Eventually you can switch to a story mission and flame some opium or interrupt the enigmatic Pagan Min's plans with a well-placed explosive device or two. But the most fun, for me, is to be had by just poking about the kingdom of Kyrat, a fictional corner of the Himalayas rendered with astonishingly absorbing realism by Ubisoft's talented environment artists. I'm more interested in what's behind its waterfalls and beneath its rocks than whose leadership the Golden Path rebel group should be following, and I'm much happier when left to my own devices, rather than when I stumble into missions, only to "fail" them when I didn't even want to participate.
I felt the same way when much younger. Growing up in a crack house, where retail copies of Amiga games were rather conspicuous by their absence (thanks, dad; sorry, Ron Gilbert, Jon Hare, the Bitmap Brothers, et al.), I never had the full packaging for The Secret of Monkey Island, so I couldn't pore over its atmospheric artwork, all skulls and ships and cutlasses, and a nervous-looking Guybrush Threepwood staring out at me.
The first imagery I saw, once disc one of several was unceremoniously stuffed into the 500's drive, was the title screen's depiction, perhaps from an offshore crow's nest, of Melee Island, the setting for the game's first chapter, "the Three Trials." I knew what I wanted to do right then: Just poke around the place.
Melee Island, as seen in the 2009 special edition
Of course, Monkey Island—25 years young in 2015—isn't an open-world affair like Far Cry 4. It's essentially a series of screens assembled into small environments—a town here, a fort there, a great big crack if that's what you're into—and linked by birds-eye-view maps, which you used to point a miniature Guybrush at his next destination. Not a lot on each map was actually accessible, but the display made the game's islands—Melee and, later, the titular Monkey—feel that much more physically present.
You couldn't just point your pirate wannabe at the horizon and see what he stumbled across, but you (I) definitely felt that these places were real. There was a world-building master class going on before pre-teen eyes, and the Caribbean had never been closer, even rendered with the 16-bit limitations of the time. (Indeed, to this day the closest I've come to such tropical climes is through gaming, most recently the comparably swashbuckling Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.)
Open-world adventures allow for the most productive poking about—to harvest pointless yet somehow fulfilling collectibles, encountered entirely by chance, as you amble about the hills of Skyrim, cruise the cobbles of Gran Soren, or kick back to Non-Stop Pop and chase the setting sun as it kisses the San Andreas coast.
Coming in 2015 is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, an action-role-player set in a world sure to make Skyrim seem as sizable as a postage stamp. (OK, perhaps a large packet, in comparison to the van making the deliveries.) Like the recently released Dragon Age: Inquisition, it's a game engineered to appeal to those who just wish to wander, and that's what I'm most looking forward to doing—I mean, just look at how beautiful its landscape is.
Tighter spaces can also lead me away from the game's narrative. The movie-authentic environment assets of Alien: Isolation are mesmerizing in their detail. It's easy to be distracted by a monitor, by a helmet or something personal left behind by a long-since-gone inhabitant of Sevastopol Station—they probably buggered off to write nonsense on a wall somewhere—and completely forget about the instant-kill threat that shadows each step from one save point to the next. The way a light silently spins in its casing, a warning of something that's been and passed—distracting enough to leave the motion tracker unmonitored. Isolation's poking about necessitates caution, then—but I still play it to feel a part of its setting, rather than a character desperate to escape it.
BioShock Infinite's floating, failed utopia of Columbia is The Last of Us–like in its approach to world building: it's not a go-anywhere sandbox despite the suggested scale, the game funneling your progress down set pathways, ensuring your gun's sights are always pointing in the right direction.
Yet when I previewed the game ahead of speaking to series creator Ken Levine, I spent more time perusing the plant life in its Garden of New Eden, listening to its barbershop quartet take on " God Only Knows" and exploring each corner of its fairgrounds full of freaks. When Ken asked me about a particular sequence, I had to stare at him blankly—I'd only just reached the ball toss, so what came after that flash of extreme violence, I had no idea. I was too busy getting up close and personal with loaves of bread, to see how pixelated they were(n't), and chasing hummingbirds.
But these experiences prove a damn sight more memorable than ones that are all guns, all glory—races through the enemy ranks, putting bodies down left, right and centre. The poke-about games are like the albums you need a few listens to really get—the ones where you have to look beyond what's most obviously asked of you to get the most from them. Like finding a flower from Flower in Journey by not walking your wanderer the way of the vista-dominating mountain, or going that extra (vertical) mile to reach the "secret garden" in Shadow of the Colossus, just because it's there. It's good that some developers hide perks in their games' furthest corners, but honestly, sometimes the journey there is enough. I enjoy taking Aiden Pearce to the edge of Watch Dogs' Chicago, just because.
I love these games because they offer me a break from the bullshit of the everyday, a place where there's always a problem to deal with – shooters and slashers and so on, button-mashers and headshot galleries, they're just different ways of fixing someone else's mess. And it's my love of just seeing, rather than necessarily doing, that's got me excited about a clutch of forthcoming open-world games (alongside all the potential of The Witcher 3) – Tequila Works' sumptuously styled Rime, The Chinese Room's Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and Rayman/Beyond Good & Evil creator Michel Ancel's Wild. No Man's Sky goes further still, offering a universe of possibilities that I, like many, can't wait to just exist in.
These games are exotic destinations rather than a list of tasks; their stories are present, but content to leave you to explore their peripheries. What they should offer that Far Cry 4 can't is prolonged periods of peace and quiet, and space for detached, digital meditation—for while I love the views, the sharp crackle of AK-47 fire doesn't half snap a man from his idling.
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