‘Shopping list’ gameplay: the ‘litter’ of open world games
I spent four solid hours playing Dragon Age: Inquisition on Saturday, with the vast majority of that time spent in the Hinterlands: the first major open world area of BioWare’s latest epic.
Despite having read several opinion pieces and tips guides stressing that I shouldn’t dally too long in this region, I found myself exploring every nook and cranny of the Hinterlands – partly because that’s all that was available in the trial version (yes, I’ve yet to buy the game. It’s on my list!), and partly because I was genuinely enjoying most of the quests. Most, mind you.
As I opened more and more areas of the Hinterlands, I found that Dragon Age – a series I’m quite fond of – has become the most recent victim of a particular bugbear of mine: a game design I call ‘shopping list’ gameplay.
The term refers to my experience of MMOs such as The Lord of the Rings Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Star Wars: The Old Republic and (to a considerably lesser extent) World of Warcraft. After just a few hours of wandering the low-level areas, I would find my journal cluttered with a myriad of sidequests along the lines of ‘Collect 20 of Y’, ‘Kill 10 of X’.
I like to take the role-playing element of games quite seriously, immersing myself in the narrative of the world, but in the case of LOTRO, for example, I actually lost all context of what I was meant to be doing, my overall goal blurred by this shopping list of bland objectives, a checklist of things to defeat, gather or reach.
Now, I’m all too aware that this is a trope of the MMO – a template that has barely changed since WoW’s arrival in 2004 – but now this mindset has found its way into console games with the abundance of open world games and it’s tainting my enjoyment of franchises I once loved.
Almost every game I have played on Xbox One so far – Dragon Age, Watch Dogs, Destiny and two Assassin’s Creeds – have littered their open worlds with meaningless collectibles and soulless fetch quests. Destiny less so, I grant you, but the random missions on planetary patrols basically boil down to ‘[Verb] X of Y’, even with the instantly forgettable audio babble of the faction leaders.
The Creeds have been guilty of this for years, but it’s still disheartening to be reminded of Animus crystals, sea shanties and semi-hidden chests you have yet to find. Closing in on ten hours’ gameplay, and Watch Dogs’ progression wheel makes me want to weep. Who has time to achieve even half of that? Catching 20 criminals is doable, but checking in at 100 city hotspots?!
I realise that all of this collectible nonsense is optional, that I can just get one with the main storyline, but when it is signposted so regularly, you can’t help but feel the game is judging you for ignoring the wealth of content the developers have clearly gone to great lengths to include.
I adore exploring the worlds of Bethesda’s games – especially the Elder Scrolls universe – but I don’t recall Skyrim constantly updating me that I had found three vampire lairs out of fifty seven. It simply added an icon to the world map, and changed the colour if I cleared that area. Simple.
Similarly, I can forgive the Creed games, particularly Unity, because filtering the mini-map removes unnecessary clutter such as the chests. And Watch Dogs, I am simply ignoring the branches of the Progression Wheel that are of no interest to me.
But I’m finding it a little difficult to forgive BioWare for succumbing to this trend. Hiding 20+ shards in the Hinterlands smacks of Assassin’s Creed’s collectible feathers, and I still genuinely don’t see the point of ‘claiming’ landmarks with a bland pole and an overly dramatic jumping animation.
For me, the key to differentiating your side quests from ‘shopping list gameplay’ boils down to two things: context and reward. In the case of Dragon Age, the vast majority of side quests give you Power and Influence that will help your overall war effort, and some are in keeping with the Inquisitor’s goals.
Setting up the various campsite, for example, is something I actively want to do since it sets up fast travel points. Closing the rifts – well, that’s the point of the game, isn’t it? To close the breaches between Thedas and the fade. And anything that yields weapons, supplies, followers and agents for the Inquisition is definitely something I’m willing to spent time on.
Whereas Watch Dogs’ city hotspots, Assassin’s Creed Unity’s cockades, and various other examples seem to offer you nothing more than a counter to fill, potentially a weapon or item that is in no way essential, and a distraction from much, much better content within the same world.
I realise that populating open worlds with side quests and collectibles is the best way to extend a game’s playtime and replayability, but with so many franchises turning to this formula on the new generation of consoles, I urge developers to think more carefully about how they design and present such content.
Here’s hoping the Gotham City of Batman: Arkham Knight doesn’t become another shopping list…