Open-World Games Need To Close Themselves Down

Open-world games have become a staple of action-adventure games over the years. However, as I’ve played more and more of these titles, I feel less convinced of the story they’re trying to tell. 

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been enthralled with the world of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Adventuring through the world of ancient Greece has been breathtaking. I’ve traveled from vista to vista, slaying enemies and monsters along the way as the main character cements themselves into the heroic fables equivalent of what Homer wrote about in the Iliad and The Odyssey. 

The story feels like a modern retelling of Perseus’ quest, with a more prominent backstory. Kassandra, thrown from a cliff as a young child trying to save their sibling from the same fate at the hands of their father, finds themselves searching for their meaning in life in adulthood. What you discover with them along the way is exquisite, as mighty powers of the Gods course through their veins. Is that power enough to save the Greek world?

It’s great stuff, and I’m a sucker for stories with heroes who obtain power and use it to help others. As I’ve played on, something about the foundation of the game makes me feel like I’m missing something – like I’m not doing something that I should be doing. Then I realized it was the open world. Subsequently, I realized I’m starting to have that realization with nearly every open-world game I play.

The Open-World Is Your Playground

A vast experience in open-world games

If you’ve never played an open-world game, it’s fairly simple. Usually, you play as a single character in a sprawling landscape with various amounts of terrain and climates. There’s the main story at play, but then there are all of these other little side missions. These throw you off the beaten path as a way to accentuate world-building. I don’t have a problem with this. 

The issue is that these side missions that “open up” the world don’t add any intrinsic value to the main story of the game. It’s why I gave up watching The Walking Dead after season 5. Our main group kept finding other groups, only to fight them off, kill them, and take control of their compound or resources. The writers stunted the progress of the narrative in the same way open-world game developers do.

But perhaps even more of an issue I have is dialogue options that pop up during a conversation. These are video games’ equivalent of “choose your own adventure” novels. Novels that utilize this method don’t take weeks to finish. What may surprise you, however, is I find these dialogue choices very interesting. These choices challenge your beliefs on morality and justice and greed in an intriguing way. And for some – if not most open-world games – your choices in these moments have a direct outcome on the game’s ending. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has nine different endings! All of these are predicated on who you talk to and how you answer their questions on your 100+ hour journey. 

On top of that, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is part of Ubisoft’s long-running franchise, which has a timeline that starts with Odyssey. Because I dictate – to a small degree – how this game ends for me, how does that reflect on the narrative of the rest of the series? Do canonical events within this game series even matter, or is that besides the point?

The Choice Is Yours…Or Is It?

Red Dead Redemption

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the disdain people can have for games, and I mentioned that The Last Of Us: Part II doesn’t let you decide – the narrative is fixed. While I can’t say if I think that makes a game better, I will say that it does make its message and characterization crystal clear. 

Like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, others have choice-driven narratives, too – albeit they aren’t all equal. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, Red Dead Redemption 2 and No Man’s Sky are some of my favorite games I’ve ever played. But I can’t help but feel like there’s an ever-so-slight disconnect between these games’ choices and the narratives they attempt to tell. 

Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher 3 is on a quest to find a former apprentice, and along the way, he meets people with information he seeks. So, the choices you get to make with Geralt feel intrinsically personal. There’s only so much you and Geralt know at the same time. But you also get to play as his apprentice, Ciri, in intermission sections, as you see where she’s been and who she runs into.

But as with Geralt, you get to choose how Ciri responds to questions and situations, too. However, she doesn’t read as someone who would willingly tell a stranger her true intentions or where she’s come from or going. Yet those options exist for the player. While intriguing, these don’t seem to directly impact the moment she’s in outside of conversations taking different routes. 

Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2 is given more subtly. Approach a stranger who needs aid, and he’ll strike up a conversation, and in these moments, you’re not always given a prompt to reply in certain ways. But the resolution to the quest at hand is where you may be given a choice regarding the person you helped – and even then you aren’t prompted to choose. The situation asks unguided questions of the player, which feels more organic. 

No Man’s Sky is probably the most free-choice game because you’re playing as an astronaut, exploring the vastness of space. Along the way, you’ll encounter characters who will help to further your knowledge of the universe as you can attempt to explore its mysteries –  but you get to decide when you want to do this at all. The progression is loose, which feels more personal, and makes the main narrative feel almost like a side quest.

Open-world game narrative in Black Mirror

Open-world game narrative choices remind me of Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. It’s a cool idea, but you lose subtly and surprise at the expense of becoming an active participant in an otherwise intangible moment. 

If you can reload your game after you’ve chosen to change your answer, is that true choice? You’ve just altered cause and effect. These choice-driven decisions in open-world games sometimes lead to the situation having the same resolution either way. Where’s the surprise in that?

During the early opening hours of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Kassandra is presented with a choice to kill a character, only to have them relay information about someone else integral to the story with their dying breath. 

Kassandra, pumping with adrenaline, stood shaking and hyperventilating. It was a very intense scene that was portrayed perfectly. But I began to feel like the choice I made went against Kassandra’s personality. Would she kill someone who wasn’t a direct threat to her? Would she kill for vengeance? If so, where does she draw the line? Notice how these questions I’m asking are never ones I get to ask of Kassandra, but that the game asks of me to answer for her.

If I had chosen the other option, would they have joined me on my journey, helping me find this other person? So, I reloaded before that encounter and chose the other option only to realize that the ending to this moment is the same – just differences in action, not the outcome. That doesn’t make any sense. Why am I allowed to go back and change that? Just because I don’t like it? Well, now that I’ve done that I feel like I’m not experiencing the story legitimately. 

Do you see the problem? Am I supposed to be the character, or is the character supposed to be me? The story beats in open-world video games become more movie-esque as the years go on, and the characters are written in ways that are charming, complex, and flawed. But when you play a game like this, with a protagonist that you venture out into this unknown world with, is it fair to that character that I decide what they should say or do when given a prompt?

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