There's this thing that developers of open world games have been fond of saying a lot lately: If you can see it, you can travel to it. It's meant to be an awe-inspiring statement about how rich and full the world is, but every time I hear it I roll my eyes.
See, not only am I not particularly interested in walking to whatever random things I see in the distance all the time, I don't even want to do that most of the time. That's not an absolute rule or anything; while occasionally I might get the urge to climb a mount that's irrelevant to the plot (hello, GTA V), I just usually prefer a more focused experience. I'm not keen on devs creating distractions willy nilly, and also I probably just played some other game in which I could walk to anything I could see.
So take Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example. That game's world isn't Skyrim, as it has separate zones rather than one continuous world. But the zones are big and open, and if you can see it you can go to it. I hear this and take it badly, because the whole BioWare thing is story and choice and literal role playing, and not so much "let's dick around in the woods to see what's there." That's the Elder Scrolls' specialty, so when they emphasize the size of the world it just sounds they're going for that well-deserved Skyrim purse.
And I hate being bummed in advance about a Bioware game because to some degree I enjoy everything they've done, and it's usually been to a great degree. I'm one of those people who totally adores Dragon Age 2, even, which is a meaningful thing to point out here. I want to think that "if you can see it, you can go to it" is mostly marketing speak that doesn't necessarily reflect the priorities of the team, but I can't know that just yet.
Over the last few weeks I've been dabbling in Dragon's Dogma. This Japanese open world RPG is one of many games that sits in my PSN account thanks to PlayStation Plus, and in early July I got the impulse to start it up. What I found was a novel concept: an open world on rails, more or less. Dragon's Dogma allows you to walk where you want, but it generally guides you around via a series of branching paths. It doesn't feel so daunting as adventuring through Skyrim, and straying from the path to see what's over that way isn't likely to get you lost. And sometimes straying from your path just means you're taking a new one to wherever you were going.
Open worlds often exist to get you lost, though. They dangle something off to the side of you, and before you know it you've been wandering around over there for hours and you forgot what you were doing before. In what I've played of Dragon's Dogma, there doesn't seem to be much danger of that happening, even while it lets me scratch the exploration itch a bit with sidepaths and monster caves and the like.
But, of course, in Dragon's Dogma you can't go to everything you see, and that's no bueno. You gotta be able to deliver on a very common buzzphrase or else you're a disappointment. Because all the games should have the same features.
That was a joke, of course. I want variety and freshness (which is why I'm so fond of Gods Will Be Watching). I want to see what Bioware could do with the ideas it had in the Song of Ice and Fire-esque Dragon Age 2 over the course of a development cycle that isn't truncated. I want devs and players to be a little bit less concerned with whether we can walk to random spots in the game world that don't matter.
Under all that, what I really want is for the creatives to not attempt to emulate somebody else's blockbuster game. The real reason I lose some interest in a game when I'm told I can walk to anything I can see isn't because I don't care about that, but because it probably means the devs think we do because we liked some other game that let us do that.
In my day job as a motivational speaker*, I often tell people, "You need to just do your thing." That's what I want. "If you can see it, you can go to it" to me sounds as if you're probably trying to do somebody else's thing. Maybe that's the wrong conclusion to draw, maybe it's not.
But at the end of the day, attempting to follow somebody else's still-fresh footprints is always going to be a lot less interesting then attempting to find a different path. That's why a game that is as janky as Dragon's Dogma can hold a surprising amount of appeal, and it's why EA's attempts to take down Call of Duty by shooter-izing its catalog failed—it's no coincidence that it took a shooter as ideologically opposed to Call of Duty as Battlefield 3 to make serious headway in that effort.
For now, I'm just going to continue on being cautiously pessimistic. Because it doesn't feel like "if you see it, you can travel to it" is going away any time soon.
*I'm not a motivational speaker.
You can find Phil on Twitter at @philrowen