Open World Games Finally Got Out of Their Own Way in 2017
It was a good year for the sandbox adventure.
The open world sandbox action adventure game has been the face of big budget video games for a decade. Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, and Skyrim dominate the market and countless other games emulate their design. A minimap in the corner distracts the player from enjoying the carefully crafted open world while a huge map full of blinking activities keep them distracted in the menu. A chore-list populated by unfun make-work quests keeps them entertained. It’s started to wear thin.
Thank god for 2017, the year that open world games finally got out of their own way and started to do something different. Three games— Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Assassin’s Creed: Origins—showed the industry’s change of direction. They eschewed minimaps, traditional chore lists, and let players approach their worlds on their own terms. It was refreshing.
It seems as if Nintendo was on a mission this year to save open world games from themselves. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild gave players a huge sandbox to explore then didn’t restrict their movement or tell them where to go. Like 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the new Zelda gave players a world full of systems and let them explore those systems at their own pace. Unlike Phantom Pain, Zelda ditched the minimap and activity icons.
I can’t stress how big a deal losing the minimap is. The horrid GPS box is the enemy of fun and immersion. For some, they seem a helpful tool to navigate a digital world, but often they become a distraction that prevents the player from enjoying the beautiful world the designers built. In Zelda, the player can drop waypoints and navigate by landmarks. The more time you spend in Hyrule, the better you learn its roads and rivers. You begin to remember the terrain It’s a more rewarding experience than focusing on the lines on a window contained in the bottom 1/8th of your screen.
Super Mario Odyssey took the make-work completionist nightmare that is most big budget sandbox titles and turned its on its head by making its collectibles an absolute blast to find. The game involves Mario cruising around different worlds and collecting moons in his quest to stop Bowser. There’s more than 800 of those damn collectibles in the game and Nintendo somehow managed to make every one of them fun to pick up. It was an open world collectathon that’s amusing instead of annoying.
When you first reach a new world, it tells you how many moons you need to proceed but not how many there are total. Players won’t even get that information until they’ve finished the game.
The activities you complete to collect the moons are also so varied and strange that I never got bored or lulled into a routine. One minute I earned a moon by dancing in a contest, the next I got one from talking to a lonely commuter, and later I earned a pack of them from completing a hidden dungeon. Compare this to say, Assassin’s Creed II where the player might spend hours traversing identical rooftops touching feathers with no variety whatsoever.
Which brings me to the biggest surprise of the year: The rebirth of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The historical stabbing games are often the worst offenders when it comes to overstuffed sandbox titles with pointless, tedious tasks.
Origins is still a huge open world with an overwhelming amount of content, but it never pressures the player into running through this content. There’s no checklist buried in its menu system, tracking everything the player does on their inevitable march to “completion.” The new leveling system ensures players meet a level requirement to complete story missions, but gives them far more side missions and activities than they’ll ever need to complete to achieve those level requirements.
It also lacks a minimap. Instead, players navigate the landscape by hopping on a horse and using an eagle companion to scout ahead. It feels like jumping in an Uber then sending a drone up in the sky to watch your progress and scan the horizon for enemies. It keeps the player engaged in their surroundings instead of a flat map at the bottom of the screen.
I played and loved all three of these games in 2017 and it made me hopeful. It reminded me of the early promise of open world games—an explorable world where the player could get lost and forget about their troubles. Too often, games prioritize content and 'value'—the notion that a game must be packed with activities so it justifies its price—over wonder.
. Nintendo and, god help me, Ubisoft showed us there’s another way.