I’ve been mulling this thought for the last few years. You could say it started, pretty much the moment I entered the world of new consoles, particularly with the PS4. And if you’ve been with G&G for the long-haul, you’ve heard some of my thoughts about the trend of big games. I’ve had my misgivings about some big games, and I’ve completely enjoyed others. There’s also the obvious toll this takes on the people that create these games that has me at odds with this trend. So I ask again, do games need to be this big?
The very first “big” game I’d say I played this generation was Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I also remember this being a defining moment as games had always been skirting this line of staying connected to a particular setting, or just being larger in general. Many games tried to find this balance in the past but I think Black Flag did this best. It connected some of the smaller world building to each of the pirate shanty towns and to the character of Edward Kenway. At the same time, the game connected all of this with ship traversal. The world is also brimming with things to do: battle giant whales, get into skirmishes with other ships, or search for buried treasure. You could seemingly choose any island in this world and still feel how “pirate-y” everything is. In general it meant it was fun to traverse the world and experience things as they come.
But while that example is from the infancy of this current generation, I do think there are notable games that have done large scale environments well. Current games such as Red Dead Redemption 2, Hitman 2, Fallout 4, Destiny, and Assassin’s Creed Origins have all had success with pushing the boundaries of larger and more connected worlds.
But here’s the deal, when games started getting bigger, I can remember my first gut reaction was to sigh. Knowing full well that my character would need to traverse these incredibly large worlds. That traversal, basically boils down to time spent in the game. This trend has also become known, in some online circles and in some noteworthy memes, as a “walking simulator”. This is painfully true. Go ahead, just think back on the last five games you’ve played and likely it contains some element of walking or traveling around. And I’m not hear to bag on this as a gameplay mechanic (because every game would be subject to it if that were the case). But my experience playing Assassin’s Creed: Origins caused me to seriously examine why developers started making bigger games. I was committed to earning the Platinum trophy for this game. It was in that game, after 80 hours or so, that I resigned myself to thinking that games don’t really need to be this big, even if they’re great games. Now keep in mind my thoughts could be a little skewed as a result of one of those trophies. The trophy in question involved clearing specific locations on the huge map. I had so much trouble completing this that there was a point where I thought I had to buy DLC to complete said trophy. It almost completely colored my impressions of Origins in a negative way. There was also an article around the same time the game was launched that stated it takes 3 hours to walk from one end of the map to the other. I immediately began to wonder why that was considered a selling point, or if it could even be considered one. Sure, this world is larger than it’s been before, but it still needs to be interesting.
Origins ultimately won me over with its story. I enjoyed the character of Bayek and his hero’s journey was well told. But to say that I needed every single location that Bayek visited would be a lie. I think there’s a larger argument for games to be more concise. I say this as I know full well that I’ll have less and less time for video games as I get older. If I happen to land a job writing about games one day, that might change. But generally speaking, most people have less and less time for entertainment as they get older. This means that I’ll have less time to fool around in these worlds. What I’m getting at is that games will always have this working against them, especially big budget games. The balance between making a huge world and a simple and fun game to play has to be increasingly difficult. But in some ways, I feel like developers can’t necessarily make their games more realistic simply on the basis of authenticity. Making games more realistic adds more tedium, and may cause other more important details to be missed. I do step back and wonder at the amazing work that goes into making these almost living worlds, but I also think we have to be asking if this is good for both players and developers. We have to be asking if we really want all that.
Even for how new the game is, Red Dead 2 plays a big part in this argument. We’ll have a spoiler filled podcast coming soon, once E_HUFFY finishes the story. But my initial feelings about the game, and where I am now having completed the game, could be described as “roller coaster”. I hate the games initial pace. I hated how much it felt like Arthur was constantly lumbering, and that the controls felt sluggish. There are so many items and objects, grit and grain. The game is a masterclass in massive scale. Fast travel is not exactly encouraged and sometimes it actively feels like you are pushing up against the purposeful pace of the game. But what Red Dead 2 did best in my opinion is to focus on the camp. This brought purpose to the massive world and ultimately grounded the story with interesting characters. Around 80% of the story finished, it had won me over. I finished the game and now consider it personally to be one of the greatest games of all time. Story, ultimately won out, just as it did with Origins.
I could also make a small argument here that online multiplayer games are subject to this “embiggening”. What? It’s a completely cromulent word. Multiplayer games, particularly ones such as Fortnite, Battlefield, and Call of Duty have seen the push to increase player limits as well as overall size to their maps. You could make an argument that Battle Royale is a furthering of this trend. Heck, PUBG was developed out of the ARMA games and those contain some of the largest landmasses in any game.
Ultimately, I need a good story to land. And that so long as story comes first, developers can choose to cram every ounce of creative energy into their games. But a game filled with a ton of shit in it can’t really be judged solely on that content alone. If it’s only the stuff in the games, the objects and buildings, and not the creative storytelling behind it, then it’s going to fail. It’s going to fail to make those 80 hours feel worth it. So I do think pushing the limit is the right way to approach games, but let’s not forget the person subjecting themselves to that entertainment. Little ol’ me, the 30-something gamer. To me, games like these are only good (at least in the single player aspect) if it tells a great story with all of those other assets as enhancements.
So if I had one humble request to developers, let’s scale it down a bit. I wouldn’t necessarily feel short changed if you gave me a smaller map, so long as everything else succeeds. Personally, I don’t think walking for three hours straight is a high mark for entertainment. Then again if the story is good enough to take me there, I guess I’ll start walking.