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.