What open world games can learn from Super Mario 64

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot

By Joe Delaney

Do you ever find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the weight of the world around you? Do you ever feel like you’re just reliving the same day, over and over? Have you ever thought to yourself, “This has gone on long enough; I just want it to end?”

If so, you may be suffering from O.W.F. (Open World Fatigue). 

Hi, my name is Joe, and I’ve been living with O.W.F. for years now. Some days are better than others, but sooner or later, it always comes back. For a little while, I thought maybe I’d been cured, when I found myself enjoying an open world game, Ghost of Tsushima. It didn’t take long though before those same old thoughts came flooding back to me: “Not a lot of variety in these missions, huh?” and “oh great, another fox for me to follow around so I can get another charm I won’t use.” 

The fox was cute the first twenty times. Now I never want to see a fox again.

I don’t want to be so negative. Conceptually, open world games seem so appealing. You’re an adventurer, and you have this massive land to explore at your leisure, where you can choose what quests you play. That sounds like what video games were always meant to be… but that’s not what most open world games end up like. 

Instead of feeling like a hero braving a treacherous new world and forging your own story, you usually find yourself just checking boxes on a map, or in your quest log, until you’ve done everything the game wants you to do. You don’t feel like a samurai, a sorcerer, a soldier, or an assassin. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Originally, I wanted to have some clickbait title like “Why Open World Games Are the Worst” but honestly, I don’t believe that’s true. This genre has so much untapped potential, and it’s just waiting for some bold developer to come along and start a revolution. All they need to do is look at what the best open world games have done right, while avoiding what most of them do wrong. 

Before I spend the next few thousand words shitting on open world games, I think it would be good to first talk about what people like about them. There must be a reason that every major release nowadays seems to be open world. Whenever I ask someone why they like the genre, the responses I get can usually be boiled down to the same two answers:

  1. I like having the freedom to do whatever I want
  2. I like having a lot of stuff to do

These are both solid, understandable reasons. Now let me tell you why they’re problematic.

Freedom Isn’t Free

I may have chosen not to go with an obnoxious clickbait title for this article, but for my first major point, I am going to say something outrageous and outlandish: Super Mario 64 gives players more freedom than open world games.

Allow me a chance to back up that spicy take with a little gaming history lesson. Some of you may not remember a time before it became law that every AAA video game was an open world game with RPG elements and crafting, but I do. The truth is that open world games are just the trend right now, no different than side-scrollers in the 80’s and early 90’s, and first-person shooters in the 2000’s. And, of course, there was that beloved fad in the mid to late 90’s: the collect-a-thon platformer.

Once again, for you youngsters out there, the collect-a-thon was a type of game where you usually played as an adorable bear, dragon, sentient glove, or some other cute thing, and the goal was to collect as much stuff as possible. You would roam around large open areas, and although you sometimes had a main objective, you were usually allowed to complete your tasks in whatever order you wanted to. Is this starting to sound like another type of game, one that maybe this whole article is dedicated to insulting?

The grandfather of the collect-a-thon is none other than Super Mario 64, a game that I had the pleasure of replaying for the 483rd time as part of Super Mario 3D All-Stars. It never fails to astound me how much freedom SM64 gives players right from the start. Of the game’s 120 stars, you only need 70 to beat the game, and with the exception of exactly one mission, you get to decide which stars you collect. That means that if you never want to play the Rainbow Ride level, (and why the hell would you?) you never have to. 

What I’m trying to say is: more open world games should play like this. 

“But Joe, open world games allow you to do whatever you want! You can choose to play the main quest, or you can choose to play side missions, or you can just explore!” 

That’s a great point, imaginary opponent. You can do all those things in open world games. However, only by participating in the main quest can the game or story truly progress, allowing you to beat it. You can go off, do all the side missions, and level up till you’re strong enough to kill God, but eventually you’ll still need to come back around to playing the primary story. This is where the illusion of freedom starts to fade, as you realize that open world games are much more linear than you thought. 

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Take The Witcher 3 for example, a game that I truly love for its story, characters, and world building. There are so many fun distractions in this game, from its incredibly written side missions, to tons of hidden treasure around the world, and to the activity you’ll spend most of your time doing: playing Gwent. It’s arguably the greatest open world game ever made, and yet it still falls victim to having a linear, mandatory main quest. 

