COGS: Quality Over Quantity, and the Open World Conundrum

“Any games you’re looking forward to?” I ask, creating some idle chatter in the middle of serving the fifteenth customer of the day.

“Actually yeah, God of War looks really good.”

I perk up. I sense the whiff of a solid conversation that isn’t exclusively related to my shilling of merchandise. “Oh my god, I love the God of War games. This one looks real awesome.”

“Actually,” He pauses, looking up from the card machine and pointing an inquisitive finger at me. “Do you know if the new one is open world or no?”

“Uhhh…none of the other ones have been, so I doubt this one is going to be.”

He shakes his head. “Damn. Probably not going to pick it up then.”

This perplexes me slightly. I know that open world games are all the rage right now – a fact that frustrates me more than a little bit – but this is a more aggressively pro-open world stance than I’m used to. I take the opportunity to do a little bit of hands-on market research, and ask him why he particularly wanted open world games.

“Well,” he replies with a contemplative sigh. “With the story driven ones, you’re all finished up in twenty, maybe thirty hours? See, I just picked up Far Cry 5, and there is so much to do in that, and I’ve been playing it for at least fifty hours. There’s just not enough to do in those story ones. If it was open world, I would have more things to do. That’s how I know I got my money’s worth. You see where I’m coming from?”

“To each their own, I suppose.” I reply with a shrug. For those that are unaware, this is the generally accepted retail slang for: “That is the single dumbest thing I’ve heard today.”

giphy[error 500 please reboot salesperson]

I have made my stance on the trend of open world games known a few times on this website, but to save you from reading all of those again, the crux is this: simply having more things does not make an experience more fulfilling. Feeling compelled to do more in the world, and participating in this open world with vigour and a sense of agency, makes an open world feel more than just a fancy looking sandbox. The idea, then, is a concept of “make-your-own-fun”. If the world is dynamic enough, your own personal stories and experiences in the game should come naturally, or so the theory goes.

In my humble opinion, video games do not work on Texan principles. Bigger is not necessarily better. All of my favorite gaming experiences have been focused in either a story or mechanic, and not necessarily because I had more stuff to do. Of course, this is a matter of personal preference, and that does not mean that I haven’t had a blast with open world games: Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Horizon: Zero Dawn are the first three off of the top of my head that I seriously enjoyed. What makes these games stand out from the pack is their respect for context: there needs to be more of a reason to be there than “because the player needs something to do”. The latest big releases of 2018 – Sea of Thieves, Far Cry 5 and Monster Hunter World – all revel in adding more of everything in order to stimulate attention for longer, in an attempt to stretch out the experience and make it feel like you got your money’s worth.

The thing is video games have been working on the most efficient way to steal your time ever since the NES days. There was only a limited amount of space on any given cartridge and games haven’t fluctuated heavily in price since then. Even with games being a novelty, it would be considered a rip off if a game didn’t at least give you an extended experience you could keep coming back to. Technological limitations meant that the easiest way to do that is to make games as difficult as humanly possible. The more time spent trying to get past a particular level is one more hour you can say you sunk into that purchase. It becomes an investment: of time, money and energy, and becomes a hobby.

793d23ec1f97a4716e2a18facc5a3316I mean, we’re pretty much IN the game at this point

2018’s video game design is playing a whole different ball game. Technological “limits” are ostensibly a thing of the past. We are in a landscape where we are manufacturing dreams at this point. So if you can do anything, why don’t we do everything? And so it went that open world games gave you a shitload of collectibles and side quests to keep track of to keep you engaged in the game. A multitude of numbers that you could make incrementally bigger to indicate progress hits that most primitive part of our monkey brain, and modern open world games milk this for all of its worth. If you’ll forgive me for sounding existential for a moment, the simple act of turning one number into a bigger one doesn’t fucking matter. It’s just to while away the hours. What makes a game memorable is the experience, not the motions. A contextual story that ties the thread together, not a hodge-podge events to keep your evening filled until you go back to work the next morning.

You would think that this may invariably lead me to lumping Sea of Thieves into the mix, but you’d be wrong. If anything, the thing that doomed Sea of Thieves is a lack of these numbers. Playing Sea of Thieves with friends – by living the pirate lifestyle and exploring what the world has to offer – should be exciting, right? But alas, there is no visible, tangible sense of progress. Critics have decried it for simply that: not having enough stuff. Yet Far Cry 5 has been given the nod for having a load of “things” to do, despite the fact that these things have been done before in previous games, just in a different flavour. Granted, Sea of Thieves is a little bit limited even by that standard, but if you were to give me a choice between being a pirate or being a cop in the middle of the deep south shooting rednecks, you can give me that tricorn hat right now, thank you very much.

The-Art-of-Sea-of-Thieves-M01-1140x500.jpgYAR HAR FIDDLE DEE DEE

We are in an age of imagination and wonder when it comes to video games. Why do I not feel like it? Because of this moronic comment about quantity over quality. God of War’s early reviews have already blown Far Cry 5 out of the water because it is a core premise done with passion and purpose, open world be damned. I will happily take a game that lasts five hours and has a spirit and levity to it – looking at you, Reverie, you beautiful bastard – than another Skinner box designed to chew away my time on the illusion of internal progress. This is especially heinous when the worst offender of these games, Ubisoft, is allowed to continue because they tout 100 hours of game play on the box. It’s the comparison between crisps and hors d’oeuvres: one is something to flavourlessly devour for hours at a cheaper cost, where the other is to be savoured, and is worth the shorter time investment through sheer concentration of quality per dollar spent.

I suppose it is an argument of if you’re having fun or not, and that falls into the subjectivity column. A critic isn’t a very good salesperson, and far be it from me to eliminate open world adventures in video games. When done well, they can make a good game great – the new God of War seemingly the case in point, with its dabbling in the formula. The point I am consistently trying to make is that they cannot be the instant cure all for making a game better. It dilutes the openness, and lessens the positives of exploring these fantastic spaces. If you want to truly improve your gaming experiences, stop being cynical about them. We can still have the time and the fun, but they’re not just technological tools, having space means something to players. So dream a little. These vast worlds are more than just time sinks, they are things to be experienced, stories to be told.

Unless of course the story is of a pixel man who got and shot all the things because reasons. If that’s the case, son do I have a game for you.

bernard_grwl“you can even shoot foreigners, it’s a steal”

***

Image credits go to Concept Art World, Rational Standard and Virtuix Omni. 

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