Part 1 – Why Red Dead Redemption 2 Falls Short

Red Dead Redemption 2 (stay with me the other games will come into it) is a game released in 2018 by Rockstar Games, and developed by their subsidiary, Rockstar North. It acts as a prequal to the late western setting of the first, following Arthur Morgan’s travels with the Van der Linde gang. The story shows the slow corruption of some of its gang members, who go on to become antagonists in the previous game. The story can make you feel genuine sympathy for every gang member’s death, it can make you feel anger at those who begin to see the life of the gang members as secondary. And that’s not to mention the graphics, the game is genuinely beautiful, the game’s ability to capture the beautiful golden shine of the sun and, the dark creepy haze of just one forest depending on the time of day is really stunning. The artistry in Red Dead Redemption 2 from the visual, writing and music department comes together to create this heart wrenching tragedy of a western tale… I just wish I can say the same for the gameplay.

Don’t take away from this that the gameplays awful, it’s fine and has some really great systems. However, the way it handles progression as well as the tedium of the gameplay mechanics do get in the way considerably of my enjoyment.

Most of the gameplay challenge comes from combat and there’s not much to break that up, you’d expect this reliance on combat to encourage a unique and layered combat experience, right? Whilst it does have things such as melee combat and lassos, the options you have going into combat aren’t evenly rewarded, it is a lot better to shoot at your enemy than to try any other option. Whilst the gunplay is fun, after the first 20 hours of this, what I found to be 80-hour experience, the mechanic became boring. The gun types attempt to offer depth however, in my opinion, mostly end up feeling the same, stats on guns never seemed to have that big of an impact except if they were very low due to them getting dirty. Which brings me onto my next point, cleaning the guns and other really unfun systems.

There’s a mechanic in Red Dead Redemption 2 where you need to clean your guns after extensive use to raise their stats back up. I feel this mechanic could be good if the material you use to clean your guns was sparce, this would offer a dilemma when it comes to combat, “should I clean my best gun and use that, or should I hold onto the oil and use a gun I’m not so comfortable with”. But no, the game makes sure you can find plenty with the bodies you loot, as well as making it affordable (With a currency of which the game gives you a lot of, this wouldn’t be an issue if the story wasn’t about the struggle to accumulate wealth to escape the country, this makes the game have ludonarrative dissonance, a term used to describe a conflict between the story of the gameplay, and the story of the narrative). The mechanic as it stands feels like a minor annoyance your reminded of when your weapons suddenly don’t work, rather than something to diversify combat.

There are many other mechanics which felt annoying, having to constantly shave and travel to a barber to get a haircut feels like a chore, making me give up on the Walter White inspired look to just let my hair grow out fairly early on in the game. Although a positive I can say about this system is that it does play into the wanted system with changing appearance, so there is strategy as when to shave, although other appearance altering mechanics, such a clothing and masks, can achieve the same thing.

The game was made with a very uncompromising vision, the developers wanted the game to feel very realistic, but in doing so they created systems which felt annoying with no meaning. As mentioned previously, having scarcity of the gun oil, or maybe having to change hair style in order to better blend in with other people for missions would have given these systems meaning. As they currently stand it seems their only purpose is to annoy me. But the most important aspect as to why I think Red Dead Redemption 2 fails as an open world title is the mission system.

How Red Dead Redemption 2 tells its wonderful story is through a series of linearly structured missions which take place in an open world, this to me makes the game feel conflicted. With the missions being linear but the setting being an open world, boundaries are very poorly defined. If you step too far out the game will display a failure screen meaning you, though no fault of your own, have to play from the previous checkpoint. The games story, as good as it is, is begging to be told in a linear level. Something the game can’t do, and with all the meaningful segments being linear, it makes the open word feel like an unnecessary middle man, which could be removed and improve the experience if the player sticks to the story, but I wouldn’t want it to be. The linear missions are a failure of the missions, not the open world, missions should be open ended and allow players to come up with their own solutions.