To beat The Witcher 3, or most open world games, there are still missions that you HAVE to complete, and a set order that you must complete them in. Sure, there are times when there are multiple main questlines to complete, but you only get to choose which ones you complete first, not which ones you have to play and which ones you don’t. If you play the Bloody Baron’s quests now, you still need to play Keira’s annoying rat killing quest sooner or later. 

This is where the Super Mario 64 approach would be much appreciated. But wait, I can hear my imaginary debate partner bringing up another point. “Well of course Super Mario 64 can let you pick the missions you play. It’s a simple baby game where you’re just trying to save a princess and eat cake! The Witcher 3 is a massive open world game trying to tell a complex story full of political intrigue, deep characters, and complicated emotions. There’s a lot at stake in Witcher 3, so they need to tell the story in a specific order.” 

That is also a valid point, and I have two possible solutions to this problem. The easier method would be to have those same multiple branching paths but make it so the player doesn’t have to complete EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. to progress the story. Maybe there are multiple characters who can help you get what you want, but you only must play one or two of them to move shit forward. The quests you didn’t do can either become blocked off and can only be completed on subsequent runs, or maybe turn into optional side quests that the player can choose to play, instead of being forced into it.

The beauty of this method is that, when you’re replaying the game, it gives players the freedom to avoid quests they hated the first time they played. This is doable, and not just in platformers like Super Mario 64.

There’s a great example of this kind of game design in the original Dark Souls. About halfway through the game, this piece-of-shit knight named Lautrec murders the fire keeper in the main hub area, making it so you can no longer warp there, which is inconvenient. So, you have to travel to a different realm to fight him and two of his bros to take back the fire keeper’s soul, and it’s a really difficult and unfair fight, even by Dark Souls standards. After playing it the first time, I never wanted to do it again.

And I never had to. It turns out that you can totally kill Lautrec before he gets a chance to off the fire keeper. Every time I’ve played Dark Souls since then, I make it a point to Sparta-kick Lautrec off a cliff to his death, which not only gets you a sweet ring, but also prevents you from having to do that annoying fight later on. I always appreciate when game designers allow me to not play huge portions of their game if I don’t want to.

Once again, this is the easy solution to the story problem. The harder solution would be to eliminate the very concept of the “main quest” from open world games altogether. 

It’s not as absurd as it might sound. I’m not saying that you totally get rid of central conflicts and have open world games just focus on side quests. What I’m saying is that open world games should have numerous ways to resolve that main conflict. These kinds of games are appealing because of their non-linearity, so their storytelling should reflect that. 

Breath of the Wild is the open world game that comes closest to this ideal. Once you finish the tutorial section, the game only gives you one main objective: kill Ganon. You can prepare for this by collecting thousands of items and leveling up your hearts and stamina by completing shrines, or you can say “fuck this game” and just head straight to Ganon in the first half hour. 

However, it falls short because while it does give you many options to finish the game, it still makes choosing one option much preferable to the others. For all intents and purposes, the Divine Beasts are the main quest of BotW, and if you don’t beat them, it makes the final fight with Ganon an overly difficult and repetitive slog. Had they fully committed to the concept of freedom, they would’ve made taking other approaches more appealing. 

Another issue with main quests in open world games is that if the main story is too urgent, it creates a dissonance between the player and the player character. Geralt and John Marston are desperately trying to rescue people they love, yet the asshole controlling them is making them play cards every twenty minutes. If you’re going to give the player this big open world to explore and get lost in, don’t give them a high stakes story with a race against time. 

My challenge to you, video game developers who are looking to make the next great open world adventure, is to truly embrace freedom as a core tenant of your design. Don’t just make a linear game with a bunch of distractions. Make those distractions matter. If you choose to go on a quest with Azorion the Warlock, make it so that pisses off Brynhart the Paladin, because he hates that piece of shit Azorion. Brynhart had some fun quests for you, but now you can’t play them because he’s your enemy now. I know that making a game with this level of dynamic progression would take a lot of work, but I’d much rather see you focus on this instead of wasting all your time littering your worlds with endless, repetitive busy work. 

Speaking of which…

All Filler, No Killer

The other aspect of open world games people seem to really love is just how much stuff there is to do. There are so many activities! Once you start doing one quest, you’ll walk two feet, and then BAM you found another mission. Before you know it, your quest log is backed up for days, and you need to hire an intern just to help you clear them out. 

