The Problem with Open-World Games: A Reflection

Promotional material from Dying Light 2 (2022)

Photo Credit to Techland, creator of Dying Light 1 & 2

Promotional material from Dying Light 2 (2022)

Massimo Ragonese

Modern open-world video games need to change. 

Whether it be the inability to fully engage yourself in the world, or the daunting idea of spending 125 hours to finish a single game, the open-world genre has become inaccessible to casual/new players and unbearable for veterans. 

Open-world games are advertised as video games designed to be less linear and more free-flowing, putting the reins in the hands of the player to do whatever they want to do. Many accredit the title of “first open-world game” to the 1970s arcade era, with games such as “Jet Rocket”, “Mercenary”, or “Ultima”, considering their sandbox approach.

The genre wouldn’t reach the first step of its modern state until 30 years later in 2007 with the release of “Assassin’s Creed I”. With a higher emphasis on storytelling, characters, and the world itself, “Assassin’s Creed I” grew to global popularity and sold 8 million copies, setting the stage for 11 more games. 

“Grand Theft Auto V” (GTA V) would become the genre’s next step. With an expansive map, chock-full of interactions, and objectives, the game became one of the most sold games of all time. The ability to “do what you want” is more reachable than ever, GTA V was an eye-opener to what the genre could become.

Sadly, this is where the games took a turn. With companies realizing the monetary potential of open-world games, the market changed. Previous franchises would begin adapting their format to be more similar to GTA V and a new wave of modern open-world games would enter the scene. This is where two major problems began to arise.

Freedom vs. Control

Bethesda is the creator of The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series. Founded in Bethesda, Maryland, the company was determined to make games available to the general public and make video games worth the money. Rather than developing new worlds, Bethesda is known for its ability to build off of its existing worlds. 

Though it came out in 2011, Elder Scrolls 5, more aptly named  “Skyrim”, has been one of the most played and purchased games ever. The main appeal of “Skyrim” is the ability to “mod” the game, meaning that players can change the game’s core features more to their liking.

There are thousands of mods available for people to play and tailor to their preferences. However, other games are less accepting of mods, penalizing players for the usage of mods or “cheats”, regardless of whether it is an online game. The less players are allowed to play the way they want, the less people will want to play. 

Another game produced by Bethesda, “Fallout 4”, had a major aspect that was poorly received by the gaming community. There were four different endings to “Fallout 4”, three of which had the same ending cutscene (a scripted scene that has a determined ending and is unchangeable by the player).

The Fallout series is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the United States continued to use nuclear power after the events of World War II. The result is a wasteland of radiation, mutated animals, and most importantly, factions. A large part of the Fallout series is the factions, groups of people a part of the same, fragmented political system. In Fallout, the factions compose of the Commonwealth (the society left after nuclear warfare) and each hold their own agenda and idea of the ideal society and world. 

“Fallout 4” has four different factions: The Brotherhood of Steel, the Minutemen, the Railroad, and the Institute. Without getting too deep into the specifics of the story, the Institute is an organization designed to create a better world through synths–robots that are designed to survive in the apocalypse. Each with their own reasons, the Brotherhood of Steel, the Minutemen, and the Railroad, are determined to stop the Institute. 

The player is supposed to side with one of the four factions, meaning they either take down the Institute or help them. The player’s decision between the three factions determined to take down the Institute is made useless by the fact that they all end in the same result, defeating the Institute. 

Players of the game felt unfulfilled; that the decisions they made had nothing to do with the endings. This is a common theme in modern open-world games. The emphasis on the world causes the overarching story to be put in the background, making it feel like more of a nuisance than a reason to play the game.  

Quantity over Quality

English teacher, Jared McConkey, has been playing video games for decades and has seen the rise and evolution of open-world games. Even as a fan, he still understands the downsides of the genre. 

“One of the biggest problems that I see happening with open-world games is this idea of ‘bloat’,” McConkey said. “You end up where you have your story mission, but there are so many side-missions and collectibles and other things to do that it can: A. feel overwhelming, B. be incredibly time-consuming, and C. can take you out of the urgency of the story.”

Games with an overload of objectives, mechanics, and missions, separate from the story, have caused players to be frustrated. Most casual players get a low amount of time to play games they love and it makes new games feel unplayable.

On Jan. 8, 2022, Techland, producer of the zombie-horror “Dying Light”, put out a tweet saying that their new game, “Dying Light 2”, would take 500 hours for players to complete. The tweet in question, made to be positive marketing, received a large number of negative comments concerning the task of finishing the game.

“As an adult gamer with additional responsibilities and limited time to play games, it is so much harder to get through a game,” McConkey said. “I’m 60-70 hours into “Dying Light 2” and I still don’t think I’m close to finishing. There are games that come out that I would like to play but I want to finish this game. It’s just so hard to juggle and balance and when you have open-world games that have all these things to do and explore, it can kind of be a deterrent.”

The Fix

While there are major problems with modern open-world games, they can still be fixed. There are newer games that feel fresh because they step out of “the formula” and make players feel fulfilled in their decisions and actions.

The “Dark Souls” franchise, produced by FromSoftware, are games that use the concept of death as a major feature. With the inability to keep your currency (or souls, as referenced in the game) after death and your enemies respawning, a FromSoftware game playthrough is difficult, to say the least. 

Despite the difficulty, there is a large fanbase of the FromSoftware games because of fulfillment. Taking the time to learn enemy move-sets, kill difficult bosses, or get your weapons stronger is what makes the game refreshing on each playthrough. Noticing how strong you’ve gotten and how easily you can go through the game when returning to cleared sections is what makes players keep coming back. 

The utilization of the medium and the fulfillment that comes from finishing the games is what makes FromSoftware games different. If companies were able to adapt to player skill and opinions and make their players feel fulfilled in their decisions and actions, the open-world genre would be a welcoming place for new players and a genuinely engaging place for returning players.