Open World Games are Wasting Time
Should game narratives *always* revolve around the player?
I’m that guy you know who loved the first Dead Rising, quirks and all.
Keiji Inafune and his team at Capcom, perhaps unwittingly, crafted a masterful commentary about the way big budget open world game design functions that has stood the test of time far better than it has any right to.
Time. That’s the key here.
I’ve been working my way through Ubisoft’s completely massive Assassin’s Creed Origins. It is perhaps the pinnacle of modern big budget open world design. It ticks all the boxes, and it does so all while throwing out or reinventing every single system that’s ever lived inside one of these games.
Amazing combat? Check! A vast and realistic world to explore using a variety of modes of transport? Check! Piles of loot that are fun to get and use? Check! Breathtaking graphics that seem impossible for the scope of the game? Check!
Quests and narrative design that force the whole world to revolve around my character, virtually stopping time as far as the plot is concerned until I decide to go do them?
Like Skyrim, GTA V, and many other open world games, Origins features an elaborate time of day system and associated behaviors for all of its characters. The beautiful lighting engine gorgeously renders the sun as it passes overhead, and people go about their virtual lives. They transport goods. They farm the land. They run shops. They sleep.
And none of it really matters.
The real events of the story won’t happen until you get there. No matter what your goal is, if you’re between quests…the world will just hang out and wait for you. The bad guys won’t get any further in their evil plans. The guards at random outposts won’t work on their skills or get better weapons. That farmer will never finish tilling that field.
“But Alex, how could they even make this work? Are you saying that you want the game to just keep happening without you?”
Yes. That’s what I’m saying.
You went to all this trouble of building out a world with all these elaborate systems…but then it’s all largely robbed of its consequence by the fact that the world secretly revolves around me.
This has quietly bothered me in nearly every open world game for years now. Oh, I still love the genre. I still put thousands of hours into these games. I’m still eagerly awaiting Dynasty Warriors 9. And I still have lots of fun.
But the artificial nature of time in these worlds drives me nuts.
It’s cool in Origins that some quests are written to happen at night. I have the low level ability that allows me to advance time whenever I want. “I’ll wait for you at this place at night,” says the farmer. Cool!
But if I forget to go there for several days…he’s not mad at me when I show up. He’s not gone. The next part of the quest just happens and the game goes on.
I know that this is done to keep the narrative consistent for the player. And I know that, ultimately, this is nicer to both the player and the game designer. The designer doesn’t have to account for all the weird things the player might get involved in on their way to the next quest, and the player can take comfort knowing that the story will always be waiting for them no matter what.
Sometimes I want that comfort…
Other times, I want Dead Rising.
Dead Rising doesn’t give a **** about your comfort. That’s why the first two games are so polarizing, and why 3 and 4 had the sharp edges gently ground away.
Those “sharp edges” are really just Dead Rising’s handling of time. It dared to ask the question: what if this world kept ticking along, no matter what? What if the story kept happening even if the player wasn’t there?
It adds a tremendous sense of urgency to what is otherwise a slightly hollow Dynasty Warriors clone, but with zombies. The genuine sense of ever-present terror in Dead Rising comes not from trying to fight its horrific enemies, but from the desperate struggle to get everything done in time.
Brilliantly, Dead Rising builds failure into the game mechanics. If you’re not able to keep pace with the story events, you can start the game over and keep all of your experience. You not only get to keep the powers you’ve unlocked, you as the player will have more knowledge about the clockwork nature of the world, and about how to more quickly navigate the storyline, which gives you more time to do side missions as well.
It’s the sort of “You get better at it” loop that’s made the Dark Souls games so attractive to such a large player base.
But for some reason, back in 2006, it just made a lot of players angry.
Fantasies of Time
Imagine if, in Skyrim, the evil Dragon Lord was slowly preparing a large assault against the major strongholds of the land. And that it was always going to happen on the same day. And that, if you did an early quest, you could learn that exact day.
Now, you’ve got to bolster those strongholds and find a way to stop him before he rains down a fiery apocalypse. Suddenly, what was once a relaxed, contemplative, loot-all-the-caves experience is now an exciting struggle where you’ve got to get these people ready for war. Or witness the destruction of a pleasant fantasy land.
You’d have a reason to be getting all these swords and conquering these areas. It wouldn’t just be about your own idle amusement, but about your direct involvement in the main action of the story. All the systems that Bethesda has so brilliantly created could finally be put to actual use. The clock wouldn’t just exist to get shopkeepers to the right place every morning.
Open world games are the perfect genre to do stuff like this…but so often, they pretend that their stories are urgent while constantly pausing them so that the player can wander about. Now, I sometimes like a good wander, but I’m also bummed when games waste one of the best ways to truly involve me in their story.
Time is one of the most powerful narrative conceits in storytelling.
I wish more games would make good use of it.
The stress that people experienced (and that some people loathed) while playing Dead Rising is a brilliant example of time’s direct power to engage the player.
I long for a world where more big budget open world games engage the player on a level above basic comfort.