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The Grand Theft Auto series is often credited with the popularization of the open-world genre. For over a decade, Rockstar’s infamous series has been at the center of the evolution of sandbox games. The most recent major title in the series, Grand Theft Auto IV, is currently the highest-rated title on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and is one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time.

With such a stellar reception, one may be forgiven for thinking that Grand Theft Auto IV is the pinnacle of the genre, a shining example so near to perfection that developers looking to make open-world games would do well to look to it for inspiration. Sadly, that is not the case. Grand Theft Auto IV has a myriad of problems.

One may think that a game that largely revolves around stealing cars, crime, and random acts of violence would at least have competent driving and shooting mechanics. It doesn’t. However, Grand Theft Auto IV and the countless other open-world titles that look to Rockstar’s flagship franchise for inspiration and guidance  have a flaw far more substantial than such superficial problems – poor mission design.

I do not particularly mean to pick on Grand Theft Auto IV by itself. The issue of poor mission design is one that has plagued the open-world genre since its inception, and by no means is the Grand Theft Auto series the only one guilty of this. However, as a leader within the genre, Rockstar has set the paradigm for open-world games.

It is incredibly frustrating to see so many developers blindly follow Rockstar’s mistakes. It is as if all the children at school made the decision to cheat off the popular kid in class, not realizing that they might actually do better on their own. This desperate attempt to conform has plunged the genre into a state of mediocrity and stagnation. The bar has been set far too low, and it is time that open-world games evolve in a substantial and meaningful way – or at least start making good on what they are already promising us.

Open-world games tout their ability to offer players a non-linear experience. Non-linear game design allows players a certain degree of freedom when given a task to complete. By expanding the setting of their games into massive sandboxes, developers supposedly give more freedom to the player, allowing them to walk their own path and create their own individualistic stories. Unfortunately, most open-world games absolutely ruin this potentially brilliant gameplay device by limiting the freedom of the player within this environment.

If I may be allowed to make a generalization to illustrate a point, a typical open-world mission goes a little something like this:

1. The mission begins with a scripted event giving the player a task to complete at a certain location.

2. The player is given freedom of travel between the starting point and the destination.

3. Once at the destination another scripted event occurs. A sub-mission ensues where one must either pursue or follow an enemy without being detected.

4. Once the sub-mission’s requirements have been fulfilled another scripted event is triggered.

5. The player has either been ambushed or followed the enemy back to a hideout where the player must eliminate a number of enemies in order to progress.

6. The player has killed the final goon and now must confront the character he followed to the location. The game poses a “moral choice” to the player: mercy or vengeance. The choice is yours – even if it is largely meaningless.

By exercising such control over mission structure, these open-world games destroy any sense of non-linearity they may appear to offer the player. Currently, open-world games are just as linear as two-dimensional platformers.  The difference between how Mario and Niko Bellic get from level to level is not all that different. Grand Theft Auto IV wastes copious amounts of your time driving across a barren city whereas New Super Mario Bros Wii offers near instant gratification, but the end result is largely the same.

While Liberty City may appear to be a lively and interesting place, that illusion eventually wears away. It soon becomes apparent that Liberty City, for all its triumphs and failures, is a world entirely disconnected from Grand Theft Auto IV’s narrative.

The predetermined nature of the narrative is in direct conflict with the free agency that the supposed non-linearity brings to players. Rockstar effectively tells players “have fun in that sandbox, but don’t expect it to count for anything when the credits roll.”

While living in a world of zero consequence may sound like a lot of fun at first, it is ultimately unrewarding. I walked away from that game feeling empty and unfulfilled. Anything I did in that game was largely pointless. Grand Theft Auto IV offers interactivity similar to a Choose Your Own Adventure novel or a film with alternate endings.

The disconnect between gameplay and narrative creates a dichotomy between the mass murdering avatar, and the sympathetic Bosnian immigrant doing what he must to survive in a world of crime and desperation. It drives a wedge between gameplay and narrative; in effect this tells the player that Grand Theft Auto IV’s cutscenes are real and important while the actual game is fake and insignificant. Score up another victory for Roger Ebert and anyone else who seems to think the medium of videogames is a less than legitimate art form and storytelling device.

Not all hope is lost. Developers are attempting to improve the open-world genre’s problems. Sandbox titles like inFamous and Fallout 3 attempt to address the duality between character and avatar. However, the imposition of a morality system onto the player seems to create more issues than it actually solves. Other games have been far more successful at tackling the genre’s issues, particularly when that means delving into the morally bankrupt world of nihilism that is Far Cry 2.

The solution to solving open-world mission design is to give missions less structure rather than more. That does not give developers license to be lazy, and it doesn’t mean that less work means better games. Rather, developers just need to think outside the proverbial box.

