Lots of video games these days feature some sort of open world, or at least places that you can explore for hidden rewards and the occasional side story. Only a few games, however, seem to integrate these mechanisms properly into the wider game. So, I thought that for my latest rant I would talk about these often arbitrary and pointless features and about one of the few games I can think of that makes good use of them.
Open World Games
You know the routine, its been the core of so many popular games: Skyrim, Fallout, GTA… The game starts off with an introductory story section, before you are dumped into a large, open-world, which you are then free to explore. This world is usually full of side missions, collectibles, dungeons and bandit camps to explore. However, after the well-paced, scripted opening sequence, games often start to lose their focus as you engage in all these side activities.
Now, I’m all for games that feature exploration and don’t just force you down a linear path, but it has to be done right. In pretty much all of the games I’ve just mentioned, the collectibles and the side missions only seem to serve as padding and as a distraction from the game’s overall plot – after all, its hard to worry about the imminent threat of the dragons, or the fate of the kidnapped princess, when you’re running around doing basic chores for some random farmer, or dealing with feckless peasants who built their village on top of the Cavern of Unspeakable Doom and then wonder why their daughters kept getting kidnapped. But, anyway…
Now, this sort of thing can be justified as part of the life of a fantasy hero, but so often in games they just seem like padding to extend the play time, rather than an important part of your characters’s development. And then there are collectibles. So many games have you running around collecting audio logs, historical relics or flipping stars! Again, this can make sense if they are worked into the game properly. For example, it makes sense for Lara Croft to be interested in recovering ancient artefacts, but quite a lot of other collectibles simply don’t make sense. So often developers just pad out the game by appealing to obsessive players who have to 100% a game in order to feel like they’ve achieved something with their lives.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
I’d like to hold up one of the games in the Assassins Creed (there should be an apostrophe in there, but admittedly I’m not sure where) series as an example. Now, before the Nerd Assault begins, I accept that it isn’t perfect and commits some of the aforementioned sins. There are some pointless collectibles, like the feathers (which had a story justification in a previous game, but make no sense now). It also features the… urm, ‘tombs’ that you have to… urm, ‘raid’. These don’t exactly fit in with the story, but are at least a fun distraction that rewards you with the best armour/weapons in the game.
But, for the most part, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood actually manages to work these open-world game elements into the game’s story/world. In this game, you play as veteran Assassin Ezio as he attempts to take down the Templars in the city of Rome. Before he can take on the Templars, he must recruit a new brotherhood of Assassins to help him, and that is the main focus of the majority of the game. As well as the story missions, there are a number of side missions including races, beat-em-up events and assassination contracts. Now, at first, a race might seem like a pointless side activity, but it is usually to prove your worth to a speedy street urchin who, upon your victory, will agree to join your order. And recruiting Assassins can actually help you out in combat (or even in the admittedly pointless contract missions). Most of the side missions are similar, in that they either involve attacking your Templar enemies, or recruiting new assassins to your cause; they actually matter and actually make sense in the context not only of the game world, but in the context of the game’s overarching plot.
Side-missions and collectibles should not just feature in a game because a lazy designer just throws them in for the sake of it. They should not be ham-fistedly crowbarred into the game’s plot either. But, if done correctly, they can be a meaningful and fun part of a video game, which adds depth, playtime and fun. If only more designers would take the time to work out which activities are suitable for their game and how to justify them as part of the game’s experience, rather than padding or distractions.