“What’s wrong with giving players more content?” asks my made-up adversary, who I’ve decided to name Braiden, or Jaeden, or one of those stupid-ass names. “Isn’t it better to give us more stuff to do so we get our money’s worth?” I can see where Aiden is coming from, I really do. To explain how horribly wrong he is though, I need to talk about collect-a-thons again. 

RELATED: Super Mario 64 vs. Banjo-Kazooie

I’m sorry to bring these up again, but I really feel they’re relevant to this discussion. I know that open world games have been around even longer than collect-a-thons, but I do feel that the former’s popularity today has some connection to the latter’s relevance 20 years ago. After all, the kids who grew up playing collect-a-thons are now in their late 20’s and early 30’s, a demographic that surely loves them some open world games. We needed something to fill the void left by collect-a-thons after that fad died out, and open world games were there for us.

But what exactly ended the collect-a-thon’s reign as the biggest genre in gaming? There have been a few attempted revivals in recent years, like with the wonderful A Hat in Time, and of course 3D Mario games still successfully use the collect-a-thon formula, but by and large, the genre’s heyday ended around the turn of the millennium. While there is no definitive answer to “who killed the collect-a-thon?” I do believe there is one game that is emblematic of the genre’s downfall (and happens to represent some of the main issues with open world games): Donkey Kong 64

“But DK64 is an awesome game that I really loved as kid, don’t you dare—” SHUT THE FUCK UP ZADEN! Sorry fellow 90’s kids, but DK64 is not a good game. It is a monument to the hubris and excess of the collect-a-thon era. Rare had nearly perfected the genre with Banjo-Kazooie, and they figured they needed to top themselves with the first 3D Donkey Kong game. They could have combined the best aspects of previous DK games and Banjo. DK64 could have had the open yet concise level design of Banjo, while having the challenging platforming of the older games in the series. 

Instead the game’s director did a huge line of coke and screamed “BIG EMPTY LEVELS! 20,000 THINGS TO COLLECT! INFINITE BACKTRACKING! GIVE THE MONKEYS GUNS! MAKE THEM RAP!”

This is my roundabout way of saying that bigger isn’t always better. DK64 was very successful at the time but is now mostly remembered as the game that gave us way too much shit to collect. You had your golden bananas, you had your regular bananas, you had your coins, and your fairies. Not to mention that those bananas were color coded and could only be grabbed if you were playing as the right Kong. 

It was just too much. You would think that game designers would’ve learned from this, but they haven’t. Open world games should be more like Super Mario 64, but the sad reality is that most of them are more like DK64 – bloated, arrogant messes that value quantity over quality.

You have these big open worlds, and they give you the illusion of having all these things to do. It doesn’t take long to figure out that even though these maps have dozens, or sometimes hundreds of points of interest sprinkled throughout them, it’s mostly the same content being recycled over and over. The most recent example of this, and one of the most egregious, is the aforementioned Ghost of Tsushima. Of the hundreds of little question marks that litter the map, there are only like six or seven possibilities for what they could be. On rare occasions, you’ll stumble upon something cool like a duel, but most of the time it’s just going to be another fucking fox for you to follow.

I hate to keep insulting The Witcher 3 because I do love it, but it is guilty of this, too. The countless icons on your map can be a hidden or guarded treasure, a monster nests or dens, a place of power, abandoned sites… and that’s about it. Even the side quests in the game, while mostly well-written, suffer from this repetition problem. There are no less than three quests in the game where you fight a wraith that was a woman who died tragically young and in a horrific fashion.

Open world games should be all about exploration and discovery, but when you basically already know what you’re going to find, it can kill the player’s sense of wonder. You can walk around most open world games for an hour and experience all the game has to offer, because you’re just going to see the same things time after time after time. 

I get why some people like having a seemingly endless number of things to do in video games. We live in an era where game developers are actively trying to swindle us for more content all the time by giving us incomplete games and then charging us more with microtransactions. Games like Ghost of Tsushima, Witcher 3, and other open world games are giving us more, and not less, and that seems like a commendable thing. But there must be a middle ground between charging players for skins that should have come with the base game, and giving the players hundreds of headbands to collect. 

