Bigger is better, but only in the right places (Gaming)

by Cody Miller @, Music of the Spheres - Never Forgot, Tuesday, December 22, 2020, 14:10 (29 days ago)

Cyberpunk is actually my first RPG open world game. Hard to believe right? I've played open world action games. Some of which I like, and some of which I don't. However after playing an RPG in an open world, I would say that I believe that Open World and RPG are currently, and perhaps forever at odds.

RPGs are by their nature very story heavy. You are 'playing a role', so how you act and what you choose should both be informed by, and influenced by the story. Otherwise there is no 'role' to play. So a story and world that both influences and is changed by your decisions is fundamental to the genre.

This is of course quite difficult to pull off in a video game, which is why RPG games have leaned on stats and experience instead, since this type of thing is very easy to program. Kill some dudes, level up. We will never reach a time when a computer program can simulate a DM and craft the story on the fly for you based on what you do, in an organic and satisfying way.

I think like Deus Ex, Cyberpunk is an RPG with first person elements. But the difference in approach regarding the world is everything. Deus Ex does not have an open world; its levels are sequential and linear, but are open enough to allow freedom in accomplishing your objectives as well as exploration. Cyberpunk is the opposite, with a giant sprawling city in which you can go wherever you like.

The problem is that the sheer size precludes meaningful discovery. In Deus Ex, you are given a main objective, but all the side quests or alternate things are uncovered by you. There is no fixer calling you with a side job. You discover it by your interaction with the world. This works because the levels are only so large, and you can keep track of everything, but also that since they are separate and segmented, the side quests can be discovered naturally in a way that doesn't derail the main narrative. Essentially, you are only able to discover sidequests that relate to or tie in to the portion of the narrative you are currently in. They never really feel like they sidetrack the story in a significant way. Just like what you'd naturally discover and be doing if you were trying to accomplish the level's objective. And they are never tracked. There are no waypoints ever, even for the main mission.

Contrast this with Cyberpunk. No sidequests are discovered organically. They all spring from a phone call, and they are all tracked. A waypoint and a dotted line appear telling you where to go. So for all the supposed freedom an open world gives you, you never use that freedom to discover sidequests or things to do on your own. You're always following directions, and ticking off the side jobs. Some of them are quite good and affecting… but how much better would they be if you stumbled into them on your own? Through your curiosity? But is that even a possibility in a city so large? With so many places to go? How would you keep track? How would you not derail the narrative? Grow bored straying from the story? And so even with this giant open world, I still feel like I had more agency in Deus Ex.

How would such a thing even work in an open world? You'd quickly get overwhelmed, and wander around with no narrative agency just poking around the city. There would be no focus, and the story would come to a standstill. it kind of already does. A character says, "Hurry, meet me tonight", as you do a zillion things then meet them 3 days from now and there's no consequence to that. The very story is a race against time. And yet, there is never any reason to say "No" to a sidequest. No reason to say "maybe later". The game is built around the idea of you being able to 100% it, to check off all the boxes, so things will never overlap. Never conflict. You never have to make a decision about where to go because time means nothing. You never have to wonder if taking a job would close off some things, or open up others. Games like this need to get out of the mindset of coimpletionism. If two characters want you to meet at the same time, you should have to choose which one you want to stand up, and let the story account for this. The game has a time system, but it's meaningless. If you get there early you just wait and skip time until you can do the thing. If I were designing the game, I would have time tick a set amount only when you complete objectives. That way you can mess around and not feel lime pressure, but still have jobs conflict with each other and force you to pick one or the other.

The game even undercuts the freedom you have in a normal action game. The first level in Deus Ex says "rescue the hostage. Whatever way you want. Go". So you go around, making a plan, discovering things, until you decide on how you want to do it. Cyberpunk says "take out these three snipers", and them proceeds to label them sequentially with a waypoint and dotted path. Seriously?! And all the missions are like that. Follow the waypoint and do the thing. Each objective clearly labeled one after the other. How about giving us a map of where the snipers are, and letting us loose to take them out however, and in whatever order we see fit? The particular area is huge and intricate, so why not give us the freedom?

You do make a lot of choices in this game, from your build, to how each mission plays out. But often times it seems to lack in the areas where you SHOULD be able to choose, and other games have let you. But we need something more than just "Do I shoot everyone, or stealth my way through?". We should be asking, damn. How am I going to pull each part of this plan? Better figure it out!

There's a mandatory sequence where you canvas a building you are to enter. The canvasing should be optional. Up to you, and from your own head. You should be able to use the open world to wait, and follow a guard home. Break in, then force him to give you his keycard or uniform. Something. The open world is completely irrelevant to the main missions once you are in them, and it can never be leveraged for solutions.

The open world is a lie. It's just there to watch as you drive from waypoint to waypoint. But the open world CAN'T be true. Which is why Deus Ex feels more real 20 years later. And so Cyberpunk would feel much the same if it were sequential like Deus Ex. Because it's already telling you where to go.

Reviewers have said Night City feels alive. But it does not feel alive because of the sprawling giant city. It feels alive in the small moments. When you meet someone for food, when you get a tarot reading, or you go to a funeral. The people in the city make it feel alive. These are the moments that make it feel like a real place. The characters are what make the environment feel real. All of this would be enhanced without the open world. I think of how giant it is, and how much effort could have instead gone to scalign it back and making the parts you see count for more.

At least with Legend of Zelda, you had your objective. Get the triforce, and enter the final dungeon to kill Ganon. YOU had to explore every part of the map, and gather clue to find the dungeon entrance. But can you imagine this in a world the size of cyberpunk's? How the hell would you ever keep track or find clues? Hence the calls. The dotted lines. The waypoints. Because the city is too big to actually let you explore. Bigger is only better in the right places.

And then you run into things that are just laughable. You steal some shit out in the desert, and drive for 2 minutes to a camp. "Ok we are safe here". Uh really? You are two minutes by car from the enemy camp. You don't think they'd find you in two seconds? Night city is what, about 7km across? So 49 square km? Los angeles is 1,302 square km. Making it continuous makes it feel smaller. Another benefit of breaking a game up into smaller chunks and letting your imagination fill in the gap. it's like why the film 1917 fell flat. Never cutting in what is supposed to be a massive dangerous journey that lasts only 100 or so minutes makes it feel like it wasn't that epic. Like, how far could YOU go in two hours?

I'm glad I played this game, but it's too long, and too big in all the wrong places.

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