Pre-gaming for Fallout 4: Considering the State of the Open-World Game

I, like many–potentially even most– have been pining after and counting down until tomorrow for the much anticipated release of Fallout 4. In my enthusiasm, I’ve been consuming as many discussions on the game as I’ve been able to sit through and none struck me quite as much as one regarding the state of Fallout’s open world. Criticisms of past titles in the franchise, notably Fallout 3, brought to light a number of glaring issues with the way that open worlds operate in modern gaming.

In Fallout 3, the quest was simple: find Dad. And of course the game’s fairly linear questline sequences allowed the player to find Dad by simply going where their maps told them to go, talking to the right people, visiting the right places. There is little active thinking involved in these point and direct sequences, but what I found of interest in this discussion was the number of people who complained they had found their father completely by accident. They chose actively to bypass the main quest to instead take their Lone Wanderer out into the Wasteland–into Bethesda’s open world, and by doing so, found Dad in a remote gas station by chance, just from simply exploring and thereby completely bypassing a chunk of the main questline.

Responses to this were mixed: some felt that their exploration had effectively punished them. They’d missed and failed questline sequences because they had strayed too far from the bounds of what the game wanted them to do. They found the disconnect between what was supposed to happen and what was allowed to happen. Others felt that this was the perfect example of what the open world should allow players to do: bypass the rules. It’s not at all unrealistic that a real Lone Wanderer, out in the wastes, could happen upon their father simply by exploring over following an itinerant and fixed line of clues. It’s the kind of chance that one could reasonably expect to happen in real life.

So why were so many people angry about this? I don’t know if I have an answer, but it certainly got me thinking about the state of the open world as we know it–of the companies and games that have each attempted to present an open world in their own ways–and perhaps where that leaves the market open for Fallout 4 to innovate and iterate. I want to explore a few tenets of open worlds as I see them that may allow us (read: me) to better judge the nature of Fallout’s open world in comparison to it’s peers and predecessors. Onward!

FINDING AND DOING IN SANDBOX OPEN WORLDS: GRAND THEFT AUTO V

Los Santos wants you to play. It wants you to steal a sports car from a parking lot, it wants you to do stunt jumps with bicycles off massive ramps. It gives you tennis and yoga and races and things to keep you busy. When I think of GTAV, a game I thoroughly enjoyed, I think of busywork.

And busywork isn’t always bad, honestly; I never really found myself running out of things to do while playing. I enjoyed racing motorbikes toward Los Santos’ northern shores, darting through the mountain ranges, the deserts, the glittering city lights–all of them a fantastic and thoughtful near-reproduction of Los Angeles and California’s surrounding biomes. I enjoyed more that Rockstar, as is their way, was not short on small secrets worth digging for. The mysterious ghost girl on the mountain, the tucked away messages on the in-game web browser, all the teasers for potential extraterrestrial activity up on Mt. Chiliad. Stranger missions in Red Dead Redemption had easily been my favorite part of the game and it’s these little secrets that keep me coming back.

And, again, before I get too critical, it’s worth considering how difficult this can be to pull off. Watch_Dogs featured a similar murder mystery, and one that was well set up and chilling in its implications. But there was no secret to it; it was a questline, one that was blocked off at repeated junctions because I hadn’t liberated the tower in that section of the map. It was not something to find as much as it was something to do. I enjoyed Ubisoft’s exploration of Chicago as much as I enjoyed Rockstar’s but finding and doing, as it were, is a delicate balance.

If we’re comparing GTAV to Watch_Dogs, it’s almost no contest that Rockstar does finding and doing far better than Ubisoft. Watch_Dogs quickly became tedious and time consuming and at some point I realized I had stopped having fun hours before and eventually put the game to rest. I enjoyed Los Santos and GTAV’s core story far more, but even in this game did I find myself running up against the boundaries of what an open world is. Because yes, it’s fun to discover secrets, it’s fun to steal a plane from a military base and parachute into the ocean. It’s fun to cause utter mayhem on a scooter blasting gangsta rap at obscene levels. But what happens when that’s all there is?

Because in Los Santos, there’s things to see, there’s things to do, but there’s nowhere to go. There’s predetermined buildings with predetermined entrances–all of them fulfilling some sort of purpose to the plot or out of necessity (i.e. Ammunation stores) and the rest are like cardboard standups. Pushing on them too hard might simply blow over the entire city block. We’re frequently sold new games on the prospect of them being bigger, their maps being 2x or 3x the size of X game in the franchise. But how open is a gigantic world where everything is there just to serve as a background to car chases and crime? If secrets are easily exhausted? If everything else is just play?

