The Open World Panopticon
April 18, 2019
The Open World beckons us to explore, to discover, to adventure. Her Siren song lures us into a dream world where everything is real and nothing is impossible. But caress the outer limits of her boundaries and you will find you inhabit a carefully constructed artifice, a mockery of freedom. You are not free to go anywhere and do anything. All possible choices have been predetermined and laid out before you.
The illusion of choice is the persistent lie of the Open World. You may be free to roam about and fight monsters and collect inane objects for virtual achievements, but all of this is done within the rules the game sets for the player. The show must go on and the game must reach its intended conclusion. Characters and places critical to the plot are immune from your acts of wanton destruction. Break the rules too much and you are met with a Game Over screen: a punishment for daring to go anywhere and do anything.
Progress in the Open World is only measured in discrete intervals. Changes to the world and to its inhabitants are most often initiated by a plot event or something similar. These scripted sequences are when the Open World reveals its true nature to the player. Your choices do not matter. The plot will progress to its conclusion with or without you.
Cutscenes are infamous for stripping the player of agency and forcing him to watch the game’s events arrive at their fated destinations. While the cutscene may be the most honest thing about the Open World, in that it makes no pretense about you being in control, it is by no means distinguishable from the reality of gameplay.
When I press “B” on an NES controller, Mario jumps. Every time I press “B” I can expect Mario to perform the same action on demand. My interaction with the Mushroom Kingdom is limited to predetermined expressions of player input as represented through the actions of my on-screen avatar.
I can jump and run, but I cannot interact with the game world in any other meaningful way. I can move left and right, up and down, but I cannot wander off the road the game has forced me to walk. I am thus left with such binary choices masquerading as a sense of freedom. There is only one way to play the game and that is the way the designers intended.
Much fuss was made about the supposed linearity of popular video games around the turn of the most recent decade. Games were not giving players enough choice. The “corridor shooter” genre pervaded the industry. These games would have players walk down narrow halls, shoot enemies, and proceed to a checkpoint to end the level. This would carry on for several levels, successively introducing new enemy types and weapons to use, until the game reached its conclusion.
Many of these games sold well, some were even ‘good’, but their design spawned a chorus of protest against the lack of player choice. Though open-ended games were nothing new or revolutionary at the time (the widely successful The Legend of Zelda for the NES being the premiere example), players wanted more input in how the game progressed. The Open World, no doubt popularized by hugely popular entries such Fallout 3 and Skyrim, would soon be thrust to the forefront of game design.
By trading narrative pacing and carefully measured level progression, players were given an open-ended environment, more toolkit than game, to shape their experience as they saw fit. The Open World gradually expanded, from cities to states to ultimately entire island nations. Procedurally generated worlds like in Minecraft and the ill-fated No Man’s Sky promised us entire universes to get lost in. Yet for all the vast expanses of land to explore and untold number of interactions to be discovered, these worlds seemed strangely empty.
Man is not his most free when he is given unlimited choice. A kind of paralysis sets in when we are encountered with seemingly endless options. Linearity may restrict what choices we make, but it delivers a concise, if short, narrative to follow. For much of history, we were born into a family, followed in our father’s trade, and awaited the open arms of God at the end of our lives. In our postmodern life, none of this is certain.
The Open World perhaps echoes a similar sense of unease in our contemporary predicament. Man demanded more choice, more freedom, but upon earning such freedom he yearns for the rigid yoke worn for so long by his forefathers. We in the liberal democracies of the waning West are told we are freer than in any other time in history. However, despite these neoliberal adages, the world now seems rather small and inflexible.
An air of mystery has long departed the world. Mass transit and telecommunications have made the distance between populations negligible. I can eat food from anywhere at any time. I can travel to lands that did not exist in the collective consciousness just a few hundred years ago. I can see photos of any place, any species, anyone with a click of a button. Though we live in the ultimate Open World, it like the games that have sought to emulate it, promises us only a façade of choice.
What use is choice if everywhere and everything is the same? In video games and in the greater game of Life we have lost the guiding hand of the Director. Do we now long for His arcane hand to intervene, to show us the way forward? We remain entombed in a global civilization that says we are free, then chastises us when we stray from the predetermined path of ‘work-life balance’, when we dare to turn around and face those whom cast shadows on the walls.
The Open World game may be nothing more than a digital, microcosmic manifestation of our own lack of freedom. Man seeks, as Tennyson best put it, “To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought.” But what is to become of us who chase sinking stars and are met with the invisible walls that contain us all?