Contemplating the Stale Open World and the Challenges of Traveling Through It

Why hello there! It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

This summer I played a few games worth talking about, several of which I have nothing to even say about. But there were a handful of similarities in quite a few of the games that I spent a lot of time with, similarities that I saw more and more of when the game expos started rolling around and new games started getting revealed. You see, this summer, I played quite a few recent open-world games, the most high profile of which were “Saints Row: The Third,” “Grand Theft Auto V,” and for the second time, “Far Cry 3.”

Through playing them in such a short span of time, it was interesting to see the various similarities and differences between each, and eventually, I realized that there were two different topics I really felt like talking about when comparing the three games.

Part 1: The Stale Open World

GTA V was the first game of those I played, a game I’d been playing off and on since it released last fall. To be completely honest, this was likely the first truly open world game I’d ever played, and that experience definitely got me into it early on. Rather than even play the story, I spent hours upon hours in the game just driving all the way around the island map. My most memorable experience playing the game is still playing as Franklin, driving on his motorcycle near midnight, weaving between cars in traffic as Rihanna powered through on the radio.

But however much I romanticize it, it feels a bit disheartening that that is the moment I remember the most of all. It’s important because exploring the world was the most interesting thing in that game for me. The story never attracted my attention, and eventually just became something I needed to take care of to unlock more possibilities elsewhere, and eventually just so I could say I’d actually played a GTA game to its conclusion.

After hours of getting from point A to point B, it became abundantly clear each time I traversed the map that I was getting bored. I’d try to make it interesting. Climb to the top of the tallest mountain, drive a boat out as far as I could to see what happens, try and fail to manipulate the stock market to get a bunch of money, blow up an armored truck to steal the money inside, or the real final goal: break into the army base and steal a fighter jet. But everything I tried to have fun with always ended up feeling more like a chore than anything else. In fact, most if not all attempts at anything always ended with a police chase– a detriment I both figured out how to easily escape from without firing a bullet, while also not being capable of making chases flashy enough to record and post to YouTube.

I suppose what made exploring the world so much less enjoyable than I expected it to be was that the world I was exploring was a world I’d already been to. It’s a world I’ve been living in for over two decades. Most days for me are spent travelling from point A to point B, much of that time in a car. It may not involve mountains, lumber mills, military bases (except on rare occasions), deserts, movie sets, or city waterways, but somehow it all still has the same general feeling. There’s something about the overbearing sublimation of the real world places I’ve visited in my life– Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, the Badlands of South Dakota– that make the realistic-looking settings of GTA V’s world feel… mundane. Something about the knowledge that a programmer had the ability to make all the wondrous things his heart could imagine, but made a realistic mountain instead, feels so underwhelming. It was fun to go see the first time, yeah, but when the point of overstaying your welcome comes upon you so soon after your arrival, something is going to feel wrong.

Yet why is it that I didn’t have the same sort of problems with the other two games I played? Far Cry 3, I could give some leeway– unfortunately in my life, I’ve never visited tropical islands– but Saint’s Row The Third? It takes place in a city– one not unlike my hometown, Milwaukee, or its southern cousin, in Chicago– and one with constantly repeated buildings and landmarks that are only really distinguishable by the gang faction that operates within them.

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 8.48.11 PM

Base-jumping off a sky-scraper is required.

If anything really made me more interested in the city, it’s likely the side missions scattered throughout the world. GTA has these mainly in the form of “Freaks and Strangers,” many of whom you meet more than once in a bit of a story progression. One guy I met while playing as Franklin was a paparazzi and took photos of whom was likely some sort of Lindsey Lohan parody. He keeps telling Franklin after each time you meet him that he’ll pay up for helping soon, but eventually Franklin gets fed up with him, punches him and walks away with petty cash. The whole thing felt really dissatisfying and pointless just to make a joke (or something), which was generally my experience with most of the “Freaks and Strangers” missions.

