thing. People love a good story. But for a really good story, the storyteller needs to keep a tight rein on what happens and when it happens. That’s mostly impossible in an open-world game; it can sort of be done, but it’s never as moving as a linear narrative. There are so many people to see and interact with in an open-world game that no central characters ever stand out.
So why even bother with open-world games at all? Aren’t linear narratives superior in every respect?
Open-world sandboxes have one advantage over linear games, and that reason brings me back again and again. It’s the fact that you can go to strange places that are off the beaten path and see or interact with something that you never suspected might be there.
And so, finally, here’s my epiphany: Open-world games need more strange experiences. It’s simple, but it’s profound.
Remember that guy in Fallout 3 who was running around with a bomb strapped to his back? Remember walking around in the woods in Oblivion or Skyrim and climbing a hill and seeing a sunrise or a sunset or a city cloaked in mist or the ocean or a distant mountain sitting under a brooding gray sky? Remember seeing strange shacks or locations in Fallout 3 that weren’t marked on the map, and wondering what you might find? Remember hearing strange transmissions and stumbling on underground scenes of darkness and horror? Remember that element of wonder and surprise? Remember exploring in Shadow of the Colossus just because you wanted to see the view from different unique landmarks?
Strange moments like that are far and few between in linear narratives because you can’t take the player “off track” and confuse him with something that doesn’t pertain to the unfolding storyline. But in a sandbox game, the entire game should mostly consist of going “off track”. Unfortunately, games like Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto try to have linear instances, and they quickly cease to become interesting as they morph into fetch quest grocery lists. Join the Mages Guild; work your way up the ranks. Join the Fighter’s Guild; work your way up the ranks. In Grand Theft Auto you can meet this one dude; do his quests until he’s been milked dry. Or join this other faction, and… you get the idea.
A sandbox game needs to be chock full of non-sequitors and strange encounters. When planning what you’re going to do, you shouldn’t be thinking, “Guess I’ll wrap up this or that guild’s quest line.” You should be thinking, “I’ll explore that one weird looking area and then roll with whatever happens.” The writers need to be creative, strange dudes who are less obsessed with power and progress and the ability to talk to every civilian yokel, and more interested in surprising the player and instilling a sense of wonder and shock.
* * *
Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.