To be fair, these tedious tasks are typically optional, so the player is never forced to engage with them. But if the player isn’t exploring the map to find cool secrets and activities, and is only playing the main story, then what is the point of playing an open world game? I want to get lost in a mysterious world, discover new locations, meet interesting people, and find cool stuff. Open world games can give players this experience, but they need to put in a bit more effort than simply hitting “Ctrl V” all over the map.

The clearest solution to this problem is to make the maps smaller. Game developers keep trying to one-up each other by saying, “Look how much bigger our map is than that other game!” and that is what leads these games suffering from so much repetition. They focus too much on the size and detail of the map, and not enough time on developing meaningful things to do. Pack a wider variety of secrets into a smaller space, and I guarantee you’ll have a lot less players getting bored halfway through the game. 

This is why CD Projekt Red is intentionally making Cyberpunk 2077 with a smaller campaign and map. Since many people didn’t finish The Witcher 3, the developers want to make sure more people finish this game.

This sounds like a lot of work, I know. Maybe it sounds like too much work to you, Mr. or Ms. Open World Game Developer. Maybe you want to make a game that tells a linear story, and you don’t want to make a dynamic world with countless possibilities. That’s okay. You can still make the game you want to make. You just might be taking the wrong approach.

The Next Level

What if I told you that there is a world outside of open world games? Shocking, I know, but hear me out. Back in the day, not that long ago as a matter of fact, games used to have these things called levels

Levels are like mini open worlds, but without all the boring stuff. They are compact areas where the player must overcome a series of enemies and obstacles to get to the end, where there is often a boss fight, a treasure, or sometimes both. Most games used to have levels, but again, that was before The Open World Act of 2014 stated that “all real video games must be of the open world variety.”

I’m not here to say that a linear level-based structure is inherently better than the open-world approach. What I am saying is that MAYBE not every game has to be open world, and that there are some instances where traditional levels are preferable to open worlds. “Linear” has become a dirty word to many gamers, and I just want to explain why that shouldn’t be the case.

Remember how earlier I said that open world game structure is antithetical to exciting and well-paced central plots? Open world games kill narrative momentum, but linear games with levels don’t have this problem because the game is controlling its own pacing, not the player. I’ve noticed that in many open world games, whenever the story is about to get good, it gives players this point of no return warning, letting them know that from now on, they won’t be able to do side quests or explore. They’re basically saying, “Hey the plot is actually about to get exciting now, so this can’t be an open world game anymore.” 

Games with level-based structures don’t just have better pacing when it comes to their stories, but the gameplay has superior pacing, as well. A well-designed level is just like a good story. It has ups and downs; it has quiet moments that provide a stark contrast to more bombastic moments. In one linear level, you can have a platforming section, followed by a puzzle to slow things down. Then it ramps up with some combat, and maybe it gives you the option to be slow and stealthy like a little baby, or lets you fight them head on like a badass. Then it ends with a thrilling chase sequence or boss fight to top it all off.

Open world game structure does not really allow for their individual missions to have this kind of variety. This is mostly because the locations you visit during quests are also places you can visit when you’re just exploring the countryside. The place where you fight a gang of bandits is also the field where Farmer Gus grows his crops, so the developers can’t get too creative with the design. This might make for a more immersive world, but it also leads to a lot of missions where you just go to a place, kill some guys, then leave. You can’t have a moment like the tank chase scene in Uncharted 2 in an open world game, because you’d have a bunch of buildings getting blown up, and one of those buildings is where the herbalist lives. Now who’s going to make all those potions you’ll never use?

This lack of structure in open world design also makes the locations in these games far less memorable than games with levels. Ghost of Tsushima, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Red Dead Redemption 2 are all gorgeous games, but I can’t vividly remember any of the areas within their beautiful worlds. If I had a gun to my head, and someone asked me to give detailed verbal directions from the Firelink Shrine to the Demon Ruins in Dark Souls, I’m confident I’d make it out alive. But if someone asked me to do the same thing with getting from the Bloody Baron’s keep to Novigrad, I would tell them to just shoot me now, because I have no fucking idea.

For a good comparison between memorable and forgettable locations in the same series, look at Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild. Ocarina is the more “linear” experience, but I believe that aspect is exactly why its dungeons leave more of an impression on the player than the ones in BotW. Not only are the dungeons in Ocarina more memorable aesthetically, but because you must play them in a specific order, the emotions imparted on the player are much stronger. The Forest Temple is great not only because it has amazing atmosphere and music (more on that soon), but also because this is the first dungeon you’re playing as Adult Link after the world has gone to shit. The haunting ambiance is amplified by its placement in the story.