RADIANT AI AND THE NATURE OF PURPOSE: CONSIDERING THE JUMP FROM OBLIVION TO SKYRIM

Grand Theft Auto, and it’s precursors, fairly, give us the concept of finding, doing, and going in open world games. The obvious impetus is to want to craft a world in which there’s an equal balance of there being plenty to find and plenty to do without overlap that sucks the fun out of everything by marking anything worth looking at with an icon on a minimap. Games like Assassin’s Creed, Farcry, and Watch_Dogs blur this line too often and frequently turn finding into doing, making the game too heavily focused on checking boxes. But games like GTA often find this balance by reducing what is actually in the world to be found. A good balance of finding and doing too often means that there’s very little going–very little more than just set pieces to play around like a Hollywood studio lot.

Of all the games I’m considering here, I still, and likely will, until I’m proven wrong, believe that The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is as close to perfect as an open world will get. And I welcome those who might tell me it’s flawed in comparison to Morrowind. Indeed; I’m not here to discredit Morrowind as an equal, if not different, idealization of what open worlds have been, could be, and perhaps even should be. Attentiveness to the lore and a lack of handholding often make for a more immersive experience for those who want it, while being systematically obtuse to those that need direction. Oblivion is the perfect mix of these things, in my opinion; though it may indeed be flawed, perhaps even a flawed masterpiece, it solved the dichotomy between finding and doing by offering both independently of one another.

I am, of course, referring to the Ayleid ruins scattered across the game map (though there were many other, albeit smaller, secrets worth finding). They were a spleunker’s dream; plenty of loot to find inside, of course, and they existed independent of the main storyline. There was no questline that sent you snooping through them. You could explore them or bypass them altogether-there was literally no punishment one way or the other. It depended on you, the player, being curious. This is the ecstasy of finding in its purest form, when the player is rewarded primarily by their own enjoyment of the task, rather than the points or the trophy or the “quest completed” that pats them on the back and tells them they’re playing the game the correct way.

But Oblivion was a game I finished, in its total entirety, and put down. Bethesda, understanding this finite nature, fought against it with the Radiant AI and Radiant Quest system implemented in Skyrim. Their attempt was a wholly noble one: allow the game to go on indefinitely. There would always be something to do, they promised, always someone in need of saving. The world didn’t go from zero to fixed when you, the hero, completed all the major questlines.

This was an admirable goal, and one I believe we can iterate on, but is in its own way completely flawed. Why? Because the pendulum of purpose swung too far. It meant that everything suddenly had a purpose and completely obliterated the joy in discovering in the way that Oblivion had so delicately and expertly crafted.

It is one thing to have finding and doing and going, and another to have purpose. By giving everything a purpose, Skyrim inevitably cancelled out much of the finding aspect of open worlds. Because yes, while players could jump into a cave, explore it and clean it out and have a wonderful time doing so, they would inevitably be sent back to the same cave (which had completely refreshed as if they’d never been there before) to find some butcher’s father’s roommate’s sister’s lost butter knife. Exploration became set on a timer; if you yourself didn’t explore the map yourself then you bet the game would force you to explore. And explore. And explore. And explore. Given time, purpose turned finding into doing and very quickly we see the the limitations of even the best of intentions.

PURPOSE AND PUNISHMENT: THE CASE OF THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT

I want to focus on this concept of purpose because I feel as though there’s far more to say about it that Skyrim doesn’t allow for. In the same way that there are natural sliding scales when it comes to the balance of finding, doing, and going, purpose is equally problematic–to the point of being troublesome–especially when it comes to games that not only want to feel big but also want to feel full. An emphasis on finding and doing that stretches the boundaries of purpose so far as to be punishing for players that aren’t attuned to the explicit, if not completely unspoken rules of what the game allows and what it wants. Recall the trouble with finding Dad in Fallout 3?

I love The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as much as the next guy. I’ve sunk hours and hours into it and have still still barely scratched the surface. I relish each quest, each character, each interaction, every location, and especially Geralt himself. Even Gwent, which I despised early on in the game, became a truly treasured sidebar in between tenuous monster hunting contracts. I can, without even a shred of doubt, say that The Witcher 3 has easily been my favorite game of the year.

