The future and problems of open-world video games - editorial

The future and problems of open-world video games - editorial

The roller coaster that has characterized the recent evolution of video games based on the open-world formula shows no signs of diminishing its run. Definitely soaring starting from the seventh generation of consoles, after the extraordinary successes achieved by the Grand Theft Auto series which ultimately led to the debut of a brand like Assassin's Creed, this particular drift has ended up establishing itself in the market to the point of attracting an incalculable number. of historical IPs in its massive orbit.

The great masters of the sector, such as Bethesda Softworks, had something to celebrate, because users couldn't wait to look out over the boundless panoramas of a region like Skyrim or move among the rubble of the Capital Wasteland. Series once limited to small niches such as CD Projekt's The Witcher have known new fortune on the immense international stage, while entire franchises, from Far Cry to Watch Dogs via Batman Arkham and many others, have linked their very existence with construction of huge open worlds.

A trend that at first glance would not seem to have shown any kind of decline, since in the last five years works such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption 2, Death Stranding, Horizon Zero Dawn, Ghost of Tsushima, Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite have occupied the top positions among the nominees and winners of the Game of the Year awards.

After the successes of GTA, the debut of Assassin's Creed marked the beginning of the golden age of open-worlds. Yet there is something that is changing, both in the proposal and in the evaluation and above all in the use of open-world video games. The era in which the vastness of the explorable portion of the world constituted the main selling-point of the product seems to be coming to an end: enthusiasts often say they are tired, critics have stopped turning a blind eye to some evident creative abuses, and numerous launches that once would have turned out to be blockbusters end up falling into irrelevance after a few weeks.

We recently published an article dedicated to Square-Enix's Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy in which it is precisely this kind of crisis, noting how some of the most memorable experiences that emerged in recent times reside in the story-driven works that reserve the authors to manage the rhythm, leaving them free to create stories and companies that, although sometimes they may smell of old, manage to strike much stronger than to those set in boundless universes.

The reason is very simple: the current model of open video games- world does not have the right tools to tell a story that is on the same level as those offered by linear experiences, and it is worth remembering that we live in an era in which the term "linear" has taken on a connotation bordering on the negative and in which, paradoxically, the most noble and appreciated works are precisely those embroidered around an impacting narrative.

Growth led masters of the genre, such as Bethesda, to become immense thanks to works such as Skyrim. If on the one hand, strong complaints emerge more and more often because a title is short-lived or not very large, on the other hand there is a tendency to criticize the poor incisiveness of the writing, or even the reduction of the daughter activities of the open-world model to the completion of a trivial shopping list, outlining a situation in which it is almost impossible to present oneself on the market with productions capable of satisfying all fringes of the public.

This year, among the video games nominated for the GOTY of The Game Awards, he did not figure no open-world product: it hasn't happened since 2016. What will be the future of these video games? Will one of the most widespread and appreciated formulas of the whole medium be able to make the necessary adjustments to survive the generational leap? Are the series that have staked everything on this drift destined to slowly disappear? And what secret, finally, will allow some of these to survive?

The epicenter of the crisis of the open-world genre lies in the creative core of those works which, while basing their existence on the implementation of the open world , they treat it as a mere appendage of gameplay and struggle to integrate it into the communication tools adopted during the writing phase. Clear cases are those of the aforementioned Watch Dogs and Far Cry which, while disseminating vast maps extremely well made with tons of optional activities, struggle to impress themselves in the memory of fans and above all to create impactful scripts.

A model, this one. , which also led to much fresher IPs such as Ghost of Tsushima or Days Gone to have to take heavy blows from critics and a part of users, both "saturated" with the swinging rhythm and above all with the classic playful structure at the base of the worlds open, that philosophy that pushes the player to carry out predetermined traversing phases in pursuit of activities that are often superficial and absolutely negligible from a narrative point of view.

Recently traditional open-world titles are not reaping the success of critics and expected audiences. A structure that, moreover, is at the basis of the main situations of contemporary "ludonarrative dissonance", a concept recently made headlines, or what occurs when the actions of the protagonist in the videogame border clash with the foundations of writing, creating inconsistencies between play and story that irremediably break the immersion. In Cyberpunk 2077, for example, it's absurd to say the least that protagonist V is dedicated to honoring hundreds of mercenary contracts in the four corners of Night City when he has a malicious chip implanted in his brain that could kill him in a matter of hours. >
The success of the triple A medium product lies precisely in the effectiveness of the combination of narrative and gameplay, two elements that in most open-world video games must necessarily compromise because they pursue polar opposite objectives. Yet, there are video games that have been able to transform this difficult marriage into a strength capable of ferrying them to the roof of the world, leading them in some cases to transform themselves into pop culture legends.

