Getting Lost in Open-World Games

Some people love exploring open-world video games. They even love getting lost.

But some of my most hopeless Skyrim rage quits have involved me wandering around some mountain with trolls attacking me, unable to scramble up the hillside to meet my destination marker. And to me, tumbling down the mountainside — or seeing my poor horse take the fall for me — is such a worthless way to die in this game. Dying in a random attack and having to start over at some distant save point is equally awful. But even just being hopelessly lost is a pain, like the time I could not for the life of me figure out how to get out of Ustengrav tomb to finish my bloody quest.

In short, I just hate getting lost.

Final Fantasy games offer plenty of gorgeous terrain to explore.

Smelling the roses, enjoying the journey and not just the destination… those cliches just don’t cut it for me when I’m on a mission to complete as many quests as I can before the evening is over. As in real life, getting lost is a waste of time.

After playing Skyrim for about 3 months, I switched to Dragon Age: Origins and felt utter relief. Finally, real paths for me to traverse! I don’t have to trudge from one end of the map to the other; I can just click on my destination, and if any random battles pop up, the game will take me straight to them… and afterwards, the game will usher me to my desired destination without delay!

Some Mass Effect fans complained about ME2 after falling in love with the planets in ME1 that they could land on and explore — a little open-world fun paired with a linear story. ME2 has none of that exploration, unless you happen upon a quest that allows you to land. Personally, I liked the bit of open-world exploration available in ME1… but I didn’t really miss it in ME2, either.

It’s true that open-world exploration can add a lot to a game, but many positives come with their downsides, too. So to take a look at what open-world games offer…

1. Time to Chill

I understand the appeal of exploring for the sake of exploring. The graphics in many games these days are breathtaking. Some days, I crank on my Xbox 360 with no set plans other than to chill in Skyrim (or New Austin, or Dalmasca, or the ruined landscape of Fallout 3). Seeing my Dragonborn on a cliff overlooking Skyrim is pretty epic.

Taking a breather to admire Skyrim’s vast landscape can be a big stress-reliever.

There’s a reason people create mods to make the “natural” lighting in these video games more realistic from dawn to dusk. It’s almost unsettling how gorgeous and life-like the in-game scenery is. One particularly sad moment of my life occurred when I went for a drive after playing massive amounts of Skyrim and found myself admiring the scenery by saying, “This landscape looks as pretty as Skyrim!”

As for taking a break from life to chill in these lush in-game landscapes… there’s really no downside to it, unless dragons or bears crash your party too often for your liking.

2. Leveling Up

John Marston meets another bear.

Some gamers like it when those dragons and bears attack, because it gives them opportunities to develop their skills and level up. Other times, open-world explorations leads to side quests. This extra combat time can be useful in games like Final Fantasy, which has bosses that simply cannot be beat unless you train first… but nobody said level-grinding is always fun. In fact, level-grinding is a big drawback of many open-world games.

3. Finding Loot

Loot-lovers rejoice when they stumble upon a sword or SMG tucked away in a hole somewhere that never would have been found during a main quest. And in games like Skyrim that let you loot just about anything (including plants), you can use even the most trivial loot to create alchemy potions, forge new armor or just make some money by selling them to a shop the next time you’re in town.

The only time this gets sad is when you’re just not strong enough to carry all of that loot, and you forgot to bring Marcurio along as your pack mule. Storage becomes a necessity for hardcore looters. (Thank God for all of those houses in games like Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption.)

Getting Lost, Feeling Lost

But the biggest problem I have with open-world games goes beyond just getting lost: it’s also about feeling lost. In Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption, I spend more time away from the story than a part of it. Too much land to cover and too many random side quests leave me feeling disconnected. I know this is a common problem for many gamers who prefer linear games. Sandbox-style games can be fun for a while, but they never make it to my shelf of favorite games.

In some sandbox-style games, choices don’t matter — and when they clash, the games may not give any realistic repercussions. Take Skyrim as an example. You can marry someone who hates the Thieves Guild while you’re a member of the Thieves Guild. You can join the Imperials to fight for the emperor, then turn around and kill the emperor as an assassin. This can destroy that suspension of disbelief that allows players to get lost in a video game — the good kind of getting lost.

Maybe I need to slow down and appreciate the digital world I’m in a little more… or maybe open-world games will never be my thing. I want to spend my gaming time getting lost in a story, not lost on the way to my next quest marker. For that reason, I hope to find more open-world games that offer easy navigation and a tangible connection to the main story line.

But I also recognize that the appeal of open-world games is the thrill of discovery. And even for me, every once in a while, it’s worth getting lost for that.

— Ashley

12 thoughts on “Getting Lost in Open-World Games”

  1. I completely agree with you. I find open world games exciting and too overwhelming when there’s TOO much to do. I know there are sidequests in Mass Effect I absolutely enjoy doing, and others (like the fetch and collect quests) I detest. Some seem really pointless to do and adds nothing interesting to the story or character. It’s fun to be able to explore a world at your leisure, like you mentioned, but sometimes you just want to be able to move onto the story. This is why I’m not interested in getting Skyrim because the world is just too massive and certain actions you do in the story doesn’t have any real affect on anything. I’m pretty much spoiled by Bioware games or other games who employ a “cause and affect” type of gameplay experience. I want my RPG experience to have some sort of affect over how I finish the game. I also prefer RPGs that have the right balance of exploration and a somewhat linear story line.

