The Open Worldification of Video Games

Today I read an article on Rock Paper Shotgun which was a bitter rant about how bad Sonic Frontiers is and there is a paragraph in it that I want to expound upon:

Oh, for God’s sake, of course I’m bitter. How could I not be bitter that Sonic has thrown all that delightful strangeness, that off-beat wrongness back in my weeping face? What the hell is Sonic Frontiers, anyway? A set of enormous maps that you gradually reveal portions of, complete with icons all over it to tidy up? It’s blinkin’, bleedin’ Assassin’s Creed, isn’t it? This is what people want from Sonic! This is what makes them cheer! To see him to fall in line. For him to be boring.

Stuart Gipp, “Sonic Frontiers is popular, but it’s a boring Sonic game – and I’m bitter about it”

Stuart’s gripe about Sonic being turned into a mediocre open world game is one I empathize with. Before I go any further, I should mention that I /like/ open world games, some open world games are the best games I’ve played. But there is something to be said about games that originally were not open world games being turned into a mediocre one.

An example that’s near and dear to my heart is the most recent entry into the Halo franchise, Halo Infinite. For those not familiar, Halo is a franchise with most of the entries being first person shooters with linear story campaigns. Halo Infinite is the first entry to feature a campaign that eschews the linear story campaign formula for a open world style model of campaign.

Folks, Halo Infinite is not a good open world game. Mechanically sure the shooting feels good and the story is…passable but the open world adds nothing interesting to the game and feels quite lifeless and uninteresting. All the good parts of the game were the ones where the game slipped back into its linear roots. I was recently reminded of how good Halo’s campaigns can be after I started another playthrough of Halo Combat Evolved.

Now this is not to say that a game franchise that was previously not primarily an open world franchise cannot then change tracks into a open world format and be actually good at it. But it is hard. Making good open world games is incredibly /hard/ and it is a huge risk to undertake for a existing franchise that was not making that kind of game.

Stuart mentions Assassin’s Creed as a easy reference point to a popular open world franchise but I think its important to mention something about AC. Assassin’s Creed has been a open world game since the very beginning. The first Assassin’s Creed game would set the example for what many other studios have attempted in their open world games.

Assassin’s Creed 2 to this day is still one of the best open world games I’ve played. Mechanically it has not aged particularly well but as an open world game it is a masterpiece. That said, I do agree with the general criticisms about the AC franchise nowadays, I do increasingly grow tired of the current crop of Ubisoft open world titles even if I do enjoy the rest of the AC formula.

I just wish that when developers/studios make their open world they take inspiration from more than just Assassin’s Creed’s well trodden formula. That I think is the problem, there are these games like Sonic Frontiers coming out aping a formula and not even doing a half decent job of it. That sucks, it really does.

I think it is possible to ape the AC open world model and do it well. Ghost of Tsushima is one of my favourite examples of this. But most of the imitators are doing a poor job of it and its annoying me mostly because I do enjoy the formula. I also think it just gives open world games in general a bad rep. Gah! It’s frustrating!

I hope more open world games take inspiration from games like Breath of the Wild or Elden Ring rather than Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed. And if they do, please do it reasonably well or iterate on the formula enough to keep things interesting. Less Sonic Frontiers and more Ghost of Tsushima.