And that’s why I want to look at the games “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “The Outer Wilds” in the coming parts to see why the design of those games is better than ones such as Red Dead Redemption 2.

Part 2 – Why The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s Introduction Is So Great

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was released by Nintendo in 2017 for The Nintendo switch and Wii U. The game is a departure from the traditional 3D Zelda game design being open world, acting as a homage to the original game and that game’s theme of exploration.

I think Breath of the Wild does the design of open world games from the moment you walk out onto “The Great Plateau”. The games introductory area is the only real time the game forces you to stay in one section, and even then, the areas very sizable. In the games introduction you’ll meet an old man who gives you a small amount of context on the place however, doesn’t educate the player further. The tutorial is very hands off and allows the player to explore the world and mechanics, only showing button prompts when it’s relevant to the player.

The old man has some objects around his camp site which show to the player some important things about the game, such as a baked apple which can be picked up near the fire, suggesting a relationship between fire and other objects. This shows at a basic level the game design philosophy of Breath of the Wild, that being it’s focus on emergent gameplay, the definition of which being designing a game based around systems relying on other systems for unique gameplay mechanics and interactions. In this example we’re shown that when the food system interacts with the fire mechanic, food can become cooked. If the player was also picking up apples on their way to the campsite, they’ll also notice that the baked apple gives more health, showing to the player that cooking objects will increase their utility. On a game based around exploration, only having the necessities told to the player and having the rest told through visual tells provides the player with the feeling of being an explorer with discovering stuff for themselves. A lot of games will tell the player about its mechanics in a very hands-on manner, telling a player what to do, rather than showing them. Breath of the Wilds “Show not tell” approach feels refreshing.

 As the player moves along from the campsite, they’ll be interrupted by a disembodied voice of Zelda telling him to use the “Sheikah Slate” (An item you obtain at the start of the game) and head to a point marked on it, the purpose or destination is not disclosed, leading to a feeling of intrigue on the player and a want to go to it. On the way there you’ll be greeted by enemies which you’ll be expected to fight, once again, the game shows you how to fight, but it doesn’t tell you in what method to approach the enemy. This makes the player feel a lot more autonomous, as they can approach the combat the way they like to, unlike a lot of other games, like Red Dead Redemption 2, which will give you a scripted segment of what buttons to press and at what time to press them. It also shows the player that the game has durability tied to the weapons, more on that and other aspects of the combat system in the next part.

Once the player arrives to the destination a tower rises from the ground and the old man appears on a paraglider and tells the player to open a “shrine” which he points to and is marked on the map. Shrines are linear segments of the game, apart from the 4 on the great plateau none of them are mandatory and take place in an area separate from the open world, distinguishing these segments as an area with a start and end. Upon the players completion of the shrine, they are rewarded with a spirit orb and sent back to the surface, where the old man tasked them with completing the 3 remaining shrines. The shrines are not marked on the map but are visible from the tower, this encourages players to use intuition to progress.

2 of the shrines are positioned in a cold mountainous area in which the player will need to overcome the temperature of. The game gives a few ways of doing so, each with different effectiveness depending on the extensiveness of the method. The easiest one a player can do is light the torch that they saw at the beginning on the fire, however that takes away mobility like running and climbing, as well as combat in fear the torch might break. At the gates you go through to reach the cold area, you can find spicy peppers and cook them by going to a nearby enemy camp with an enemy that dropped a torch. The player can then pick it up and transfer fire from a campfire with meat cooking over it, to an unlit stove and throw the peppers on there to cook them and produce a meal that can give you resistance too cold for a few minutes. Players can figure out how to do this by understanding that heat increases utility of food, as well as understanding that torches can carry fire and light things on fire. However, this isn’t a permanent solution, for that player will need to find the old man’s cabin, there the player can find a recipe that the player can cook and give it to the old man for a coat called “The Warm Doublet”, which requires the player to go search for multiple ingredients. After the player has cooked it, the player can find the old man to receive that coat which they can wear permanently. Having these multiple methods of overcoming a challenge rewards the players exploration, which in an open world game is what you want to be rewarding.