In Breath of the Wild, you can play any of its dungeons (the Divine Beasts) in any order you want to, and that’s if you play them at all. None of them feel special because none of them look any different than the others or are significantly more challenging than the others. They all just kind of blend together, and they’re easily the worst aspect of any overall pretty great game. If there is one thing I hope they change for the sequel, it’s the dungeons.

I changed my mind. There is something else I want them to change for the sequel: the music. The music in Breath of the Wild was competent, yet utterly forgettable, which seems to be a mandatory feature of most open world games. The plunkety-plunk piano that randomly plays throughout the game is a poor substitute for a rousing and catchy overworld theme. There was only one time in BotW where I stopped and said “wow, this is a great song!” It was when I arrived at Rito Village, and I was struck by the theme that was playing. It was beautiful, it was emotional, it was… familiar. Then I realized the only reason I liked this song was because it was a remix of “Dragon Roost Island” from The Wind Waker, a more “linear” Zelda game that also happens to have great music.

The music in linear games tends to be more memorable because these games have level themes, songs directly tied to specific locations in the game. “Dire Dire Docks” from Super Mario 64; “Green Hill Zone” from Sonic the Hedgehog; and of course “Forest Temple” from Ocarina of Time; all of these themes have a symbiotic relationship with their corresponding levels that make them stick in players’ minds. Plus, these songs just fucking slap, and I’m sorry, most songs in open world games do not slap.

Zelda isn’t the only series that once had great music, but then went open world and suddenly had boring music. Let’s have a look at Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy. Thanks to Metal Gear Solid 3, I cannot climb a long ladder in any game without singing “what a thrill…” to myself. But the only music I can remember from MGS5 is the licensed music that plays when my helicopter arrived to pick me up. The same goes for Final Fantasy XV. I couldn’t hum a single original tune from that game, but I’ve always been delighted in finding CDs that played the soundtracks of previous games in the series. At least then I could jam out to “One-Winged Angel” while I drove around the boring-ass world of FFXV.

Why are these games in beloved series suddenly transitioning to an open world structure anyway? FFXV and MGS5 are two of the weakest games in their respective franchises, and I do believe that going the open world route is to blame. These games exemplify everything wrong with the genre that I’ve already gone over: an uninteresting main story, the illusion of freedom, boring and repetitive fetch quests, and forgettable music and level design. These series had a winning formula that worked for years, but they decided that chasing trends was more important making a fun game.

Thankfully, it looks like Square learned their lesson. Final Fantasy 7 Remake abandoned the open world façade and was all the better for it. And if Konami ever makes another actual video game again, I hope it’s as far removed from the open world genre as possible. 

Again, open world games are not inherently bad, but if you’re not willing to put in the effort to do it right, then for the love of God, don’t make an open world game. If you want to tell a compelling story at a breakneck pace, make a linear action game. If you want to tell a more sprawling story without too much filler, make a traditional RPG. If you want to make a game that focuses on exploration, but isn’t too sprawling and meandering, make a Metroidvania. There are so many different options, and yet all these AAA developers keep pumping out the same empty worlds with towers that unlock the map.

I swear I don’t hate open world games. You can like something and still want it to be better.

Over the Hills and Far Away

After nearly 5000 words of open world bashing, I want to end on a positive note. I know I literally just talked about how I can’t remember shit from these games, but I will admit that one of my fondest gaming memories comes from an open world RPG. In the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, you start off as a prisoner who escapes their cell through the sewer. After fighting your way through a series of dingy corridors, you find your way to the exit, and it’s this moment that has always stuck with me.

You step out of the sewers, and suddenly this beautiful world full of rolling hills and crystal-clear rivers is at your whim. Although the game gives you a destination, that is not where you want to go. First you want to head into the woods and try to find a fabled unicorn. Wait, no. You want to head to a cave deep beneath the mountains to find what treasure lies within. The possibilities feel endless… or at least they felt endless, until you closed your 20th Oblivion gate and noticed that every town in the game looks basically the same.

The promise of open world games is incredibly strong. Players want to be fully immersed into a vast and complex world, and many games have come so close to fulfilling that promise. But game developers shouldn’t be trying to make the next Skyrim, or Witcher 3, or Breath of the Wild. They should be trying to make something even better.

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