With the release of Mafia III, and the unequivocal frenzy it has conjured up, I’ve felt particularly compelled to talk about the nature of Open-Worlds. Mafia III has been riddled with performance issues and glitches, in large part to poor coding and design, but also, possibly to a lesser extent, the scale of its Open-World. I’ve been following the development of Mafia III for quite some time and if you had asked me a week ago my thoughts on the game I surely would’ve told you that it looks to be the smash hit of the year. It had the grimy marsh setting, compelling characters, and an intriguing story, yet none of my excitement hinged on the nature of its open world. Honestly, it felt like a hindrance more than anything since it detracts from the narrative of the game. Hell, the first hour and a half of Mafia III looks phenomenal and promised so much, and it’s the most “linear” section in the game.
I’ve never been completely sold on an Open-World Game. Sure, the concept in itself is fascinating: wide open vistas and locales that allow the player to utilize every significant and insignificant tool in their arsenal. The open world is the ultimate playground, a sandbox that lets the player do whatever they damn well please and that’s great! Yet, in practice, Open-World games seem to spiral me off into a seemingly endless abyss of monotony and tedium. I’m always detracted from progressing because there’s so little stretched out over a gargantuan map.
Rockstar, one of the most beloved developers in recent memory, and specialists of the open-world genre, have brought forth such titles as Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. I’d be a fool to say that those games have not left an impression on the modern rationale of nonlinear gameplay and narratives. But, what I can say is that I haven’t finished a single GTA and I have only ever grazed the surface of Red Dead Redemption. This isn’t because I think they’re flawed games, in fact, it’s exactly the opposite of that.
The greatest point of contention, and what ultimately repels me from this caliber of game are the superfluous details. Grand Theft Auto and many other open-world games of the ilk consistently prioritize the player’s immersion in the place of functionality and mechanics. It’s great that I can walk into a cybercafé and read some e-mails, surely it’s engrossed me in the world for a grand total of three and a half minutes, but now I’m back to walking outside in a vast and open sea of nothing, controlling a malfunctioning tank that has miraculously taken the shape of 5’10, middle eastern man. Swell, thanks.
I’m someone that prioritizes narrative in games. I want to be told a good story, and I want the game to feel good while I’m playing it. More often than not open-world developers feel satisfied with creating bigger maps, more little things for the player to interact with, and other minute details that the story that the game was trying to tell me falls flat. Grand Theft Auto V particularly irked me due to its staggering size. The time it took to get to new story missions felt unreasonably long and unbelievably boring, so much so that I gave up. I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that it is beneficial to artificially lengthen the time it takes to progress. In that time any and all momentum that the story had built inexplicably comes to a crashing halt.
Unlike other open-world games, crime games don’t usually have side quests to embark on to pad out the distance, instead they opt for large swaths of emptiness under the elaborate guise of detail and realism. It’s hard for me because I want to love these games, they promise so much but when it’s all said and done the open world detracts from the power and sheer emotional ferocity that their stories are capable of telling.
I don’t want to give this impression that somehow I think that all Open-World games are disingenuous and cant tell a great story. The Witcher III is one of the biggest Open-World games of all time and is still able to tell a complex and emotional narrative that had me hooked all the way through. As I see it the main difference between say Open World Fantasy games and Open World crime games is that the fantasy games have to heavily rely on their setting. Open-World Fantasy games are a different breed entirely since they ask the player to lose themselves in a world that is unlike our own, players must invest themselves in the world and the politics and conspiracies that is alien to them to truly understand what is occurring in games such as the Witcher, Kingdoms of Amalur, Divinity, and many more. Open-World Crime Games ask the player to step into a world that is eerily similar to the one they already live in, they provide fictionalized versions of realistic locales and ask the player to momentarily suspend their disbelief. Grand Theft Auto offers a comprehensive and extensively detailed satirical view of modern day cities and the citizens who populate them. This is why Open World Crime games are as much a study and meditation on the circumstances of living within the city that has created and exacerbated the criminal underworld as it is a character analysis. Saints Row is a hard exception to this rule since it feeds itself on the absurdities of the Open World and the faceless denizens within.
Uncharted is the perfect example of game that implements all the high flying, octane action pieces without ever hurting the overall flow of the game. You don’t need to drive from one boring place to another, instead the game nudges you forward and always keeps you entertained. I can’t say that about any Rockstar or Mafia product since they all have managed to shun me away from truly enjoying the game. I understand the obvious differences between the developers and their ideologies towards games making but I feel that a gangster story like the one told in Grand Theft Auto V would have benefited immensely from a more tightly composed mission structure. This would have made it more digestible for me rather than having to drive around constantly between locations. One of the things I loved about LA Noire is that, when a case told you to “go here” you could just tell your partner to pick his lazy ass up and drive.
Crime games would benefit from tight story progression with limited amounts of player interaction rather than the huge world with nothing to do. This is a radical proposal that I surely know will never realistically succeed but it’s one that has made for an interesting thought experiment. The rising prominence of Open-World games is an undeniable trend within the industry, Grand Theft Auto V being one of the most successful Video Games of all time so, I don’t see the Open World Crime game going anywhere anytime soon, but I do feel that this is a dialogue that should be initiated within the community.