Upon the completion of the shrines, you are asked by the old man to meet him at the intersection at where 2 lines drawn between the shrines meet, that happens to be the “Temple of Time”, there you can acquire the paraglider and leave the Great Plateau. If the player takes time to explore the temple, they’ll find a statue which can exchange the 4 spirit orbs for either a stamina or heart container. Again, this is an example of showing to the player why they might want to do as many shrines as possible, as well as rewarding those with the curiosity to seek that information out.

The word I’d use to describe The Great Plateau would be “autonomy”. The game gives you the autonomy to approach combat the way you want to, it gives you autonomy to solve problems the way you want to but rewards the exploration of its mechanics. It gives you the autonomy to complete things in an order you want. The Great Plateau is very hands off with teaching the player, but this gets the player to think about the game and truly learn the game and feel like they’re in an open world.

Part 3 – Why the Mechanics of “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” are so Great

In the previous part I described emergent gameplay as “designing a game based around systems relying on other systems for unique gameplay mechanics and interactions”, I would say that this is an accurate description of the design, at least in the case of Breath of the Wild. There are many systems which can impact things like combat and traversal, an example would be lightning storms. In a lightning storm, any metal material is susceptible to being electrified, this includes weapons and shields, if equipped during a storm outside. The metal can become electrified and eventually burst out dealing electrical damage to the player. This can be a disadvantage, often it is better to equip wooden alternatives to avoid that damage, in certain situations, however this can be used to an advantage. If you decide to throw the item instead, that then can become an electrical bomb of sorts and can deal electrical damage to enemies in proximity, this mechanic is also used in a puzzle that is built into the world (just another testament to the worlds design). What also comes with lightning storms is rain, being water, it influences the fire and electric systems. Fire, and its effects are null in the rain, meaning fire arrows must be used under shelter or they won’t deal any fire damage, whereas the effects of electric arrows are heightened. Going back to the fire, this also means that campfires can’t be started in the rain and must be lit under shelter also. Speaking of campfires, to create one requires the acquisition of wood, this can be done through buying it, however something you can do is chop down trees. You can interact with the world of the game as you would in real life, this makes the player feel less of an actor, more of an interactor as you can use emergent logic of sharp objects being able to cut through trees to harvest material. Compare this to the way Red Dead Redemption 2 sets up camp, it feels unrewarding, you press a button then the game goes to the nearest allowed location and builds a camp with no materials required apart from the initial purchase of the ability. It feels like what is meant to be a rewarding, relaxing respite in-between missions, where you can cook meats and drink coffee, is unrewarding. This is a result of pressing a button, not chopping down trees and lighting it yourself, where-ever you want and worst of all, it lights in rain. Moving away from campfires, Breath of the Wild does a lot more, like putting wind to a sail will move a raft, or the drop of a heavy object will translate to damage if it lands on an enemy. There are many examples of this, but I’ll leave it here.

