The Verge has a crystal ball now. Much like its predecessors at CNET and Forbes who saw the future where Star Wars: The Old Republic displaced World of Warcraft and became the Future of Video Gaming™, they too have wrested unknowable secrets from the void, and have brought forth a new gem of knowledge for us – namely, that all blockbuster video games will now be open world. Why? Because The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a good, successful game that Nintendo made that features an open world. Never mind that Skyrim, Minecraft, and many other successful open world games have been released in the past, and that they didn’t prevent successful narrative-driven games like Dishonored and Horizon Zero Dawn from being created. No, this time its different, because uh….I dunno, it just is. They do have a crystal ball, after all. No, it’s not a random crystal we found in a garage sale from the last genius to try to predict the future of games. This one’s real.
See, the wonderful thing about when The Verge discusses the future of video games is the utter, unshakeable conviction with which the most ridiculous, untenable opinion is presented as unquestionable fact. Never mind the fact that the video game industry as a whole is vast enough to rival Hollywood itself, clearly the fact that a game can be successful and open world means that all games will now be open world. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a film critic really liking a good horror movie, and deciding that science fiction films are dead and horror films will be our future.
To get to the meat of this, The Verge directly compared Breath of The Wild with Horizon Zero Dawn. The author draws a few parallels between them, and correctly draws a distinction between the controlled, story-driven driven narrative that is set by a game developer, and the more free, open world exploration driven narrative that is favored by Breath of the Wild.
What the author utterly fails to realize, however, is that the two methods are perfect for the kinds of story each game is attempting to present. See, an open world exploration game is a trade off, you gain the sense of freedom and the ability to present a vast, fascinating world in such a way that the player is allowed to explore and attempt to comprehend it on their own terms, and build stories that are utterly personal to them – an example would be a story of a time you accidentally set off a massive explosion in your own house in Minecraft – it’s a story that the player feels belongs exclusively to them. It’s a perfect fit for The Legend of Zelda series to experiment with an open world when the franchise has historically featured a silent protagonist, an epic scale adventure, and gorgeous, beautiful worlds.
What an open world exploration game emphatically can not do is just as important to remember – it struggles to tell a story of its own. While it can be done to some degree, open world games struggle with the entire concept of character development and story arcs – the very nature of telling a story sometimes involves characters behaving in such a way that the player doesn’t really want them to – and involves taking control away from the player at certain moments, allowing the characters themselves to make decisions that are utterly distinct from what the player may or may not desire. Thus a bad decision becomes an opportunity for a character to grow and develop in their story.
By using a linear story, creators can create twists, surprises, and other aspects to a story that simply are either impossible or extremely expensive to implement into an open world game where the player can freely choose where to go, what to do, and when to do it. To put it simply, a linear game is a story about characters, like a book or a movie, whereas an open world game is a stage for the player to create stories of their own, and both have a place in the world of video games.
Hilariously, the author at The Verge goes on to contradict themselves in his own article by mentioning the upcoming Persona game as possibly the next big thing, a game which is linear and features nothing resembling an open world – though of course that’s more likely to be the work of an excellent PR agency that probably deserves a raise.
To wrap up, I’ll keep things simple by using my own personal crystal ball to wrest a few secrets from the eternal void. Here are the visions I glean from the future – open world games are here to stay, and can be an utterly enjoyable experience. Linear games with deep stories and twists are here to stay, and can be an utterly enjoyable experience. The Verge’s crystal ball is about as accurate as the predictions of The Old Republic destroying World of Warcraft. And new types of games will be created that represent the future of gaming, that are beyond the abilities of my crystal ball or anyone else’s to perceive at this moment in time. All is right with the world.