#playthis: days gone. let’s talk about open world games

So, everybody loved Breath of the Wild, right? After all, the game’s routinely in the best-seller lists for the Switch, even though it was a launch title. It was a huge step up for the franchise in terms of freedom and scale, a source of great memes and fan art, and it won a ton of awards.

But, I gotta be real with you, I didn’t like it very much. It wasn’t ’cause of the game’s most controversial mechanic (the weapon breakdown system, which facilitates churn in the same way running out of ammo does in Halo and I should probably defend in an article at some point), or because of the mandatory instant fail stealth sequence, or because the story was weak (if you want a good Zelda plot, go for Majora’s Mask), or because the sidequests, in any other game, would have been derided as bad fetch quests. It wasn’t any of that.

It’s ’cause Breath of the Wild wasn’t a very dynamic game.

how we got to where we are

So, open world games are about promise, right? Like, a game designer points at a mountain and says “see that mountain? you can climb it.”

I grew up with stuff like Narnia and Digimon, stories that were all about kids my age who got to go to other worlds and have adventures I didn’t (wrote about it here, natch: https://thesto.mp/post/179414933777/dreaming-of-another-world). I wanted to have those adventures. Playing Microsoft Flight Simulator 98, a game that branded itself with the slogan “as real as it gets!!” was like flying a plane in real life! Games could take you places! Games could do things!

I didn’t play games much back in the day, mostly due to my parents being the people they are, but I did understand that 3D games aside from Microsoft Flight Simulator mostly had really, really small maps and used cliffs, oceans, walls, and wreckage to keep players in confined spaces.

So when open-world games crashed onto the scene, everything changed. No game emphasized this idea of games-as-a-place-to-go more than Grand Theft Auto, a game first released for the Playstation 2 back in 2001. To 14 year-old me, who had never heard of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, an open world game the size of the state of Georgia and featuring a population of 750,000 NPCs, the promise of a game like Grand Theft Auto III was staggering.

An open world game like Rockstar’s meant I’d finally be able to go places and do things — I’d be able to go on an adventure. Most people weren’t that aware of Daggerfall, I guess, because Grand Theft Auto III inspired the open-world game design boom. Heck, even Zelda tried to compete by offering the open-sea exploration game Wind Waker.

as an aside

(one of the lame things about writing about video games is how easy it is to spend time talking about the past, especially because we tend to mention the same few games and overstate their impact, however, in the case of grand theft auto iii, i don’t think i’m overstating its impact; in general, i want to try to avoid using history to talk game design theory, but i’ma have to do it here because of where we’re going with this)

so Grand Theft Auto 3 got somethin’ goin’

Anyways, all these people try to make open world games, and nearly all of them looked at Grand Theft Auto 3 and went “oh yeah, that’s the perfect way to make games.”

Buuuuuut… it’s how those games work that really bums me out.

This is how an open world game tends to look: there is a map. Usually just one, but sometimes there are more (Dying Light). On this map, there are icons. These icons represent The Things You Can Do in the game world. So far, so good.

It is, after all, useful to look at a map and see places to go and things to do. Behold! Some game maps!

Right, so, games have maps, maps have useful locations on them. That isn’t really a problem, is it?

Not in and of itself, no.

The problem has more to do with how we think about games — the creative headspace we’re in when we make decisions about the structure of our game. How do people think through the spaces we provide them?

If you walk into a room, and you think about the things you are going to do in order to engage with the room as you travel through it, what are you thinking about? In XCOM, for instance, you’re probably thinking about tiles and turns and rules and all that jazz; how do you control the board? XCOM is, after all, a board game. But in a real-time 3D game like Thief, you’re treating that experience more naturalistically, acting as though you are a body in that particular world.

If the promise of big, open-world games was a greater sense of being there, and I believe they were, since that’s how everyone talked about them, then the design of these games failed to support that expectation.

look at the icons

So, back in 2017, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild hit, and it featured something called a Korok seed, which is this thing you get after you perform a simple puzzle, like putting a ball in a cup, a box inside a series of other boxes, or an apple in a bowl. It’s all pretty simple.

…aaaand you have to do it 900 times.

There’s no real reason to do it 900 times. The reward is poop. Seriously. It’s like… actual poop that Link gets. I don’t even think you can do anything with it; while it’s a hilarious gag gift, that’s really all there is to it.

Okay, so, why bring this up?

Well, remember what I said about how you think about a world? That’s called suture. When you watch a movie like, say, Old Yeller, and the boy cries as he shoots the dog, and you start to feel the need to cry. In the moment, it feels real. You feel what the boy is feeling. You mourn for this loyal, friendly dog who got rabies because he was just trying to protect the boy he loved. It’s tough. It’s a real tough thing.

But, I mean, none of it is real. The boy is acting, the dog is acting, it’s all fake. The boy’s name was Tommy Kirk and the dog’s name was Spike. Tommy went on to be in movies like Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold, and Spike lived to a ripe old age of 16.