    1. Yes, I know what you mean about being spoiled by BioWare… and similar game companies, but BioWare definitely does it best so far! If open-world games can incorporate more relevant in-game choices that lead to different endings, I might be more interested in them. But I agree with you that some games just include too much, to the point of the exploration and quests seeming a bit meaningless — especially when it’s just a bunch of caves to loot that start to look alike after awhile.

  2. <3 Bioware: what you guys said. But I do have to say I like Skyrim and worlds large enough to get lost in, as well, and the unpredictable liveliness that random encounters bring to a game. One of my best memories of Oblivion is trotting up a path, hearing a scream, and seeing an Imperial Guard running for his life before being mown down by an angry bear… completely unexpected and unscripted: the AI just interacted. When a random encounter goes south, yeah, it's horrible and frustrating, but as an OCD saver, it rarely impacts me that much. Rarely. But sometimes.

    I try to envision them as two different kinds of games, the Bioware and Bethesda approaches. One is more guided, but it fits the tighter narrative: the choices you make are part of the story's framework. Whereas in a sprawling Bethesda game… well, you can go wherever, do whatever, but the story is just never as grand or engaging: it's about exploration. One is about shaping the world (though story), the other about playing with – and being killed by – it, lol.

    Anyway, that's my take on it, and I'm happy that we have such awesome choices that it's even up for debate :P (Thoughts on Skyrim or Amalur, or do you focus on sci-fi more?)

    *(!) There is a waypoint-casting spell in Skyrim. You hold it down and a glowing light on the ground (Fable-style) will guide you to your objective. Doesn't always work perfectly though.

    1. Hi, Xandurse, thanks for commenting. Good point about random open-world encounters — they can add loads of excitement to a game, and they make every gamer’s experience unique. I’m glad you mentioned Kingdoms of Amalur, I love that one! I should have thought of it for this post… Great example of an open-world game that’s also linear and has a pretty story-tight feel, to me at least. And Amalur’s much easier for me to navigate than a Bethesda game!

      I keep meaning to get into Fable, but some other game always has always taken precedence. I’m curious about whether it has a strong open-world feel or not? And yes, random encounters going horribly wrong have inspired me to become an OCD saver as well. =)

      1. Amalur is frequently described as a mixture of Fable and Wow; if you enjoy Amalur, odds are that you’d enjoy Fable (though it’s a little dated at this point, and can be buggy. Amalur runs smoother). It’s a smaller landmass and is largely composed of great big paths from one town or village to the next. I can’t really say it feels particularly open-world. More like a long, broad scenic route with the occasional expanse.

        But you always have a glittering golden line arcing across the ground, pointing towards your next objective. It is neither large enough nor free enough to really get lost in.

        1. Awesome, thanks for the recommendation. Fable sounds like a game I’d enjoy — especially if it’s easy to navigate. Though I sometimes like to roam freely in video games, at other times I’m like a kid who needs healthy, comforting limitations on what I can do and where I can go, I guess!

  3. I think Oblivion first ruined open world games for me. I was trying to find some sort of shrines for a quest and they weren’t marked on the map so I literally just had to scour the country side randomly. Even after I cheated and looked up a map of where the shrines should be, it still was extremely difficult to pinpoint locations. That was the last open world game I tried. Every time I think “Oh Skyrim looks fun” I remember Oblivion and decide against it. Talking about the Bethesda vs. Bioware approach reminded me that there’s still the Final Fantasy approach. It may not have luscious landscapes, but the majority of final fantasy continents are fully explorable (and you should explore them to find awesome gear) and if you have a chocobo you can avoid those nasty random encounters. It’s definitely not anywhere close to an expansive open-world like Skyrim, but it does offer a slightly different approach.

    1. I totally agree with you… It can be frustrating it can be to spend precious gaming minutes (or hours) searching for quest locations! I actually started out with open-world games and found that video games really tried my patience in the beginning. Then I picked up Dragon Age: Origins and suddenly loved gaming. I realized my problem wasn’t with video games in general, I just wasn’t into open-world exploration. I still like to play open world games sometimes, so I wouldn’t write off a new one, but I have to go into them with the right frame of mind.

      That’s a great point about the Final Fantasy games. I’ve only gotten in XII, but from that one and the others I’ve at least seen, I appreciate the balance between exploration and manageability… not too overwhelming the way Bethesda games tend to be. And games with linear stories but optional exploration are always nice!

  4. I absolutely love open-world games, but whenever I start I want to see the map and compass. If I want to “get lost” I can always ignore them, but chances are, I want to know where the hell I’m going.

    In games like GTA V, it’s cool to find landmarks and explore, but I shouldn’t be forced to “discover” things simply because I don’t know where I am. Games like GTA V are awesome because the extra stuff isn’t forced down players’ throats, it’s just there for anyone who’s willing to go the extra mile to find it.

    I don’t want to draw my own maps. I DO want objectives to be clear. Exploration is great, but it shouldn’t always be mandatory. Maybe in “No Man’s Sky,” but not in games with NPCs who should be AT LEAST telling you the general locations of your next quest.

    1. That’s a really good point. It is annoying not to know where you’re going in a game just because “open world exploration” is supposedly always fun. I appreciate the map markers in open world games, even if I still technically have to unlock locations and can’t always fast travel.

      1. Fast travel is something I forgot to mention. In games like GTA V and Red Dead Redemption, I never fast traveled. The games made it so much fun to drive/ride horses, I never wanted to skip it. With L.A. Noire (a game in which I enjoyed the cars the MOST), I started fast travelling, because the world felt lame.

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