The Inquisitive Blogger 2/31: What a Wonderful World is Free-Roam Building? - Tim Gruver Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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The Inquisitive Blogger 2/31: What a Wonderful World is Free-Roam Building?

Video-games are an entertainment that take our minds into unforgettable worlds and I wouldn't have it any other way. The Legend of Zelda, Assassin's Creed, Spider-man, Shadow of the Colossus, they all bring our imaginations to a place of freedom. Is the old tradition of levels hampering that ideal? Like the song says, it's a wonderful world. Why not open its floodgates? 

It's always seemed like my attraction to open-world games matured with age. When I was little, I was more than willing to be led by a game through a linear experience. Traveling from level to level giving concussions to Goombas and dashing up hills collecting rings did its job in giving me my thrills. As I've grown older, I've been more and more reluctant to be held-by the hand through corridors and hallways. Simply gazing at the mountains and cities just escaping my grasp across the horizon wasn't enough. I wanted to be there, experience them. I wanted freedom. Maybe it's just those natural urges that come with adulthood that have translated into my gaming. I just want to be done with the training wheels and starting driving the car. 

(Spider-man's not keen on having fun in the playpen. He wants a whole playground)

As much of a reward as they are to players, open-worlds seem to have done nothing but benefit their games. Every franchise I can think of that's implemented them has done wonders with them and only grown from it. Playing Lego Lord of the Rings this last week for a review, I was surprised by how much the free-roam made the difference for the Lego series. I'd usually just go from level to level each game, busting bricks, collecting studs, and going back to the hub, purchasing a character or a red brick; wash, rinse, and repeat. Finding all the minikits and studs in an overworld all connected to each other Zelda style only made it more challengingly fun to explore. Sure, Lego LOTR is still not without its glitches and limited free-roam nature, and it's not perfect, but it made me the most engaged in a Lego game then I've been in a few years and can't wait to see that formula perfected in Lego City: Undercover later this year.

Aside from gameplay standpoints, open-worlds have always been riper for story-telling medium more and more games are flaunting. John Marston's world never have been able to come alive had Red Dead been unable to convey the sheer size and scope of the wilderness that kept you away from your family back home and neither could Journey truly deliver the experience of, well, a journey from one end of your world to another with a persistent loading screen or menu select. The latest and greatest example could very well be the beloved release of Bioshock Infinite this year. The glorious, and eventually frightening, splendor of Zachary Hale Comstock's work would never have been conceived as a reality had it taken Booker DeWiit on a tedious room to room walkthrough. It's those small moments of just wandering around on your own free will, talking to Columbia's citizens or looking over the city's endlessly explorable horizon that you realize this is a world with a history that people live in.

Just as stark of a difference between open-worlds and closed ones is easily found simply through what's in them. Levels guide you from one end to another with a side-show of activity around you akin to a roller-coaster ride. I've never found the principle to not get the job done in exciting me, but like any ride it's over quickly and I'm either all to familiar with it for round 2 or just done with it. Having to-do lists within to-do lists within to-do lists is what open-worlds perfect, as it's the joy of playing after the main story that's fun. The addictive pleasure of hunting Riddler Trophies in Arkham City's hub of activity or Assassin's Creed II's feathers, hate 'em or love 'em, was what made their respective games a good long play. Replay value included, it's these kinds of side-quest activities that make you feel that your world's fun just won't end. 

(Maybe it's like life: sometimes the most beautiful things are better left unspoken) 

At the same time, there's something deeper that I've found with open-worlds. While many are dedicated to entertaining you with goodies, a select few are there to express a particular emotion. Things like my time with The Shadow of the Colossus speak the strongest to me in terms of what an environment can do to connect the player with a feeling. Wander's quest across the wilds of the Colossi isn't filled with cities, explosions, or even traditional enemies, but the isolation of just him and his dozen bosses that's most powerful. The howls of the wind and almost forlorn natural beauty of the plains and valleys around him are like a character unto itself. Their size and scope are what convey their domination over even the enormous colossi and your seamless transition to and fro in it only makes you believe in its scope. Games like Shadow of the Colossus aren't meant to pelt you with goodies and stuff so much as an experience with something alien and wonderful that's more than a single level could.

The price of breaking the level-based mold is still painfully obvious in what it's shown us already in this gen. Bigger worlds have always meant more bugs and more glitches for companies unprepared to handle them. Many of us know about the infamous Mr. Freeze and Ms. Frame-rate drop that've visited us mid-play. I can't shake the memories of my Assassin's horse treading air or watching a person nonchalantly smack walls interrupting just a small part of my immersion in exploring Connor and Ezio's worlds. All the while, those issues can reflect the birth pains of any new art-form. In time it's apparent to me that the technology's perfection is well at hand and it's something the industry's going to sell more of, not less. 

(Open-Worlds. Me like.)

If this year's E3 was any indication, open-worlds' coming of age is coming true to games faster than we know. Probably about half of the games shown off their, including my own picks, consistently showboated open-worlds to thousands of delighted fans and received a just amount of praise for it. Developers like Ubisoft are pushing the open-world formula harder than they ever had with their slew of Assassin's Creeds and Watch_Dogs this holiday and an otherwise dull shooter like the Division impressed with its eye to an integrative multiplayer experience with story and stakes to fight for. Even Ubisoft's overlooked The Crew is noble in its attempts to take racing games to the next level of realism. Others like Destiny and the Witcher 3 are just plain gorgeous to drool at and there's no telling what a franchise like Metal Gear Solid might do with a playground of sneaky mischief. Some companies like Nintendo may stubbornly adhere to the level-based game for far longer,  but eventually a game like a free-roam Super Mario Sunshine or Galaxy will come around. I may enjoy Super Mario 3D World as much as I tell myself to be disappointed, but whose to say that an open-world Mushroom Kingdom isn't a golden prospect? 

If there's anything that next-gen is telling us, it's about how big our horizons truly are becoming. Why waste time in the basement when you can imagine the the world? Or maybe travel the stars?. . . The future's big for gaming. It's time that the industry take us to explore it. Feel free to sling a blogging suggestions my way if ya have one. New episodes are always in production.

Give a shout-out to whatever world you enjoy playing in. Cheers!

Tomorrow on The Inquisitive Blogger: Rate Me on What?

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