By Mason Tubb
Most people who play video games have at some point in their life played an open world game. These are games that offer the promise of being able to fully immerse the player in the world by not having so many linear objectives to focus on and having a greater emphasis on “exploration.” While every game already tries to be immersive by way of getting you invested in the interactive fantasy you are in, some of the most widely loved examples of open world games often fall short in having a solid core theme of gameplay. This is often due to what I feel is an overzealous effort from the developers to create the “illusion of freedom.”
Thanks to its long standing success as an award-winning title and even being regarded by many of its fans as “the best game ever made,” I will be using “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” as my primary example. When we play open world games, we often overlook faults and accept an illusion based on expectations of what we may find rather than the actual rewards the game can realistically offer.
In “The Elder Scrolls V,” you start out as a prisoner who was arrested for illegally crossing the borders into Skyrim who then escapes execution and ends up becoming the savior and hero of the entire world by the end of a mere two to four hour experience if you just do the main quests. If the player were to try and do everything the game offers, it would take you well over 200 hours and at that point, by game standards, your character would have conquered everything in the entire region of Skyrim. This is after having already saved the world from ruin, as well as having become Guild Master of every guild, representative of every deity and become the most powerful being in existence, all while you loot and pillage every peasant’s home and run around doing whatever antics the “Hero of Tamriel” does when he’s bored.
This is funny when you take a step back and look at it all. It’s a side effect of the developers trying to make you feel like you can be whatever you want without trying to punish your ill-decision making. As a result, I personally found it really hard to actually care about anything I was doing, or respect the world I was in.
Narrative aside, the game has some really solid exploration. The real issue of gameplay that I feel is often overlooked with Skyrim and other open world games, is that while the game’s core theme of gameplay is certainly exploration, the entire game relies heavily on combat. The combat here is incredibly lackluster when compared to games that have an emphasis on combat as their core theme of gameplay. Dungeon exploration is often very satisfying due to the mystery, but the novelty wears off once you realize that every dungeon in the game feels the same, so does every side quest objective, and that mastery of the game is non-existent thanks to rudimentary combat mechanics and a lack of things that push you to be better at the game. You could say that Skyrim is a hybrid of action RPG and exploration, but the action and the role playing segments are fairly subdued, feeling more like an afterthought of the exploration.
One of the reasons for this is that the game’s progression system is a confused mess. It is supposedly meant to give you freedom in how you build up your character. Your progression is actually based on how you have played your character rather than deciding how you want your character to come out beforehand and then playing the game based on the skills you chose to work with. This system actively discourages you from trying something new on a first playthrough because the game’s combat encounters progress as you do. If you don’t pick things when you progress that make you better at combat, you will just become weaker as you “progress.” Ironically, this kills a lot of the supposed freedom and roleplay options by making a non-combat focused build non-viable late game.
Part of the fun and mental challenge of a RPG progression skill tree is trying to decide what options are the best for complementing your play style for overcoming the game’s challenges. These options however, need to actually create new ways of overcoming challenges if you lose the ability to conquer them otherwise. In many cases, the fact that non-combat skills must share the same progression tree with combat ones is highly immersion breaking and unnecessary to begin with. Why does killing a bunch of stuff make me better at bartering prices for selling my loot? In reality, having a separate skill tree for non-combat skills that progresses with quest experience, and having a combat skill tree that progresses from battle experience, would have made a lot more sense and possibly even made non-linear level progression easier to design by putting things into two separate boxes.
This is an easy fix with modifications, but that brings me to one of the biggest reasons I feel many open world games are often given far more credit than they earn themselves. Modification communities on PC often fix a lot of open world games major bugs and issues when it comes to problems that plague the experience. They also offer infinite content outside of your main purchase for free. This affects people’s opinion of the game as a whole, even if the mods being made for the game completely change it at its core. Skyrim, as well as many other open world games are fun, but often since they go for a “quantity over quality” experience, even with infinite mods, the foundation of the game will always be lacking. Then, if you decide to change the main mechanics of the game with your mods, can it be said you are still playing the same game?
Often open world games are looked at by gaming communities as a product worth it’s weight in time investment, due to the fact that it can offer so much more “content” than a normal linear game. However, I would much rather play a good linear game with replay value a bunch of times before I put a hundred hours into a single game with mediocre mechanics, because my time is valuable. This is not to say people can’t find enjoyment in things that are designed to waste their time, people are satisfied with a product when it meets their expectations. Many consumers get open world games under the assumption that they will be kept busy, and since the game does succeed at doing that, they regard it as a success. That said, even if we had an open world game that had a perfect foundation, would it be worth the effort?