Combat is the other thing I touched on in the previous part and it’s also something I want to elaborate on more as I think it does many interesting things to create depth. There are 3 styles of melee combat, 2 handed weapons which are ranged and powerful but slow, Spears, which are ranged and quick but weak and one-handed weapons which are mid-ranged, decently powerful and quick and allow you to use a shield for protection. There are other mechanics such as “Flurry Rush” which gives you some time to hit an enemy in slow time and, reflecting which allows you to reflect a laser if you parry with the shield in the correct time. This range of melee combat is good for keeping gameplay fresh and distinct, but the real meat is the durability of the weapons. Once durability runs out, the weapons break and in one special instance timed out. This leads the player to think about what weapons they have and which one to use, typically stronger weapons are saved for stronger enemies, but as you progress into the late game, a lot of weapons are going to be strong, so then it might be a matter of choosing your worst playstyle with a weaker enemy so you can save your best for mini bosses. Perhaps it might be beneficial to instead not use any weapons but instead manipulate your environment, which Breath of the Wild creates plenty of opportunities to do. Around combat areas you can often find giant rocks that can be rolled down hills damaging the opponent, or you can use a rune ability called “Stasis” which when activated on an object can freeze it in place, then you can hit it and that movement can get piled up to a giant launch when the object exists stasis, this launch can be aimed to hit enemies. You can also use another rune ability called “Magnesis” which allows you to pick up any metal object with a giant magnet and drop or bash it on enemies for damage, metal crates can be found near combat areas too, so this is a viable strategy. The last rune ability is a bomb, which allows you place it near an enemy and active it, damaging them. There are also ranged combat options, you can use a bow with a few arrows, Normal arrows which deal regular damage, fire arrows which can burn an enemy, Ice arrows which can freeze an enemy in place, electric arrows which can stun an enemy, bomb arrows which set off an explosion and ancient arrows which instantly kill any enemy which isn’t a major boss. Arrows are expensive and hard to find so the usage of one is very important to get right. An arrow like the ancient arrow is incredibly valuable and a missed hit with that can be detrimental. I think I can sum up the combat system best by saying it gives the player choices of equal viability. Unlike other games where you get continuously upgraded and no longer need older weapons, Breath of the Wild gives advantages to the use of those weapons. This makes it so the combat system isn’t as simple as shooting your strongest gun, you must think what type of weapon and how strong of a weapon should I use. I think that’s what makes a good combat system for an open-world game.

The last thing about Breath of the Wild that I want to talk about is the traversal. The game offers many ways in which the player can travel throughout Hyrule which can make the act interesting to do. Of course, Breath of the Wild has walking, running and jumping but it also includes mechanics such as climbing, and this gives a liberating feeling to the open world, as mountains and ridges never feel like artificial confines that they do in other games, they make them seem like a challenge to overcome, to gain enough stamina to climb to the top and look over what you climbed from. And from there, you can use your paraglider to glide down and gaze upon the beautiful land. The sense of freedom you have with Breath of the Wild is brilliant, you can feel like you’re crafting your own journey and all of it feels realistic, there is a reason you can climb, there is a reason why you can glide from absurd hights. It’s not just climbing and gliding, the traversal encourages exploration by hiding puzzles in the land that you can solve, these puzzles can be big or small, and reward the player in a practical way. If the player fast travels, whilst it might be more convenient and some players may need that, doing so will mean you won’t see a lot of the puzzles, and this is how the game encourages exploration, by tying little moments together on your way from point A to B, as well as making this movement fun and liberating whilst being grounded within its world.

Breath of the Wilds mechanics are well suited to the genre as, like the non-linearity of the map, the mechanics are all open-ended. The ways a player can approach a challenge are all equally valid and plentiful, experimentation can always be done. Breath of the Wild seems to recognise that the games non-linear setting is important to how the player interacts with the game and bases these mechanics around non-linearity. There are few linear missions, there are no weapon upgrades whilst keeping a sense of progression. And that’s why The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is so great.

Part 4 – Why the storytelling of The Outer Wilds is impactful & Conclusion

If I had to criticize Breath of the Wild on one thing, it would be the story, not only how the contents of it seem bland, but the way it’s told is, in my opinion, poor. It’s told through a few expositional scenes and a few secret cutscenes, which don’t expand on any specific location, and while the locations in the game are interesting, knowing there’s no concrete answer for their existence is really disappointing.

Enter The Outer Wilds. A 2019 game developed by Mobius Digital and published by Annapurna Interactive. It’s an adventure game where you explore the solar system to uncover its past.

I want to preface this with a spoiler warning, The Outer Wilds is a game that is best explored with little information given prior, if my description appeals to you, please check it out before reading.

