I was thinking about some games I’ve started and not finished, and I think I’ve figured out why: there’s too much to do.


Your to-do list

These games include Rise of the Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.  I loved the games they’re sequels to, I’ve started them, got some distance into them, and just never seem to start them up again. What I realized today is that the original games were mostly linear, and the new games are far more open-world.

And it makes me anxious. I feel like I have to find everything in an area before moving on.  I know I could skip most of the stuff, but then I worry that I won’t have mastered all the skills needed for the main quest.  I have other complaints– e.g. Faith and Merc in the original Mirror’s Edge were far more likeable characters than Faith and Noah in Catalyst— but I think it’s the size of the game that bothers me.

The irony is, I’ve put an ungodly number of hours into Mirror’s Edge. But part of that it is because it’s in nice digestible chunks. I will replay the game occasionally, or I’ll spend time on the time trials.  The game is so focused that there’s no paralysis of choice.

Dishonored and Dishonored 2 hit the sweet spot of “mostly linear, but with side stuff to make it fun to explore.” There are just enough runes and lore drops.  Arkham City is also well balanced.  (I did get all the Riddler trophies– once. If I just want to mess around as Batman or Catwoman, I’ll play the challenge maps.) Saints Row 4 has a nice approach: it’s sprawling, and yet the game will lead you through all the activities if you let it.

So if you’re a developer, I’d suggest that making an open world is not something you have to do, and can even make your game worse.  Embrace linearity.  I’d rather have a solid main quest to do than a huge number of fairly shallow activities, where it’s not clear what I should be doing.  (On the other hand, a good place for those shallow activities is in a separate challenge mode.)

If you’re Bethesda, however, you should just carry on. Fallout 3 and Oblivion, for me, did open-world in just the right way. Although I completed the main story in both, I appreciated the fact that I didn’t really have to. Plus these games, and Saints Row 3/4, are great at making so much of the world interactive. That is: an open world goes well with multiple playstyles and playthroughs: if you can be a hero one time and a rogue another, if you can wander down the road and find a new story, if you can make a home and find shops to customize your character.  Neither Faith nor Lara really have the opportunity to put the main quest aside for a few months, maybe buying a house or playing as a rogue.

All this is entirely subjective (it’s quite all right if you play games very differently), and it’s not intended as the last word on these particular games.

Edit: So why do publishers insist on making games open-world?  According to this scary article, it’s because they can monetize them better. Ugh.