Climbing Towers for intel. Enemy Bases to raid. Sidequests that fill every inch of a map. The prevalent model for AAA open world games is often concerned with making sure that the player is never wanting for activities to do in it’s open spaces. As hard drive sizes get larger and allow for bigger games and more space, many AAA developers have taken a “more is better” approach to filling that space.
But what if you take the opposite approach? Can you make an open world feel alive and worthwhile if there isn’t something happening every other minute? We discuss how Mafia approached it’s open world, where open world design has moved since it’s release in 2002, and more on this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.
Rob: I would say the original Mafia became kind of beloved by people who managed to get through it. I wanted to love it but I couldn't because while I enjoy this stuff where you're taking part in this crime drama and it's playing to all the tropes that I hold so dear, the fact [is] that failing missions causes you to replay like huge swaths of them.
Austin: I remember driving missions specifically where you would do a 15 minute, tracking someone or chase, and the cars took damage and would just break down. There are a number of times that I would just lose—not lose progress but have to redo something that was not the interesting part of the game. That was one of those games that took me a year to beat because I kept hitting points I was like “I can't win this gunfight. This is an annoying race or, or a tail mission, or whatever, I'll come back to this” and I did, and eventually I did beat it. I remember thinking that it was a really satisfying conclusion. But also I don't remember the world being good, I don't remember there being things to do.
Rob: No, there's nothing to do. And that's the thing, now we have an idea of what an open world game is expected to do, which is you have a big world and then there's shit in it you go find you can do, there's side missions and then you drive to main quests. I hesitate to say it's like a primitive approach to open world games because I think a lot of the way open world games have developed has just been bloat, more for more's sake but not really progress toward an improved version of that idea.
When I think of GTA IV, for instance, one of my favorite moments is not like going out and doing activities, my favorite moments were still where Liberty City was just a backdrop to like the mood of the story. I remember going to the Heat-style gunfight where your going with those Irish gangsters.
Austin: The bank, yeah that's the best mission in that game.
Rob: Yeah, we're driving across the bridge and 1979 comes on the radio. I was like, “I'm in it. This is great.”
Austin: Going down into the subway in that mission with a bag over your shoulder. That game has so many issues, that specific mission is so strong. A thing that you bring to bring to mind here is about utilization more than whether it's developed or “primitive.” At the time I think the thing that people said was, “there's not a lot to do here, this isn't as good as GTA , in GTA I can go drive a cab. In GTA I can go deliver pizzas or I can do side missions or whatever, and this game doesn't do that.“ And the thing is, like you said, we've seen the extension of that logic. “Oh, just put more stuff in it. If you have an open world, you should utilize it by making there be a bunch of stuff to do.”
But utilization does not only look like that, you can also utilize the open world really well in linear content if what you're doing is using it as an evocative backdrop, making it feel big and labyrinthine, there's all sorts of ways to use it. And at the end of the day I think what we now understand to do is to judge the way it's used in a broader sense, a critic from 2002 or three or whenever that game came out, would think that the best possible version of this is what the Ubisoft model ended up being, which makes GTA IV, look subtle and quiet in comparison to the degree of bloat that so many open world games have now.
Rob: Yeah, and that's and that's kind of the weird thing is I think almost Ubisoft directly is probably responsible for hardening our idea of what a open world game ought to be, because it makes so many of them to this really specific template. When I think back to GTA IV, it wasn't even really pointing in that direction. Even GTA where they're starting to move in that life sim direction a little bit in IV as opposed to previous games, even there they're not really pushing in the “Oh, the city is just a busy box, you go to the icons and do shit.”
But Mafia is really sparse, and I would say now when we talk about the open world can be there to enhance the linear gameplay, and sort of change the quality of it, I think Mafia: Definitive Edition delivers on that and gets it. It gets what was cool about the original game a little bit, which is about just kind of soaking up the atmosphere of the story and hanging out with these characters as you sort of drive through a period appropriate backdrop.
In 2002, the cars kind of put you in the place where it's like they were kind of clunky and you know their Model T inspired, they're kind of crap. But it kind of put you there, and then the city was pretty sparse. Now it very much looks like it's a Hangar 13 game now, it's sort of on visual par or better than Mafia 3. And so the aesthetic quality of this game where you're driving around the city is now much much higher and there's a great deal more atmosphere to it in places. Now as you're driving, on your way to collect protection money and make your rounds on the rackets, it feels much more like you are a low level wise guy driving around 1930s America to these you know tiny mom and pop shops in various like ethnic neighborhoods in a US city.
This transcript was edited for length and clarity. Discussed: Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions 6:32, Mafia: Definitive Edition 25:55. Outriders 1:03:52, Tell Me Why 1:19:47, Windbound 1:43:46, Emails 1:52:32
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