The game starts with you waking up on a planet called Timber Hearth, as an astronaut who goes on an expedition to find out more about an ancient race, before they do that, they first need to get the launch code at an observatory which is accessed by going through a village, there you can interact with the locals to understand more context of this place. This dialogue is written in a fashion that gives the player context, but not too much where it feels like obvious exposition, it feels diegetic and immerses you in the role of an astronaut who knows the solar system well. There are also things you can do on the way there that act like a tutorial, like controlling a remote version of the ship, or going into a Zero-Gravity cave to learn about space mobility. This being both optional and within a culture established to be keen on space technology, they feel a lot more like world building than a tutorial, and that holds true for the observatory too. Whilst the exhibits are there to educate players about mechanics, like the quantum rocks changing location based on their visibility, the sun changing colour based on the time left in the time loop (more on the time loop later) or the ancient races inscription showing the player they have a translator and how to use it, it all feels immersive and unbelievable they would have this on show. You then speak to someone who gives you the launch codes, and a hint at the first location to visit based on an answer to a question. This is the only mandatory mission in the game, being as how open ended it is I’d say that’s a very good feature. Upon leaving the observatory, you view a statue who mysteriously gives you knowledge of a time loop that occurs every 22 minutes, this plays a big part with the exploration as this requires you to think about when you’re exploring places and can lead to interesting puzzles which I’ll describe later.

Once you get back to where you started you can enter the ship and blast-off. On the ship you’ll find a ship log which keeps track of the locations you’ve discovered, and what’s at those different locations. You’ll have one entry from the conversation earlier which you can use as a starting point. This ship log, I think, is a cool thing to have, it keeps track of the story and tells you, from places you’ve been to, to where you should go. When you get a new node, it feels like you’re getting that much closer to reaching the end, and it gives you motivation to keep going, that you’re working towards something. And when you finally understand what you need to do and execute it, it feels rewarding. This is how Outer Wilds keeps the narrative from getting confusing whilst giving the player little direction, so they can feel free to explore.

The time loop mechanic gives way for planets to change over a 22-minute period is impactful to the exploration, as it gets you to think about when you’re exploring and how the changes of a planet can open or close new areas. For example, there’s a duo of planets called the “Hourglass Twins”, the planet of “Ash Twin”, over the time loop, rains down ash to the other planet “Ember Twin”, closing certain areas in Ember Twin, but revealing some on Ash Twin. This mechanic is put to good use on Ash Twin in one area in particular, in that area, you must cross a section filled with cacti that threaten to puncture your spacesuit, so at a certain time, you can cross that area using the depleting ashes to avoid them. Another example would be accessing an area on the planet “Brittle Hollow”, which crumbles in on itself due to a black hole on the inside, there is no way to enter the area when it’s still a part of the planet, that means you must come back later in the day when the area is crumbled and go through the black hole, entering it from the space from the other side. Thinking temporally is something that I have not seen too much in games and I think the way The Outer Wilds implements it enhances how the player views the environments. They are ever changing, and not a static presentation of puzzles, they instead emulate how real history can get degraded through time. Forcing the player to give thought to where they explore, allows the player to engage with the world, it ensures they also engage with the story, ensuring the story is being followed.

Whilst I do not think this method of storytelling would be good for all games, a lot of the plot for Red Dead Redemption 2 focuses on current events, however for other games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I think something like the system we see in The Outer Wilds would be an incredibly effective way for the player to uncover the history.

I think open worlds as a concept are amazing, they are virtual imaginings of worlds that could only previously be explored through non-interactive media, having these worlds be open to the player allows for a more personal experience and allows a creator to show different aspects of a world, how they connect to different regions, how the world and civilizations work, what it looks like and a lot more. Pictures and text can only go so far in saying that, something like the politics and wildlife can only be described and not experienced.

That’s why I dislike the way some open worlds are handled, not as a collection of different ideas fictionalized from our world, but a way to tell a linear narrative with linear gameplay that could be told through a linear progression but was made as an open world game as a selling point. Breath of the Wild and The Outer Wilds put their open world first. It was specifically designed so that players can explore it how they want to. These games get the concept more than any other game I’ve played.

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