How to use free will to improve your open world game experience

Yesterday I landed on an article at Polygon, What Zelda: Breath of the Wild gets so right, explained in 20 minutes. It was basically promoting a video on why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is “The Best Game Ever” (though apparently that’s the name of a series of videos so it isn’t meant literally). Ben Kuchera, who wrote the post, said:

The game gets a lot of mileage out of having its own map be an item that�s part of the world itself. This helps Breath of the Wild neatly avoid that open-world trope of maps that are filled with noisy icons, which make the game feel more like a homework assignment than something people play for fun.

(Emphasis mine.)

I’ll embed the video below but it boils down to the assertion that BotW is a better game than all other open world games because there aren’t as many icons on the map. Further the creator of the video (who admits to not having played BotW all that much) illustrates his point by comparing an early-game version of the map with late game maps from Horizon Zero Dawn and Far Cry 4, which seems pretty shady to me. I mean the longer you play the more things you uncover, right? He also says mini-maps are bad (but BotW has one) and waypoints that show up in the gameworld are bad too.

Anyway, the whole video comes across to me as someone who first came up with a topic (“Why BotW is better than other open world games.”) and then carefully cherry-picked data points to support it. For example he never mentions the huge amount of time you spend screwing with your inventory in BotW.

But this post isn’t really about the video, it’s about Kuchera’s homework assignment comment. I’ve been hearing that a lot from gaming journalists and “influencers.” That the open world systems that they used to love are now the devil because there is too much to do.

Think about that. These people are complaining that the developers are giving you too many choices of how to have fun in their games. It’s a ridiculous argument.

I have a counter-hypothesis. Kids who grew up on video games forget that they have free will. My first ‘gamer’ years were spent with paper and cardboard. If I didn’t like a rule, I changed it. If part of a game wasn’t fun, I eliminated it. If I thought something was missing, I added it. If you were raised on video games you never got the chance to change the rules. You just did what the game told you to do. It may never have dawned on you that you have free will and can do whatever the heck you want!

In other words when I’m playing an open world game that has 10 different kinds of side-quests or collectibles and I find that some of them aren’t fun for me, I simply don’t do them. It’s a crazy idea, right? YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ALL THE THINGS! You are in control of your video game experience! I firmly believe that the developers never expect every player to do every activity, but I also imagine they realize what is fun for player A is a drag for player B, and vice versa. So they offer a selection of things to do and let the player choose. PLAYER CHOICE IS A GOOD THING.

I’ve been playing and finishing a lot of open world games recently and never have I been prevented from getting to the end credits because I opted out of a side-quest or side-activity that I didn’t enjoy. If you go back far enough there may be games that behave differently but all the relatively modern open world games I’ve played don’t force you to do everything. You may have to do something to earn cash or level up or something, but they give you a menu of options and you can pick the one(s) you enjoy.

Anyway I think we can test my hypothesis because there are still plenty of gamers who play board games and do pen & paper RPGing. So I’m asking them, do you feel compelled to do every side-task in an open world game just because there’s an icon on the map for it?

Complaining about open world games having too many activities is like saying you don’t want to go to a bookstore because you don’t have time to read every book in it, or not going to a restaurant because the menu has too many choices. Exercise your free will. Play games to have fun, not to remove icons on a map.

Anyway, here’s this dude’s video. I find it all pretty sketchy and biased. For example he says in BotW there is no urgency to get to the end, you can do whatever you want. But literally one of the first things you learn is that Zelda has been fighting Ganon alone for 100 years and needs your help. If that doesn’t instill a sense of urgency, what will? I mean no open world game I’ve played has a literal timer ticking down. You can take your time in all of them, the only urgency comes from the narrative and BotW is no better or worse than any other open world game in those terms. But once again, the dude couldn’t let unbiased facts get in the way of his point.

2 thoughts on “How to use free will to improve your open world game experience

  1. I both agree wholeheartedly and disagree vigorously. Free will and making the game you’re given into the game you want to play I totally understand; that’s how I have been playing MMOs since I decided EQ was a brilliant solo rpg in 1999. On the other hand, I’m a lifelong obsessive reader who’s worked in a bookshop for almost twenty years and I have never, ever liked bookshops for exactly the reasons you give, which, I feel, have nothing at all to do with Free Will on the part of the reader and everything to do with control and direction by whoever buys the books and puts them on the shelves.

    When it comes to marking points on the map, I absolutely agree that these are tools for the player to use not instructions for them to follow. I hate the trend away from providing the utilities it took years for games to acquire. I’m all for mystery but not when it equates to misery. BUT… if designers insist on attaching “Achievements” to every one of those map marks and ranking the progress of your character by those “Achievements” (not to mention handing out often quite significant perks for doing them) then exerting free will begins to look a like shooting yourself in the foot while dragging an anchor.

    People of a certain age – my age – grew up with relatively restricted choices and we tend to be suspicious of the idea that you can’t have too much choice. There are well-established psychological reasons why you very much can. I’m 100% behind the idea that players need to recognize and exert free will but I also think developers have a responsibility to tailor and curate their entertainments more sensitively. Some of them seem to think that more is always more when less can be more and more is often less.

    1. If a game has a ton of side-activities that you are required (or effectively required in the sense that you need whatever perks you earn from them in order to strengthen your character enough to finish the game comfortably) to do them, then I’m in agreement with you.

      But the 2 examples the video creator uses (Horizon Zero Dawn and Far Cry 4) don’t do that. Yes there are Achievement attached to some of those side quests, but they are just “increase your gamerscore” achievements. I completed both of the games mentioned. HZD I enjoyed so much that I DID do everything just because I was having fun; I’m glad there was a lot to do. Far Cry 4 I ignored many of the side activities and still completed the game comfortably. Yes I left some ‘gamerscore’ on the table but that feels like more of a ‘meta’ issue than a gameplay issue.

      Kind of a tangent, but the game being lauded here, Breath of the Wild, has 120 Shrines you need to discover and solve and they DO have a direct impact on your character’s progression. (For every 4 Shrines you solve you get to increase your heath or stamina capacity.) Further, there are 900 (!!) Korok Seeds to find. These are used to increase inventory capacity.

      Neither of these items are marked on the map by icons but I’m not convinced Zelda is a ‘better’ game for it. Longer game, sure. If I’m feeling hampered by not enough inventory space and I have to spend a few hours searching for Korok seeds, it definitely stretches out the length of time I spend playing the game, but for me personally that just feels like it will be frustrating. Also I think most games are way too long and don’t need to be stretched out.

      When I was a kid the town library and the town bookstore both had 1 small shelf of science fiction books (fantasy was lumped in there). Personally I prefer the larger choice I have access to today!

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