So what about any of Saints Row The Third’s side missions made any difference? That game spends a whole lot of time doing pointless things to make a joke, and to be honest, how over-the-top it is is more of a selling point to me than a detriment. I went from riding an invincible, flaming ATV to Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax, a game show designed around killing basically everything. (Except the sign with the baby panda on it, don’t shoot that.) The last one actually has some parallels to a marijuana legalization guy in GTA V, who gives both Trevor and Michael weed that sends them into hallucinogenic fights with clowns and aliens, respectively. Both times, the joke died a few seconds after I realized what was going on, only to be replaced by annoyance as I realized how tedious it was to actually deal with the comical enemies.

So it isn’t that surprising, really, that my least favorite side missions in Saints Row The Third were Professor Genki’s missions. Actually, that isn’t true. My least favorite were the missions that appeared randomly, where you’d get a phone call about something going down or a store you own being attacked and had to go defend it. Yet in both cases, I found these so much more interesting than the fights with clowns and aliens.

The main reason, for me, at the very least, is that offering a prize at the end, even if small can make someone more interested in the world they’re involved in. Both offer money and experience at their ends, but the Professor Genki missions and the random wave missions each did this in their own ways, as well. The random wave missions made player feel like the Saints’ control over the city was under constant attack, and offered some sort of incentive to dealing with the issues. Professor Genki, on the other hand, was entirely based around being hilariously stupid, but inevitably it played into something important, which was territory control.

There were a whole lot of ways to gain territory. You could buy property and stores, do missions such as the Professor Genki ones, and you could take out groups of gang members (in my case, with a large amount of explosives). Doing so added money into your pockets each hour and made the likelihood of running into opposing gang factions less likely. Eventually, I barely ran into any. The basic thought of not having to deal with enemies as much as I was at the start of the game was reason enough to take on these challenges, which I did as often as I could until I had almost complete control of the city. This sort of interaction between what I was doing in the side missions and the effects it had on the city were really interesting to watch, and I only wish some of the things I needed to do, such as buying property and stores, was a little more interesting than just “go here,” “buy this,” and “gain control & money.”

The whole idea of territory control actually called back to the third game I had played in Far Cry 3. In the game, you could traverse the world and capture outposts from pirates. Once captured, pirate patrols in the area surrounding the base became replaced with patrols of allied NPC’s. In my original playthrough, this quickly became the first thing I did. I captured every tower, hunted the animals I needed to fully craft all the supplies, and then took over every base on the island until I had absolute control. Most notably was that I did all of this before even playing virtually all of the story missions. I loved doing this so much that the only reason I started a new save file was just so that I could do it all again. It just felt so good to be in that world and have so much fun things to do that had consequence on the rest of the game world. At least… to an extent.

The biggest issue with gaining all that control was that once I started the story missions, none of the story was really affected. I had taken over all of the bases and basically routed the pirates from the island. And yet every mission acted as if I had done nothing, with pirates showing up in every nook and cranny that the story sent me to and Vaas (the sly devil that he is) not even breaking a sweat over the fact that I had taken complete control of his island. Like finishing the paparazzi missions in GTA V, it left me with an unnerving feeling of dissatisfaction.

It’s interesting to note, then, that I didn’t have this same issue with Saints Row The Third. The differences are subtle, but they go a long way. The villains of Saints Row definitely partially seem to act untouchable for much of the game, but the first head-honcho you meet gets crushed by a giant globe very early in the game and the Saints manage to almost take out his successor, Killbane, midway through the story. Their susceptibility makes it so that they are not immune to the Saints even early in the game, making their actions and composure, even with your mounting territorial control, not as troublesome an issue.

Furthermore, midway through the game, Killbane’s actions actually bring on the S.T.A.G initiative, putting the city under martial law, and a run in with some chemicals in an airplane causes an entire district– one which I had full control of at the time– to become a zombie-infested wasteland. These changes to the main narrative affected my ability to get around the world, and took the focus off of the gangs I was taking the city away from– a move that was as annoying to deal with (considering how most of the city became a restricted zone and amping up police wanted levels became more problematic) as it was ingenious to think about.

