Some people love exploring open-world video games. They even love getting lost.
But some of my most hopeless Skyrim rage quits have involved me wandering around some mountain with trolls attacking me, unable to scramble up the hillside to meet my destination marker. And to me, tumbling down the mountainside — or seeing my poor horse take the fall for me — is such a worthless way to die in this game. Dying in a random attack and having to start over at some distant save point is equally awful. But even just being hopelessly lost is a pain, like the time I could not for the life of me figure out how to get out of Ustengrav tomb to finish my bloody quest.
In short, I just hate getting lost.
Smelling the roses, enjoying the journey and not just the destination… those cliches just don’t cut it for me when I’m on a mission to complete as many quests as I can before the evening is over. As in real life, getting lost is a waste of time.
After playing Skyrim for about 3 months, I switched to Dragon Age: Origins and felt utter relief. Finally, real paths for me to traverse! I don’t have to trudge from one end of the map to the other; I can just click on my destination, and if any random battles pop up, the game will take me straight to them… and afterwards, the game will usher me to my desired destination without delay!
Some Mass Effect fans complained about ME2 after falling in love with the planets in ME1 that they could land on and explore — a little open-world fun paired with a linear story. ME2 has none of that exploration, unless you happen upon a quest that allows you to land. Personally, I liked the bit of open-world exploration available in ME1… but I didn’t really miss it in ME2, either.
It’s true that open-world exploration can add a lot to a game, but many positives come with their downsides, too. So to take a look at what open-world games offer…
1. Time to Chill
I understand the appeal of exploring for the sake of exploring. The graphics in many games these days are breathtaking. Some days, I crank on my Xbox 360 with no set plans other than to chill in Skyrim (or New Austin, or Dalmasca, or the ruined landscape of Fallout 3). Seeing my Dragonborn on a cliff overlooking Skyrim is pretty epic.
There’s a reason people create mods to make the “natural” lighting in these video games more realistic from dawn to dusk. It’s almost unsettling how gorgeous and life-like the in-game scenery is. One particularly sad moment of my life occurred when I went for a drive after playing massive amounts of Skyrim and found myself admiring the scenery by saying, “This landscape looks as pretty as Skyrim!”
As for taking a break from life to chill in these lush in-game landscapes… there’s really no downside to it, unless dragons or bears crash your party too often for your liking.
2. Leveling Up
Some gamers like it when those dragons and bears attack, because it gives them opportunities to develop their skills and level up. Other times, open-world explorations leads to side quests. This extra combat time can be useful in games like Final Fantasy, which has bosses that simply cannot be beat unless you train first… but nobody said level-grinding is always fun. In fact, level-grinding is a big drawback of many open-world games.
3. Finding Loot
Loot-lovers rejoice when they stumble upon a sword or SMG tucked away in a hole somewhere that never would have been found during a main quest. And in games like Skyrim that let you loot just about anything (including plants), you can use even the most trivial loot to create alchemy potions, forge new armor or just make some money by selling them to a shop the next time you’re in town.
The only time this gets sad is when you’re just not strong enough to carry all of that loot, and you forgot to bring Marcurio along as your pack mule. Storage becomes a necessity for hardcore looters. (Thank God for all of those houses in games like Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption.)
Getting Lost, Feeling Lost
But the biggest problem I have with open-world games goes beyond just getting lost: it’s also about feeling lost. In Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption, I spend more time away from the story than a part of it. Too much land to cover and too many random side quests leave me feeling disconnected. I know this is a common problem for many gamers who prefer linear games. Sandbox-style games can be fun for a while, but they never make it to my shelf of favorite games.
In some sandbox-style games, choices don’t matter — and when they clash, the games may not give any realistic repercussions. Take Skyrim as an example. You can marry someone who hates the Thieves Guild while you’re a member of the Thieves Guild. You can join the Imperials to fight for the emperor, then turn around and kill the emperor as an assassin. This can destroy that suspension of disbelief that allows players to get lost in a video game — the good kind of getting lost.
Maybe I need to slow down and appreciate the digital world I’m in a little more… or maybe open-world games will never be my thing. I want to spend my gaming time getting lost in a story, not lost on the way to my next quest marker. For that reason, I hope to find more open-world games that offer easy navigation and a tangible connection to the main story line.
But I also recognize that the appeal of open-world games is the thrill of discovery. And even for me, every once in a while, it’s worth getting lost for that.