Earlier last year, I was all about Skyrim. I had waited six long, tortuous years for the sequel to Oblivion, and I was adamant it would be the only game I’d need that summer. It was, for a time.
I played Skyrim steadily for the first few months, building up my character, taking my time to explore and gather hundreds of weapons, armour and items in my player character’s house that I insisted I'd “use later”. I spent hours searching generic dungeons just to see if I'd find anything unique. I let myself become utterly engulfed into what seemed to be a boundless world, and told myself there was no rush to finish the Main Quest.
Yet one day something happened. I had just completed the Dark Brotherhood sidequest line when I put down the controller and lost the urge to play, just like that. Despite playing a game with a ridiculous amount of content on offer, I lacked direction on what to do next.
Since then, I’ve never had Skyrim in the disc tray for longer than 10 minutes, no matter how hard I try to get back into it. Reflecting on why I just suddenly lost interest and why I can't get back into it made me think: when do open-world games become overwhelming and repetitive rather than engaging and limitless?
An expansive world, but is the freedom to explore meaningful, or just generic distractions to lengthen game-time?
First of all: why do people love open-world games? Most likely, it is the concept of player choice and freedom in another world that entices the majority of gamers. I often play RPGs based on the level of customisation it offers, or if it allows me to focus on the side-quests without forcing me to finish the main storyline. Having agency and freedom in a video game is naturally an intriguing thing, and shaping the game around what you want to experience is a nice alternative to following a scripted, rigid campaign.
It took me awhile to figure out where my dissatisfaction of Skyrim came from, and eventually I settled on two things: there comes a point when open-world games, more often than not, mistake quality for quantity, and in offering everything and anything to do, it can cause gamers to suffer from a lack of direction and purpose.
...there comes a point when open-world games, more often than not, mistake quality for quantity, and in offering everything and anything to do, it can cause gamers to suffer from a lack of direction and purpose."
Discovering and exploring dungeons in Skyrim was certainly enjoyable in the beginning, and much more varied than in Oblivion. But it didn't take me long to figure out there were certainly a lot more generic dungeons then there was unique ones. When I kept discovering the same low-level bandits or Draugr and the same general level design under the guise of clever but minor differences, it soon became tedious to go off the beaten path on the odd chance that my exploration and choices would lead to something meaningful. 100 "different" dungeons and however many Dragon Words certainly raises play-time, but I'd rather have the incentive to explore half that number if they led to or were all different and unique in their own way.
Dragon encounters are perhaps the best example: instead of being sweeping, epic battles every time they occurred, they degraded into irritating, shallow encounters due to the fact that they happened so often and in the same way, in the same locations, at the same inconvenient moments, no matter where I explored or what choice I had made in-game.
I didn't have the time or the will to kill every single beast for their dragon soul because I knew one would be around the corner again anyway. Sure, maybe players wanted lots of them to kill, but I would have traded the 50 or so generic dragon encounters I had for 10 utterly engaging and immersive battles with the beasts, as somewhat experienced in the Main Quest and DLC.
"For the last time, I don't have tree fiddy!"
A major problem in offering players so much to do in an open world game is sufficiently striking a balance between quantity of quests and making them feel like they have impact and meaning -- that they are worth completing. In the same file, you can become the Master of the Thieves Guild, the Dark Brotherhood, the Arch-Mage of the Mages' Guild and the greatest Dragonborn to ever live. But hardly anyone in Skyrim will ever acknowledge it, or anyone react to your choices beyond the characters tied to the questlines. I wanted there to be consequences from my choices; I wanted some impact from having the in-game freedom to join all of those often opposing factions at the same time.
It all felt inconsistent and tedious, and by the end I craved a game that had a set objective with clear direction for the player. But that's just me. Many of you probably won't experience the same sort of disillusion as I had, and indeed there are some games which manage to balance this problem out: Fallout New Vegas is one such example which manages to make every quest dynamic and most side-quests meaningful without resorting to generic quests to fill play-time.
There is a place for peripheral activities alongside fully-realised main campaign narratives, but a balance needs to be struck to give players more incentive to finish everything -- they advertised themselves as open-world games where choice is paramount, but having more things to do doesn't keep everyone playing; meaningful impact from player freedom does.
When, if ever, do you feel open-world games become overwhelming or tedious rather than compelling and engaging?
By Nathan Misa
Nathan Misa is the senior games writer, reviewer and contributor for MMGN.com and GamesFix, and is lost in the Skyrim wilderness. You can hear his ramblings and thoughts here on MMGN, Google+ and Twitter.