Far Cry 2 actually achieves a semblance of true non-linear gameplay by redesigning the sandbox itself. Ubisoft Montreal created an environment that is not only a visually appealing expansive representation of an East African nation thrown into civil war, but also one that supports player agency.

The world was designed with multiple approaches to missions in mind. A Far Cry 2 mission begins with a scripted event, giving the player a target to retrieve or eliminate. From there, an ally will call and offer to help the player with the mission by offering an alternative route to success. From there, things become a little more interesting.

Missions are often designed with cliffs overlooking objectives. Using one’s surroundings, players can complete an objective in a number of ways. Utilize the high ground with a sniper rifle and stare through a scope at your target’s face as you carry out an assassination, use the cover of nightfall to avoid confrontation, and once you have achieved success, slip out the back unnoticed. Alternatively, you may wish to charge in the front door with a shotgun.

As Far Cry 2’s world ranges from jungles to deserts, foliage will also play a role in how players may wish to complete these missions. Starting a brushfire may prove to be an equally promising alternative to putting a bullet in a foe’s head. Charging directly at the enemy with an AK-47 in an open desert landscape is as ill-advised as trying to snipe through the dense jungle, but do whatever floats your boat.

Once given a task in Far Cry 2, Ubisoft Montreal no longer controls the design or the pacing of a mission. They relinquish this control to the player and in doing so provide some of the most emergent non-linear gameplay seen in a mainstream videogame to date. Other developers would do well to take notice – unless they are comfortable with meretricious games, shadows of their own potential awash with broken promises.

  1. Play Chibi-Robo. I’m not even kidding. This is the best open-world game I have ever played:!

    It’s extremely non-linear, it bucks the trend of Open World Games always being violent shooting rampages, encourages exploration, and it has a really unique art style and humour to it as well. It astonishes me how few people have played this game. Do it.

  2. Nice read I have to say I mostly agree. Even though they have lots of their own issues I like the Stalker games for their non linearity as well. They sometimes even forgo the cut scene telling you the mission heh. I am really hoping the upcoming prequel to Deus EX can help push the envelope for this as well even though it isn’t a true “open world” game.

  3. avatar A.W.

    Several points.

    First, my “fall in love” moment when playing Grand Theft Auto III, somewhere around 7-8 years ago was the mission where you were supposed to whack a guy with a baseball bat, take his car and give it to your mafia boss. I remember coming to his area, and seeing him right in front of my car, and going, “hey, I wonder if I can just run him over instead?” So I did and the game said, more or less, “good enough, now on to the next objective.” But around San Andreas they fell in love with highly scripted missions which were barely non-linear at all.

    And reading this and re-obessing over inFamous over the last few days I immediately went to that as an example of a game that was in some ways a return to that even before you brought it up. Its really kind of a mix. Sometimes you have a very linear climb to the top of a giant junk tower. And sometimes all the game says is “kill this” and its very much up to you to figure out how. Do you take on all the goons protecting it straight on. Do you lead them off and kill them. Do you hit and run? Do you ride a rail and constantly hit them with sniper shots? And for me that feels just about right, to have that mix of linearity and non-linearity.

    Meanwhile, the karma system is, yes, useful for governing how the world reacts to your behavior off mission. But here’s my big criticism of it. You are rewarded for being super-awesomely-good, and for being really, really evil. But if you are somewhere in between, you get nothing. Sigh. But the choose to be a good or bad guy thing has been fun since I first saw it in Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight. (By the way, damn that was a fun game. I miss it.)

    Another game that handle the non-liner thing really well is Oblivion (technically: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but I think 3 people call it that). Not every mission gives you freedom, but most of the time there are multiple different ways to complete your goals. That was a disappointment I had with fallout 3, because there you really didn’t have as much choice in how you played.

    And it is worth nothing that Oblivion and Fallout 3 demonstrate a different kind of non-linearity: non-linear choices of missions. At any one time you can literally have a dozen different missions you could complete and you are really encouraged to decide that certain missions are not even the kind of thing you want to do, although I am an obsessive completionist enough that I will earn the Crusader’s armor and them get to the top of the Assassin’s Guild, making it impossible literally to use the armor I worked so hard to get.

    The original Mercenaries made a stab at an interesting wrinkle in that, by having different factions you could help that would literally infuriate other factions you might want to work for later. So if you help the Allied Nations, they will ask you to attack Chinese forces who will then be mad at you for doing that. And then later you will have to deal with the Chinese. So you could try to carry out the missions with enough stealth that they don’t know you just screwed them. But then they blew all of that by also offering you the option of buying off their anger. Which is one of many ways Mercenaries failed in every way except giving you a lot of fun boom-boom. Which was still enough fun to make the game worth it, and frankly I don’t know why people were so hard on the sequel. It was still fun, even if the enemies were as dumb as rocks.

