I'm squeezing my hippocampus like some kind of damp sponge in an attempt to recall the first time I ever hit a pedestrian in a video game. After much pondering, I think it actually happened in 1986, when I first encountered Durell Software's Turbo Esprit on the British ZX Spectrum microcomputer.
While it sounds like a racing game, this quite revolutionary release is actually a very early example of an open-world driving game. It cast the player as a secret agent whose mission it was to cruise around a city in the eponymous car, chasing down and destroying enemy vehicles that were carrying drugs. Although it was quite crude in terms of its 3D graphics and grid-like urban layout – understandable, and actually quite remarkable for a game crammed into the Spectrum's piffling 48k memory – Turbo Esprit nevertheless featured a quite expansive environment filled with ambient vehicles that obeyed basic road rules.
Driving around the game's monochromatic world was certainly a novel experience. I'd never seen anything quite like it. Initially I drove quite carefully, but it didn't take long before I started to take risks. I drove on the wrong side of the road, and sped between cars. And then it happened. As I hurtled through an intersection, I accidentally nailed one of the game's tiny pedestrians as it crossed the road. I was as amazed as I was amused. You can hit… pedestrians!? I immediately forgot about what I was supposed to be doing, and raced around the game's environment trying to find another NPC to hit.
Yes. I'm a moron.
Why am I regaling you with this tale from the olden days? Well, even at this early video gaming history juncture, it was apparent that the concept of an open-world driving game had an inherent problem. Given a realistic virtual urban sandbox and car, and when there are no meaningful consequences, most players will drive around like idiots. Yep. The biggest problem with open-world games is the player.
It's a thought that occurred to me this weekend while playing the closed Beta of Ubisoft's upcoming open-world tactical shooter, Ghost Recon Wildlands. The game started up with my AI team of three and I taking a knee in the mountainous region of Itacua. Almost immediately, the first mission waypoint was revealed, so I swiftly ran over to a nearby SUV and jumped into the driver's seat. When the rest of my team had piled inside, I set off down the road to the destination, which was clearly marked on the minimap in typical GPS-type fashion.
Like my first open-world experience over three decades ago, I initially drove carefully as I got used to the rather floaty driving physics. But as my confidence quickly built, I started to drive more aggressively – and soon enough I was zooming along like a lunatic, weaving in and out of the fairly light traffic that was trundling down the dusty dirt road. Then the inevitable happened: As I rounded a corner, I plowed headlong into another vehicle approaching in the opposite direction. Sure, the SUV took a little damage, but it didn't seem to affect its performance, so I continued on, pedal to the metal. Fortunately, I ended up reaching the mission waypoint without further incident, and got on with the task in hand: Rescuing an individual from the clutches of a group of ne'er-do-well drug bandits. The thing is, I'd been playing the game for only a few minutes at this point, and the idiot driving rot had already settled in.
As the weekend wore on, I ended up spending a lot of time driving around Ghost Recon Wildlands' gorgeously-rendered environment, but as I did, I started pondering about exactly how the game was making me feel. The more vehicles I drove, the less immersed I felt in the game. During missions, I was fine. I felt like I was in the game world, and a part of its action. But as soon as I went back to my vehicle, it was like I was playing another game.
Perhaps it's because I'm impatient, but the process of driving simply became an exercise in trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, and seeing just how far I could push my luck when it came to taking the shortest possible route. I experimented with driving down the sides of steep mountains – which I found to my delight you can do without seriously damaging your vehicle. I cut corners. I navigated along ludicrously narrow trails to take shortcuts. And when I was driving along roadways, I traveled as rapidly as possible, sideswiping other vehicles, and occasionally knocking them off the road as I careened towards my next destination.
Like most games of this ilk, there seems to be little drawback to driving like a maniac. I did hit a couple of pedestrians, and got a warning that if I did this too many times, it'd result in my game ending, but even that didn't stop me from speeding everywhere. The reality is, driving from place to place isn't a particularly engaging activity, and I think for most players, doing so is actually more of a chore than anything else; a twixt-mission necessity that's an unfortunate upshot of the nature of the open-world game's construct. That's certainly my excuse when it comes down to my dreadful driving manners in open-world games.
The designers of these often-sprawling releases are essentially in a Catch-22 situation. When there are no meaningful consequences to poor driving, travel is trivialized into an unrealistic, sometimes ridiculous pell-mell journey across the game's world, leaving a trail of destruction in your wake. On the other hand, having to follow the rules of the road and being punished for causing damage or hitting pedestrians would make a game incredibly frustrating and tedious. Even when games aim for a happy medium, like GTA's wanted level rising if you cause too much mayhem, designers still have to err on the side of caution, giving the player enough leeway to make mistakes, without feeling too punitive – which means you can still get away with plenty of virtual death and destruction, and will therefore drive accordingly.
Of course, it could be said that driving like an idiot and thus breaking a game's immersion is my own fault, and that I should simply exercise a little self-control, take my time, and try to enjoy the scenery as I journey around. Perhaps that's so. But I'll counter that these are games we're talking about, and as such I'm simply finding as quick a way as possible to get through the boring bits – i.e., driving from point to point – so I can get to the more exciting stuff – the missions.
Maybe the solution is to make a game out of the part of the game that doesn't actually feel like a game. How about a score bonus multiplier that accumulates the longer the player manages to drive without incident? As you earn points over time, perhaps you'd be rewarded with non-gameplay-affecting items like weapon skins or new outfits for your character. It might not work for everyone, but if I knew I could obtain something of perceived value for my avatar by slowing down and driving more carefully, I'd be up for that. It would turn point-to-point driving into an engaging challenge, essentially layering an incentive to behave a little more realistically as I drove around the world.
Ultimately, what I'm highlighting is an odd issue, and maybe it's a very personal one. Perhaps other players don't feel like their game experience breaks when they drive around an open world in an unrealistic fashion. For me, though, I just find it really detracting and it puts me at odds with a game genre I really enjoy. I generally love playing open-world games, but the novelty of driving around them is long gone for me. I'd really like to see to see some design mechanics incorporated into them that makes driving a little more engaging and fun – and that essentially keeps me grounded by encouraging me to not behave like an idiot every time I get behind the wheel.
Sometimes the player needs saving from their own worst habits. That's certainly the case for me.
Ubisoft's biggest open world action adventure yet packs some really impressive gameplay.
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