The end is nigh. Ish.
The problem with open-world games can be just that: they’re open. Freedom’s a wonderful thing, but it can taint everything else the game is attempting to accomplish, particularly if you’re trying to inject some urgency into the game.
I’m currently playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, my first foray into BioWare’s Tolkien-esque fantasy world since the original came out way back in 2009. I’m not far in (I’ve only just reached Skyhold), and despite the ominous green rift in the sky, Inquisition feels like it lacks that same gravitas that Origins had – despite trying hard to imply imminent and certain doom.
While your war council and party will regularly remind you that the world is essentially ending, there’s nothing to stop you wasting hours of time picking up shards, harvesting random crafting materials, completing unrelated side quests and generally dossing around in the game’s open environments.
Dragon Age isn’t the only game to suffer from this. Mass Effect 3 also spun a tale of imminent extinction for all organic life in the entire galaxy, but still allowed you time to potter around with the miscellany that serves as padding around the main quest. The ‘shopping list’ gameplay, if you will.
I understand it’s a difficult balance to strike. Developers want to tell grand stories with high stakes, to compel players into action that – if not taken – spells devastation for all. But when it contradicts the actual mechanics and structure of your game, the drama can be the most jarring element.
There are plenty of games that, in my opinion, manage to balance the burden of the player’s primary goal with their desire to explore the world. Bethesda’s games, particularly Fallout 3, are great for offering a main questline where each mission ends with a lead that will point you towards the next destination, but won’t narratively apply pressure or a time limit. Your father has escaped the vault and headed towards Washington, but you can pick up his trail later – time to hunt some supermutants!
Skyrim is set during an ongoing civil war. If you don’t want to continue that questline, camps and skirmishes between the factions remind you that it’s still happening, waiting for you to participate – but never forces you to do so.
Rockstar Games is also skilled at this, as shown in Grand Theft Auto V. That title has a ridiculous amount of content spread across its fictional city and county, but missions are structured so that they grab your full attention and do not return your freedom until it’s safe for the protagonists to go back to their daily lives. Each one ends with the drive home, or a getaway that is only deemed successful when the heat is off. There are even some sections where there is so much heat on certain characters that for a while you won’t be able to access them, because it would make no sense for them to head out for a burger while they’re meant to be laying low.
Ubisoft, arguably, takes this too far with the Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed games. Sometimes the story rips players away from that open world and won’t return them until they’ve completed a certain mission. That’s fine on occasion, but done too often and it feels as much a punishment as it does a restriction, and players rush through these forced missions in order to get back to that world they were so avidly exploring.
The bottom line is, if you’re going to base your game on a premise of ‘the world is ending’, think carefully about the level of freedom you give players in that world. Not everything needs to be able preventing complete and utter destruction. The Witcher III is being praised across the board, and the premise of the plot is the search for a specific person. The world continues around you, regardless of whether or not you’re progressing with your main quest, which means it doesn’t break the story if you stray from the path.
Frustratingly – to go back to the Dragon Age example – both the developer and the franchise have accomplished this before. Dragon Age: Origins was the tale of a blight, an army of darkness threatening to wipe out all life, but there was never an implied sense of imminence. As a result, you could travel the world, invoking the Grey Wardens’ treaties at a pace that made sense. Once each quest in the main story was completed, a cutscene updated you on the enemy machinations, reminding you that the drama is escalating in your absence.
BioWare has said that Dragon Age: Inquisition represents the blueprint for all, if not many, of the studio’s future releases. I really hope they address this crucial issue before Mass Effect: Andromeda.