Even though it was quite obvious how little my actions in the world affected the story, the game was subverting those thoughts by moving in the opposite direction and having the story affect the world. One could only wonder how much more interesting the game could have been, and how much more alive the world could have felt, if it had tried viewing that dichotomy going the other way. 

Part 2: The Varied “Solutions” to World Traversal

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90% of any open-world game.

Open world games are regularly criticized for being driving simulators, and with good reason. As I pointed out earlier, in all three of these games, half the time was spent moving from point A to point B, usually in a car or a motorcycle. GTA V is especially guilty of this, although maybe it deserves some leeway for the series’s roots. Other modes of travel were available, such as helicopters, planes, and boats but for the most part, nothing was so easily accessible as the ground vehicles. In fact, besides robbing a helicopter or breaking into an army base (assuming they had even bought a place to store the damn things), Michel and Franklin didn’t even have the money for anything other than a car or motorcycle until the end of the game.

Saints Row tackled the issue by giving the user as many interesting ways to get around as possible. Not very far into the game at all, I had access to basically everything you could get your hands on in GTA V, and it wasn’t even done there. Later I could get a tank, a pixel tank, a hover bike, a V-TOL (basically a futuristic harrier jet), and hell, even a really fast, neon future car that became one of my favorite modes of travel. It even featured a delivery system to get the vehicles to me as fast as they could.

Far Cry 3 dealt with the issue by not even dealing with it. Cars were basically the only real way to get around until Fast Travel became widely available enough to not care– something that Saints Row interestingly decided not to use and which GTA V has but doesn’t make readily apparent. (Though my inability to realize the taxi cab’s function is really my own fault.) Once you could teleport to wherever you needed to go, traveling became very simple, with only needing to go a certain distance. Later in the game, the wing-suit made things more interesting, although somewhat useless considering how flat the landscape usually was– something that looks to be rectified in its sequel by both making a more varied landscape and giving you the wingsuit much earlier on. Safe to say I’m interested in seeing how that pans out.

Another solution that both GTA V and Saints Row used in an attempt to make driving less of a chore was use of the radio and conversations with passengers. When it comes to radios, the two open world games are virtually identical, albeit GTA V has a much larger library and many more channels. Both play a selection of different songs on different stations while also delivering news reports that reference your player character’s recent excursions. Besides that, they function exactly how your car radio functions, except with fewer stations and a larger variety of songs being played (Boom! Roasted.)

Both GTA V and Saints Row deal with conversations the same way. Usually they only happen during story-related segments, unless you invite one of the other characters for a ride, and usually the conversations are of the mission you’re on, or outside of story segments, aren’t usually that uniquely interesting but try to provide some sort of characterization. Both times they’re a way to pass the time, and I think it’s a great way to divert attention from how boring driving from point A to point B is.

However… simple conversation cannot compare to an early point in Saints Row The Third, which, to be completely honest, was the only reason this article even exists. Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you, the musical stylings of MC and Pierce:

I’ve done this before in my own car. You’ve probably done this before, too. But this was one of the first times I’ve seen a character do it in a game, and it worked. I stopped paying attention to where I was going. Hell, I passed where I was going and drove around the block a few times so it wouldn’t end. Not only did it make Pierce my favorite character, but it made the trip the shortest three minutes of the game, and I was so disappointed it never happened again.

In conclusion, I demand every open-world game have a mode of travel as fun as using a V-TOL, or at least have every character in the car break out into song at various points in the game. You hear me, Final Fantasy XV? That boring-ass back-and-forth won’t cut it! The party looks like a J-Pop band for Christ sake, they better bring it!

FFXV Fast Food

Okay. I’m fine with that, too. Make it happen.

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