This Week in Games is a weekly column where Vikki Blake pulls apart the biggest stories in gaming each week. This week, she reflects on the myth that games need to boast open-worlds to be successful.
It’s been a while, but this week we got an update on Final Fantasy 16, the highly-anticipated follow-up to Square Enix‘s love letter to J-pop boy bands everywhere: Final Fantasy 15. FF16 was announced a couple of years ago – no issues here; great games take time and effort, and no game was ever better for being rushed – but producer Naoki Yoshida surprised me in an interview this week, not because of what he said the game would have, but what it wouldn’t.
“To bring a story that feels like it spans an entire globe and beyond, we decided to avoid an open-world design that limits us to a single open-world space, and instead focus on an independent area-based game design that can give players a better feel of a truly ‘global’ scale,” he said, in truly cryptic fashion.
Beyond the seemingly contradictory nature of it – how can something “span an entire globe and beyond” and simultaneously “avoid” open-world adventuring? – I was confused why Yoshida felt the need to make such a non-announcement about it in the first place.
Was he punting Final Fantasy 16‘s lack of open-world-ness as a selling point, or – perhaps as a means of tempering expectation – made the announcement to ensure players knew as early as possible that this would be a linear adventure? Final Fantasy games are, by their very nature, great, complex beasts that take us to many places and introduce us to many characters. But it’s one thing to list the kinds of things we can expect in such an eagerly-anticipated game; it’s quite another to feel the need to tell us what it isn’t.
I get it, though. There are a lot of games these days – more than any one person can complete. Whetting our collective appetites and enticing us to pre-order is all part of the hype-train process, especially when titles are elbowing for room on digital storefronts, and games – like other media – encompass many different genres, lengths, styles, and mechanics.
Sure, our tastes vary and what gets me excited may put you off and vice-versa, but somewhere along the line, it feels as though we lost our way a bit with this, conflating quantity with quality when, in fact, many of my favourite games can be completed in a single weekend; some in a single sitting. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Mention the term “open-world”, though, and I can’t help but glance in Ubisoft‘s direction. To be fair, that’s not necessarily a criticism – I’ve written at length about Ubisoft’s formulaic approach to game-making and how, when done right, a sprawling, immersive world can be a delight to explore. I make no apology for being sucked into many a Ubisoft world, cheerfully roaming the hills to demist every inch of those mysterious maps. I like collecting stuff. I like the gentle rinse-and-repeat of running errands, climbing towers, chatting to NPCs, liberating enemy camps, and discovering secret tombs. I like that eventually, I get to know every nook and cranny of those huge, fictional worlds.
Yes, you could argue that the longer it takes to complete a game, the better value for money it is. But that only rings true when the experience you’re having – and the world you’re exploring – is worth not just the cover price of the game, but your time, too; especially if you’re increasingly struggling to find time to play. I refuse to subscribe to the idea that open-world games are better just because there’s more to do any more than I think open-world games can’t tell good stories (and I suspect Elden Ring fans may have a thing or two to say about that, too).
For a while, though, games – particularly sequels like Dying Light 2 and Forza Horizon 5 – were obsessed with telling us that every game map was bigger than its predecessor, as though stuffing more side quests and collectibles into a game and stretching out the map somehow makes it more desirable.
Games can be dozens of hours long, and, theoretically, offer a fantastic return on investment; but if those hours are full of dull side missions, endless fetch quests, and boring collectible hunting, where’s the appeal? Yes, games are expensive. Yes, I want to spend as much time as possible in these glorious virtual worlds. But exploring even the most expansive open-world game can become a joyless adventure without a compelling story, enticing missions, and a character you care about.
Yoshida thinks that Final Fantasy 16 will be better by avoiding an “open-world space”, and I suspect he may be right. Size isn’t everything, you know.
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