What’s fascinating to me about Wild Hunt is the fact that on loading screens, the game cycles through lore tidbits and suggestions to improve gameplay, one of these being the suggestion to explore as one never knows what’s “out there.”

Well, okay. I can tell you what’s out there.

Wild Hunt is very cut and dry when it comes to finding, doing, and going. Exploration is encouraged to a point; the overworld map is full of question marks that the player has to ‘uncover.’ Many small side quests and interactions are only uncovered when Geralt wanders within a reasonable proximity of them. There are creatures and small caches worth exploring for. The doing aspect is even more direct; aside from quests, each question mark is traditionally related to a chore; a guarded treasure, a hidden treasure, a monster nest, a person in trouble, an abandoned site overrun with monsters, a something for Geralt to do. The balance here is fairly well done; the side doings and findings aren’t required for completion and really only necessary for snagging some worthwhile loot or an achievement.

But Wild Hunt takes Skyrim’s purpose problem to an extreme degree. Instead of quests sending you to each remote corner of the map, every location has a purpose to the point that exploring too far, that is, outside of completing the side doings the game gives you, exploring places often accidentally starts quests or even completes or fails them without the player having any understanding. On at least one occasion, I started a questline somewhere in the middle by exploring a cave while on a completely different quest looking for armor diagrams. What?

And you may say to this that it’s what open world is about. Much in the same way that being able to find your father in Fallout 3 without following the questline is open world, starting quests by accidentally stumbling on them should be open world too, right?

Except the game will occasionally mark steps in the questlog with a big red x, implicitly saying “wrong, wrong wrong! You’ve done it all wrong!” While the quest can still be completed (and not failed), this sort of imagery isn’t lending to the idea that there is a very specific way the game is supposed to be done. There is a way you’re supposed to explore, there’s a way you’re supposed to do and go. Why have an open world, then, if there is always an understanding that someone can essentially play in the open world wrong? 

Of course, there’s always the devil’s advocate: who wants to play in a world full of locked doors?

REITERATING THE TENETS

At the expense of length, there are more points worth considering that I’ll not address here, or at the very least, not at this point in time. A game like Assassin’s Creed: Unity, for example, attempted to address the open world through immersion, PACKING the streets of Paris with NPCs and people in order to make it feel more alive. But those people were just there–they didn’t do anything that made them seem more real compared to sparse, scattered NPCs. So there are more ways to think of the open world than just in the ways I’ve described above, but I find the finding-doing-going + purpose to be a compelling one. Let’s reconsider:

FINDING, of course, is the ability for the player to uncover worthwhile secrets that encourage exploration intrinsically but aren’t required for completion. When I think of good finding, I think of Oblivion and the Ayleid ruins that gave players who wanted to explore a reason to explore. They don’t have to explore and their reward for exploring is what they find inside. But players themselves are able to effectively ‘price’ the value of their experience. If they enjoy it, there are more places to explore. If they don’t enjoy it, they’re not punished.

DOING, following finding, comprises the structure that makes open world games, games. Doing is the quests, the activities, the things that keep the player feeling satisfied as well as a necessary component of the game world. Wild Hunt is exceptional about this; quests are varied and fulfilling, sidequests are creative and thoughtful. Geralt is a fascinating and compelling protagonist.

GOING, related to finding, relates to the open world feeling full. Going is the places, the people, the things that the player can interact with and going is the setpieces that keep the game from feeling as though it’s being acted out in front of a backdrop. Both Fallout and The Elder Scrolls games have traditionally been good at this; when every door can be opened, when each home has something in it to make it seem as if people exist, that the world is alive, that you are a piece of the universe as it keeps turning and turning.

These we combine with PURPOSE–a delicate balance of both critically important and generally unimportant things, places, and people that allow the gameplay to be varied. If each place has a mission critical quest tied to it, what is the point in FINDING? If there’s a gigantic open world with the same repeating store and nothing else, what’s the point in GOING? And, moreover, when everything is purposeful, when there are no secrets worth finding, when does DOING become a chore?

I don’t know what Fallout 4 will bring. I can make a reasonable and honest assumption based on my history with Bethesda, but should we not also expect innovation? Will the world be bigger, fuller, and, if so–at the expense of what? Is there a perfect balance we have yet to reach? Or is it already behind us while we iterate deeper and deeper into something generic and uninspired? Time will tell.

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