Armagideon Time

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Open world experiences are all the rage in gaming these days, viagra either of the pre-formed or procedurally generated variety. The promise of freedom and unrestricted exploration is an alluring one for gamers who wish to lose themselves in massive virtual worlds. The style of gameplay has branched out past its old boundaries of mayhem creation sandboxes and “Western-style role playing titles, see and elements of it can be found in everything from Triple A FPS titles to retro-themed platformers.

The trend shows no signs of slowing. Sony’s space exploration offering No Man’s Sky is poised to knock a bunch of next-gen console fence-sitters into the PS4’s camp, and some reference to “open world” or “procedurally generated” gameplay can be found in the hype sheets for nearly every excessively ambitious Kickstarter or Early Access darling of the moment.

I’m not knocking the fad. Some of my favorite timesinks of the past few years have been “open world” offerings — Borderlands, Fallout, Skyrim, Dragon’s Dogma, Red Dead Redemption, Saints Row and so forth. Heck, the notion of free roaming around a virtual Caribbean in a pirate ship was enough to sell me on Assassin’s Creed IV, despite my general apathy toward the franchise.

Yet my love affairs with each of these games has pursued a particular and unvarying pattern which speaks to the limitations of the model.

On Red Dead Redemption‘s launch day, both my brother and I logged into a buggy free roam session for some co-op exploration and adventure. We rode out from Blackwater together, but got separated somewhere on the surrounding plains. I found myself rooting around for wildflowers in a marsh, while my brother stumbled into a next of outlaws and hollered over the headset for backup. Every sight seen or activity undertaken felt awe-inspiring and new, especially since neither of us had yet delved into the single-player side of the game.

Jump ahead two months, and my brother had all but abandoned the game while I ground the same set of missions over and over in search of unlockable rewards until I, too, decided to move on to greener pastures.

Every open word game kicks off with a sense of unlimited possibility. “What’s over that rise? I wonder if I can do X.” It’s an intoxicating sensation, being presented with a large blank canvas and a minimum of guidance to follow or ignore at one’s discretion.

Eventually, however, the limitations of the virtual universe become increasingly easier to discern. The illusion of vastness fades away, leaving an acute awareness of a largely inert soundstage populated with scripted triggers and predictable “random” encounters. “Oh, it’s another spider dungeon. And here’s another group of wandering bandits.”

Technology and budgets may eternally tick upward to new heights, but the results will always be finite on some level. Like a Mr. Potato Head toy or the Mighty Men and Monster Maker kit, the wealth of possible combinations tends to resolve as a homogeneous familiarity over the long haul.

Developmental ambitions or after-the-fact DLC additions can only go so far to alleviate the intrinsic ennui, as the problem resides with the beholder. There is no shortage of things to do in Skyrim. It’s the will to finish another superficially different fetch quest that loses steam after twenty-plus hours of the same. The Borderlands games, on the other hand, sidestepped this by never losing sight that it is a hyper-pyrotechnic shooter at heart. Even then, though, the final third of the game is less about savoring the setting than it is about blasting a direct path to the end boss.

No matter how much one expands the playfield, the end user will in time brush up against its boundaries. That’s a driving factor in MMO development as well as the reason why my obsession with GTA Online peaks (and then abruptly wanes) after each new content update.

The whines of entitled fanboys aside, longer is not necessarily better. Familiarity — along with the resulting sense of going through the motions — can breed contempt in even the most passionate of relationships.

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