It’s been forty hours since you entered the digital world. You’ve travelled far, reached the invisible wall preventing you from going any further. So you’ve kept yourself busy tackling side quests, finding collectables, progressing through the main story.
Then one day, you just can’t be bothered to climb over that hill in the distance and get that collectible that you know is there. The map shows its there. It will take five minutes. But why bother? You’ve already collected so many; even got the trophy, what’s the point? The NPCs keep repeating the same lines over and over every time you attempt to talk to them, and even though you want to continue east towards that intriguing sunrise, you can’t because of some impassable cliff.
Open world fatigue. I was forty hours into Far Cry 3 and it descended on me. I love open world games, Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, Elder Scrolls. I always start them overwhelmed, my OCD nature trembling in both fright and glee. Then I plunge ahead immersing myself in another world. But after a while you reach its limits, not just in terms of geography, but in terms of content.
It’s probably a good thing, I don’t really want to spend the rest of my life in a digital world, but at the same time I do want developers to tackle this fatigue that sets upon me when I realise I’ve done every thing there is to do.
Continually updating the world with new areas is an obvious option, and we do see this with DLC and expansion packs. But let’s ponder some more unique things they could do with their (free!) updates:
- Altering NPC behaviour and dialogue, based on what you’ve accomplished so far. Games do this more often these days, but it’s time to take it to the next level. NPCs are too binary right now, either positive or negative towards you. Give us more shades of grey. The more sensitive NPCs are to your actions, the more careful you’ll have to play, which keeps your attention focused. Less chance of boredom creeping in, and your gametime is prolonged by your thoughtful actions.
- If it’s not a fantasy game, but something set in modern day, how about updating the digital world to reflect what’s happening in the real world? Some major incident or change occurring in the news? Have it happen in the game too.
- Open world games think they’re clever by showing a change of weather or season. Well, take that to the next level too and show a change of political climate, or a shifting cultural landscape. Maybe after 100 hours of Skyrim, which probably equates to a year of game-time or something, the reptilian race of Argonians have exerted some influence into the Nord culture? Maybe there are more collectibles relating to their race, or side-quests reflect it in some way.
I guess the point I’m making is, experimenting with emergent worlds can make open world games prevent fatigue and maintain the illusion of another world, and hide the fact that basic scripts are running the same damn quests over and over: “fetch me this, kill me that”.
I would love for those two tropes to be replaced by many other scenarios. It’s probably my biggest complaint with open worlds, the missions are just a variation of those two requests.
You want the gaming medium to be treated as a grown up and not infantile? Well, come up with quests that ask you to do more than that. Give me a quest that requires me to navigate through a kingdom and influence people in power to dispose of their king. Maybe I’m getting revenge for a fallen comrade. To do this, I need to have many conversations with key people, and perhaps carry out some actions. Do not hold my hand! Just tell me to go to a location, and let’s say in this Game of Thrones-ish scenario, it’s a castle.
When I attempt to talk to an NPC, give me a ridiculous amount of options. The correct way to carry out this mission is to navigate my way through various conversation branches. Some will lead to dead ends based on who I’m talking to and their mood/affiliation, some conversations will lead to new quests entirely, but a few will lead me closer to the goal of disposing of the king. Maybe I’ll have to resort to violence, maybe not.
The only way to make this feel immersive is to give me a ton of conversation topics to start with ANY NPC in the world. Otherwise if you just give me a handful, which I can only start with a few NPCs, it just doesn’t feel like a quest, it feels like an artificial “fetch me this” kind of quest all over again.
Remember that feeling of starting Skyrim being surrounded by a vast world populated by so many characters? It was a rush. But after a while that feeling fades away and it becomes stale. My hope is that one day a game can remain fresh every time you return to it. You never know what will be around that corner.
I hope I explained all this properly, I’m basically envisioning a progression of those old point-and-click adventures that gave you multiple choices of topics to discuss with NPCs. It all looks cool in my head. That king got totally disposed of, once I had a chat with a dozen characters and manipulated them. I didn’t need to fetch an item or kill anyone to do it. Just needed to do what these games are meant to inspire: role-play!