But why a The Elder Scrolls: Does Skyrim, for example, work right where others struggle? The reality is that even Skyrim struggles a lot, because his main narrative is anything but memorable and well-paced. The work manages to "get by" because its purpose is not to tell a great story with a beginning and an end, but to stage hundreds of anecdotes designed to characterize its immense universe, exploiting secondary activities not to enrich the playful formula but to further expand a "lore" that is symbiotic to the gaming experience. The "reward" for the player who explores, in this sense, is first and foremost the discovery of the history of the region.

To date, Outer Wilds represents perhaps the best example of narrative implementation in the open world. It is an established fact that freedom of action is able to marry the story when our avatar embodies the robes of the historian, and one of the greatest examples of this philosophy is undoubtedly the one staged by Dark Souls, a title that obviously does not represent an open-world in the strict sense, but which more than any other sacrifices the linearity and clarity of the narrative to embrace an emerging story that gives new taste to playful architecture. At the center of the experience, in fact, there is not the chosen undead or his mission, but we, historians of Lordran who try to reassemble the pieces of a gigantic puzzle making their way through the dangers that are there waiting for us for a very specific reason.

Perhaps the work that more than any other has come close to stopping the "battle" between history and gameplay is Outer Wilds by Mobius Digital, having managed to give its open world the only one aim to support the narrative element. Also in this case the protagonist wears the clothes of the historian, but the total lack of technical elements alien to navigation and discovery make him unique in the video game sector, a work that is based exclusively on the story, throwing any concept of linearity to the wind. to design an extraordinary experience that would be possible to live exclusively within the confines of an open-world.

A path that proved impossible even on the golden stage of Breath of the Wild, an extraordinary title that despite having unhinged numerous clichés of open-world gameplay have faced a number of inherent limitations to the genre. In a certain sense it is an emblematic case, because even if it is configured as a real masterpiece, even the last chapter of Zelda was forced just like all the others to make heavy compromises in the field of rhythm and in that the incisiveness of the plot, as well as in the implementation of the latter in the fabric of the game.

Dark Souls adopts an approach that makes the protagonist a 'historian' discovering an unknown region. An interesting solution is the one adopted by The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a work that has exploited its open-world mechanics to enhance the narrative component in which the soul of the experience resides. The pinnacle of this philosophy lies in the plot section dedicated to the Bloody Baron of Velen, a moment in which Geralt of Rivia, devoid of further clues, is "invited" to explore the entirety of the region in an attempt to find a lead to continue in the search for Cirilla. A pleasant interlude, this one, which gave a sense to the witcher wandering through the various villages, keeping intact until the end the suspension of disbelief.

Finally, one cannot fail to mention Red Dead Redemption 2, the Rockstar Studios masterpiece that has captured tens of millions of fans on its boundless frontier. But it is a frontier which, on closer inspection, is limited to playing a purely scenographic role, designed and built to reward immersion and almost completely devoid of a playful nature far from simple contemplation. Which, to be fair, is just the opposite of what the productions at the center of the "crisis" are trying to do, those that disseminate maps with packs of secondary activities.

Like it or not, when we think of the contemporary open-world formula we are led to imagine a map dotted with points of interest willing to open up on small playful activities, collectibles and other elements that remain mainly unrelated to the narrative amalgam. When these are lacking, the titles are accused of being bare; when they do not enrich the story, the titles are accused of being flat; when they guarantee hundreds of hours of gameplay, the titles risk becoming dispersive; when they emulate popular formulas, then titles are automatically derivative. In short, that of the open world has become a minefield in which it is extremely difficult to navigate safely.

Dying Light 2 promises a plot made up of choices that will completely change the structure and areas of the open world. Despite this, the future is full of upcoming releases anchored to this inspiration, just turn your gaze towards February and therefore towards Elden Ring, Dying Light 2 and Horizon Forbidden West to realize it. Will these also fall into the same old mistakes or will they be able to identify alternative ways to rejuvenate a formula apparently marching on the avenue of the sunset?

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It's interesting how these are three completely different interpretations of the original drift: Elden Ring, despite the he contribution of George RR Martin, does not seem willing to abandon the historical approach mainly linked to "lore" in pure FromSoftware style; Dying Light 2, according to Techland's statements, aims to introduce unprecedented consequences on the game world based on the choices made by the player; Horizon Forbidden West, for its part, is a work that is much closer to the more classic open-world tradition.

It is extremely simple to examine the productions a posteriori and try to identify what worked or not, it is much more complex to sit around a table and try to innovate inflated formulas by eliminating their defects, however obvious they may seem. In the end, the open-world is one of the creative ecosystems that more than any other are subjected by the public to a process of selective acceptance: many are clamoring for vast open worlds without realizing the enormous difficulties that the genre is carried along, and when the result does not live up to expectations they tend to point the finger towards the "mother" structure.

The open-world will survive without a shadow of a doubt, but it is evident that it must find a way to fold and adapt its rules, softening the compromises between the playful fabric and the plot, to bring about a qualitative leap that is now more necessary than ever. The only certainty, in fact, is that the simple immense world that stretches as far as the eye can see, dotted with dozens of optional activities and hundreds of collectibles, no longer works as it once did.

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