Losing The Plot

I’m tired of open-world games.

There. I said it. I like games that have an ending and a clear route there. A game advertising dozens upon dozens of side quests with a massive world to explore is no longer the selling point it once was. All it sounds to me now is more errands to run on the way to whatever the end goal is. And these side quests have to be done, because that’s the only way I know I’ve finished the game.

Now, there is a tirade somewhere about side quests as padding for a game, with many of them being variations on “go here, do this, fight someone, talk to this person, repeat,” that do little to advance character or plot but are needed if you want to improve your character to be better. But that’s not what this is about, not quite.

The main reason I’m tired of open-world games is that I feel like I quickly lose the plot of whatever it is is going on. Despite sinking hundreds of hours into Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey I couldn’t tell you what the main plot was about (something to do with vengeance against your father and a cabal of cultists, I think?), simply because there was so much to do / that had to be done. Heck, I don’t really remember what the actual narrative ending was because, again, there was so much to do that didn’t really move Kassandra’s story along.

Ghost of Tsushima is another game with a bunch of side quests that start to feel like a chore after a while. These, billed as “Tales of Tsushima,” end up being quite formulaic gameplay-wise, and, outside of the ones that prominently feature your allies, don’t do much to push along Jin Sakai’s character arc. It emphasizes that he’s a good guy who helps those in need, but doesn’t tackle the game’s central question of “Is Jin Sakai an honorable man?” And that is the central question, as it’s the one that forms the backbone of the events of each act turn and the final ending. Unfortunately, I spent so much time running errands that the question didn’t seem terribly important. Not to say all the side activities were a waste; Fox Dens, Haiku, and Shinto Shrines may not have been narratively important, but they helped me, the player, fall in love with the island of Tsushima. I understood Jin’s want to save his home far more than the question of honor, so while the plot arc of “killing the invading Mongols” definitely worked (I’d spent hours coming to love this island) but “does Jin have honor?” less so because it was only really touched on here and there.

Granted, it’s hard to keep up a thorough narrative over a game that lasts dozens of hours with optional quests that not all players will go on (compare Mass Effect 2 which had a very direct through line with options that let you flesh out Shepard and the crews’ characters, while Mass Effect: Andromeda had all these little optional things to do for exp and profit). I find that more successful contemporary open-world games are buoyed not necessarily by diversity in quests (I swear, if I had to look for footprints in one more Ghost side quest…) but by a robust central narrative question.

My favorite open-world game in recent years is easily Horizon Zero Dawn. On the surface, it ticks a lot of boxes for me: Badass woman protagonist! A setting centuries after an apocalypse! Robot dinosaurs! Anchoring it all is Aloy, the outcast main character you play as, and her central question: “Who am I?” Unlike the others in her tribe, she doesn’t have a mother and you spend much of the story uncovering that. She has a connection to the ancient ruins of Colorado you explore, and finding out more about the nature of the apocalypse reveals more about who exactly Aloy is. It’s a game about identity, and the further Aloy gets from her Nora homelands, the more she is freed from the expectations of her tribe and able to craft her own identity among the Carja, Oseram, and others. It all ties together in the plot; Aloy’s self-actualization of knowing who she is (and what the Old World was) helps her rally a myriad of allies and defeat the Shadow Carja and prevent the awakening of an ancient evil. It all works together and even while you fight robot dinosaurs, the central questions of “Who Is Aloy? is seldom lost.

It’s Death Stranding that keeps its central theme front and center of everything you do in the game. It’s a game about connections; the connections between the United Cities of America, the connections between Sam and his team, the connection between Sam and his BB, the connection between you and other players. Because every little quest is about connecting people, the big narrative turns that hinge on those themes never seem out of place — it’s what you’ve been doing the whole time. The final narrative beats of the game work as well as they do (and I’m not spoiling ’em for you) because they rely on the relationship you (and Sam) have built up to other characters, relationships and connections that only exist because of the way the gameplay is built around them. 

I appreciate the open-world genre for its expansive worlds and the joy of exploring, but losing the plot can sometimes hurt what would otherwise be an incredible narrative — Ghost of Tsushima’s ending scene is a magnificent set piece, but it feels slightly disconnected depending on how much time you spent running around with Kenji or helping innkeepers. The story is only as strong as its central question, and if that question gets lost, you end up losing the plot. There’s a trade off in open-world games, Breath of The Wild foregoes narrative focus for exploration and Death Stranding zeroes in on its narrative with exploration a tertiary objective at best. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m tired of open-world games as it is that I want ones with better focus.

Despite it all, though, Ghost of Tsushima was a blast, and I am most likely going to be playing another open-world game before too long and repeating this cycle all over again. Like a disjointed side quest, it seems this train of thought has no actual bearing on my actual choices.

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