    One other big annoyance I have with GTA is that they have killed one of the most pleasurable activities in the game. Early on in playing GTA III, I discovered that it was actually a lot of fun to get a police record and then spend a while avoiding the police. Vice City perfected it and I would literally spend hours on one chase, constantly dodging the cops, skating on my rims, and desperately searching for a new car when mine inevitably blew up. Then in San Andreas, it suddenly became easy to evade the cops. You just drive in one direction for a long time and your wanted level disappears. Sigh. And GTA IV didn’t improve things very much.

    And finally boy you said a mouthful about the disconncect in GTA IV between the sympathetic protagonist and psychopath you are out on the streets. I mean at least in Ratchet Deadlocked they made a funny reference to the rampant property damage just about any Ratchet and Clank fan had engaged in, in previous games, using that in propaganda videos against you. Or there is the line toward the end of Uncharted 2 where the villain says you’re not a very good guy either, “how many people have you killed just today?” Ratchet and Clank is better than most in self-awareness, one of the funniest lines in the beginning being when Clank says, “Heavily armed robot commandos?” And Ratchet replies, “When AREN’T they heavily armed?” Even he knows here is a certain routine involved in these things.

    Often these games have ridiculous disconnect moments. Like in the beginning of San Andreas you are framed for the murder of a cop, and somehow this fear of prosecution is so terrifying that you are willing to do all kinds of bad things to avoid the rap. But in the proper game you can run over a cop with 20 eyewitnesses and then let the cops arrest you and you are out in about 2 minutes with a heavy fine and loss of all your cool weapons (unless you have the right girlfriends), but that is about it. I mean don’t be lazy, Rockstar. Explain it. Like say that the reason why you can get away almost scott free after murdering a cop in broad daylight with plenty of eye witnesses is because Tenpenny is protecting you, but if you piss him off, you lose that protection. I’ll accept that. But just… say it.

    Or another is where you kill like 500 nameless thugs and then there is a cut scene where like suddenly 5 of them point a gun at you and you suddenly decide to surrender. You the gamer are thinking the whole time, “if I was in control of this, I could kill all of them, no problem.” Again, it’s a big narrative killer. And, by the way, guys there is usually a simple way to solve all of that. nine times out of ten, it will make about 90% more sense if they threaten a loved one instead, forcing you into surrender. Then you get the same plot point of “and then your character was captured.” Or just have a special reason why you can’t hope to just fight them, like when Sniper Wolf captures Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid (1)—its reasonable to argue that you have no chance against Sniper Wolf at this range. Or in Ratchet: Deadlocked, he has that collar around his neck a la “The Running Man.” But don’t expect us to suddenly believe that those drones you have been murdering a dozen at a time are suddenly some kind of terrifying threat that you dare not even fight. Give me a break.

    Mind you all of this is bitching about games that nonetheless I love. Literally all of the games I am criticizing here I have played to death. So I am not saying these things absolutely suck, or that they break the game. I am just saying they could be even better, if game designers took this to heart.

  4. avatar SMark

    I actually feel frustrated with mission structure period. I even remember being pissed at the limitations of what you were allowed to do when considering how much was possible on the whole as far back as Super Mario 64. Probably because I was never able to pull off the jump sequence that could allegedly get you to the top of the castle even when you didn’t have all the stars.

    On the subject of choices you get not making a difference to narrative flow or at least the ending, this has become the thing to do in JRPGs. You’re presented with all kinds of opportunities to see different sides of characters and find out information long before it becomes relevant to the plot through exploration and side quests, yet the protagonist is still just as shocked as everyone else when he hears something for the nth time in the sole fixed mainline plot scene. It’s… pretty annoying.

  5. avatar Suryat

    Just Cause 2 was the most fun I’ve had in a sandbox world in a long long time. I hope this comment was insightful.

  6. avatar allrpg.freak

    Looks like an article written by Far Cry franchise lover who hates GTA or other Open World games.

  7. avatar Blobber

    Well written article. Sure Far Cry 2 had it’s problems but it advanced the open world gameplay in many areas. I wish more sandbox games would give you the freedom and design the levels to accomodate multiple approaches, like FC2 and Flashpoint 1 did.

    A.W. Talks of how Mercenaries wrecked the morality system by allowing bribing. Would you prefer the faction, on discovering you did one hostile act towards them, shut their missions off from you forever? I can’t really see how that would have made the game better… or even good.

    Also a shout out to The Saboteur. Some legitimately good mission design in that one too.

    • I’m actually playing The Saboteur right now. I am really liking how the free-play sabotage targets affect the city. The ability to go into an area before a mission, eliminate the watch towers, propaganda speakers, etc. to create safe zones to escape to and ambush Nazi pursuers with French Resistance troops. The game is full of nice touches like that that push the genre.

      It’s a pity that the Saboteur was Pandemic’s last game. There is so much potential here.

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