Twilight has begun to settle in with the last rays of sunlight slowly dipping below the awesome presence of the canyon walls that surround me. The sparse amount of grass I stand in sways lazily around my waist. I can imagine a shiver running down Aloy’s spine as the chill of a desert evening sets in. In the distance, blue lights dance across the ground, picking up every now and then as if aware that their dance is being intruded upon — it is. I let fly my first arrow, squarely hitting the first of three watchers in its bulbous luminescent eye — it drops. The other two may now be on alert, but already it’s too late for them, not giving pause to time the second arrow is already loose from my bow string, finding its target effortlessly. Before the third one has time to find me in the distance, I’m leaping through the air spear in hand, crashing down upon the machine with the force of a Thunderjaw. Wreckage of the dead machines lies around me, all is quiet, looking off into the distance I see I only have another 3236 steps to go before reaching my destination, best keep moving, it’s going to be a long night.
Moments like these are common throughout open-world games, but it’s these moments that give life to what otherwise would be porting from one spot to the next as fast as possible and not leaving any context in between — fast traveling vs watercooler moments. Telling stories is in our nature; we tell stories every day, whether talking about some mundane thing that happened at lunch or the crazy moment that happened a few weeks ago in the work space — hell, even how Aunt Marge said that extremely inappropriate thing during thanksgiving. It’s these stories that become the binding agent for a relationship. Having these moments in games where we walk away with something astounding to tell others not only builds relationship in our real lives, but also with the games we love so much. Which is why open world games are in a way a love letter to gamers, by allowing us to spend as much time in the worlds we love, as possible, and even when the credits have rolled, we know that world is just around the corner.
This feeling was recently reaffirmed in the bountiful amount of games that have taken up most of the last month. While it can seem a bit daunting and I may want to give way to burning through each game to get to the next, knowing that all the time in world lays before me to explore each of these unique play spaces in my own time, is good-in-itself. It means spending as much time with each game as possible, and while this could lead to a sense of open world fatigue, with each game being different in their own way, it shakes off what may feel like total burnout. It also helps that I don’t fast travel, which is the real meat of what is being discussed.
Fast traveling exists, it patiently is always at the ready in any open world game for the moment when I say “screw it I’m just going to fast travel”, but fast traveling in a way is like declawing a cat. Yes, the cat is fine and will most likely live a normal life, but it also is secretly holding in that it feels like it’s missing the tips of its fingers. Which is how I feel about fast traveling in open world games. It just doesn’t leave a good taste in the mouth — nullifying what could be some wonderful watercooler moments. Open world games are huge sandboxes for a reason; they’re meant to be poked and prodded. No stone left unturned, no cave left unexplored and no side quest left behind. If an open world game like Horizon wanted to take a more linear path, it would probably look something more akin to Halo or Dishonored. Levels broken up into massive corridors that can be explored to a certain extent giving a game a feeling of scope that might otherwise be lost by not being an open world game. When a game takes the path of being an open world game, it encourages the feeling of exploration — the “what’s beyond that ridge?” moment.
People are curious, knowing is half the battle and while curiosity killed the cat, satisfaction brought it back. As open world games only become more immersive, allowing for exploration and experimentation that any gamer would eagerly devour. That is what a game is after all, right? An activity with a set of rules that dictate what can and can’t be done to get to a finish line or what would be called “winning.” Winning in this case being uncovering everything a game might have to offer, known or unknown. Sometimes a cave might be discovered and of course going into that cave makes sense, because most certainly there is “something” inside.
What games are teaching us now, though, is that said cave might not always hold treasure and the reward can be as simple as narrative exposition that gleans a bit more information about the space occupied, which is just as worthwhile a reward as even the most badass of swords. Creating an open world game is daunting, and while developers may have massive teams working on said games, getting all those moving parts to fit together and then actually work is impressive on its own. Open world games only seem to be hitting the high marks gamers look for in said games even if falling a bit short in other areas. Just because the inventory system might not be the most ideal (Breath of the Wild), it doesn’t take away from the overall feeling that looking out across a field of green with mountains in the distance that you know might hold some sort of treasure can give. It’s not about knowing that because something can be seen in the distance you can go there, it’s about knowing you can go there and along the journey some wonderful things will play out along the way long before reaching the destination.
No this isn’t a call out on fast traveling in open world games, it’s an examination of looking at what open world games offer and how to take the most from them. Open world games want this more than anything. They practically beg to be explored, because when cresting over that hill and seeing a group of bandits that was obviously waiting to ambush some passerby, only to be attacked by some creature that just happened to be crossing through the same area, and then witnessing said scene play out, is astounding. It gives voice to a world where there otherwise might be none. It says this world is alive, and even if not witnessing it all the time, it’s still happening without a required presence.