Close the Open World: How Grand Theft Auto is Killing Game Design
Last week, I watched with excitement as Nintendo’s Eiji Aonuma gave us the first look at the new Legend of Zelda for Wii U. I listened intently as he described its “ambitious” new design: a vast, boundary-free world in which “any area can be entered from any direction.”
A game lacking focus is just as unsatisfying or problematic as a game in which the focus is too fine.
I released a sigh: The open world had claimed another victim.
I can’t state with any certainty that Aonuma and his team were influenced by mega-hits like Grand Theft Auto V and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but I would have a hard time believing this is not the case. And while the GTA and Elder Scrolls series are fantastically designed games in their own right, I think that other game designers, like Auonuma, are studying their successes and taking away the wrong lessons.
Let’s imagine a spectrum of game design. There isn’t one, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s imagine there is. On one end of the spectrum, we have a game that only meets the bare minimum requirements for what most would consider playable: a linear game that puts its players on rails and makes use of only one button. On the opposite end of that spectrum, we have an open world game in which anything and everything is possible. There’s so much game and there are so many possibilities that it’s difficult to say what the game is, exactly, or how to complete it.
Being at equal and opposite ends of the same spectrum, I would argue that both approaches to game design are equally valid. Put another way: A game lacking focus is just as unsatisfying or problematic as a game in which the focus is too fine.
For this reason, Aonuma’s explanation of the impetus to create a vaster, borderless Zelda title did not compute. He described looking back on the design of early, top-down Zelda games, in which a wide world was implied by exploring smaller areas, bit by bit and room by room. His argument seemed to be that in the transition from 2-D to 3-D, you could now see a vast world, but couldn’t freely explore it, and the series lost its sense of scope. Perhaps this is true.
If I’m too free to roam about, will it still feel like Zelda?
Aonuma said that for the new Zelda, instead of being limited to designing puzzles that can only be approached by one or two entrances, his team and players will be able to enter an area from any direction — the nature and solution of the puzzle changing based on how it’s approached.
But to me, the limitations being lifting are what make Zelda Zelda. Enter a room and solve its puzzle, knowing each one is plugged into the larger dungeon and the broader game. The wiggle room therein is what made each area, however limited, fun to play – how I moved about the room; what enemies I chose to face or to run past; the weapon I used to fell them. The right tool for the right job at the right time. In a word: specificity.
If I’m too free to roam about — free to travel to that mountain in the distance, as Aonuma describes — will it still feel like Zelda? Or will it feel like something else entirely? A watercolor Skyrim, perhaps?
Conventional wisdom seems to be that bigger is better and that creating a seamless, open world is the platonic ideal of game design. I urge you to consider that this might not be the case. Open world, can-do-anything-and-go-anywhere game design is not meant for every game. It’s in fact meant for very few.