If you’re aware it’s all fake, if you’re sitting there, consciously reminding yourself that none of this is real, then it has no effect on you. But if you agree with the movie or the game or whatever the work of art is that it’s real in that moment, it can have a powerful emotional effect on you.

That’s suture.

Suture is the contract you make with the work to accept it as real for the duration of your experience. You know it’s fake, but in the moment, you let the emotions wash over you and soak it all in.

Suture is why art impacts you the way it does.

It’s why you feel things.

’cause you know it ain’t real but you believe it is, just for a little bit. Suture is a two way street. It’s a thing both you and the artwork do together. It’s a collaboration.

And games kinda suck at it.

In a game like Breath of the Wild, when you stumble upon your 142nd “put the magnetic cube into a series of cubes” puzzle, it’s lost its luster. The game is practically screaming at you “hey! none of this is real! it’s just a bunch of arbitrary puzzles designed to pad out the world!” Every single one of those maps above is the same way.

This isn’t to say Breath of the Wild is bad or anything, just that it, like so many other open world games out there, do the same kind of thing. I may love the Saints Row games, but it does get a bit tiring to look at the map and see 20 arbitrary race missions and 37 Professor Genki ‘pick up the thing and put it inside the matching object’ events.

You end up playing these big open world games that feel, well… like games instead of worlds. It’s especially weird in games like Grand Theft Auto IV, a game that tries to be ultra realistic to the point where your car’s suspension will shift as a passenger climbs in based on their body weight, but then you have 30 different icons on the map that are all repeatable chunks of Bowling Content With Cousin Roman™ you can do.

a promise not so much broken as unfulfilled (except by certain games, which we’ll get to in a bit)

So basically what I’m saying is… hey, an awful lot of open world games are built in this way: here’s a big, realistic-looking world with an attempt at accurate physics, human enemies, a grounded plot… aaaand now we’re gonna do a bunch of weird minigames in them instead of something, I dunno, creative and interesting.

As someone who grew up with Flight Simulator, a game where you literally approached the world in the mindset that this was As Real As It Gets, most open world games aren’t satisfying to me as Virtual Worlds, but as Really Satisfying Ways To Complete Checklists.

They serve a purpose, and that purpose is to tickle my lizard brain, but dammit, I want something more.

I want to go someplace else and I want to think about that world like it’s real because that’s where the dynamic, interesting, cool-as-shit moments happen. When people praise Red Dead Redemption 2 as one of the greatest achievements in all of video games… and then ceaselessly complain about how Red Dead Redemption 2 is absurdly restrictive to the point where you can’t even approach certain missions with the weapons you want to use and the strategies you’d like to employ… I dunno, that feels weird to me?

Like, I heard way more complaining about how all these games had kinda crazy restrictions and people would have liked to Do More Things but couldn’t than I did “what makes Red Dead Redemption 2 great” or whatever, but it still got great scores and everyone acted like it was the greatest thing ever except for all the times it was really garbage about what it did.

I dunno, look, it’s 7:51 AM, I had a 12 hour day yesterday, I lost my medical coverage, my chest hurts, I feel like shit, this is probably all a confusing mess.


Instead of being in a world, you’re doing a bunch of meaningless checklists, like playing as Geralt, Monster Slayer… who has to find 87 identical sets of floating barrels and treasure chests in the water, or Link, who needs 900 Korok Seeds, or The Boss, who has to do all the Genki Telekinesis Minigames, or whatever.

You aren’t going anywhere cool.

so critics are, somewhat rightfully, willing to complain about this

So, at the start of this generation, Assassin’s Creed Unity came out, and it was this… really interesting, fun game with a cool protagonist, but the game looked ahead of its time (it’s still absolutely gorgeous) and had some bugs. Plus, people were really starting to get tired of the yearly Assassin’s Creed game, and people were really getting tired of the “climb a tower to unlock a region of a map and then do a ton of meaningless checklist things,” aaaaand so this perfect storm led to people basically going “man, I’m tired of these open world checklist games.”

You especially saw that a lot in games criticism, where reviewers were like “oh my god, I not only have to work a full-time job, but I have to play a 60–100 hour game doing a bunch of meaningless busywork to clear stuff off my checklist or critical path the game. This sucks.” And like, yeah, absolutely, that does kinda suck if your job is structured that way. These games have a lot to do but that doesn’t mean the quality is there.

So when these sorts of games come out, people complain about them unless they’re part of an already-popular series. Like… I can’t recall any reviews claiming that Spider-Man or Breath of the Wild or The Witcher 3 did these things, but when games in newer or less-anticipated series like Rage 2 or Days Gone do similar things, people get up in a tizzy about pointless icon-filled maps that waste your time.

(an aside: look at how The Last of Us is critically acclaimed as one of the greatest games of all time, but people basically never talk about how clickers are awful, infuriating game design that works against the aesthetics and tone the game is trying to provide, but then look at how basically all the reviews about Days Gone were mad that the Very Easy Instant Fail Stealth Sections in Days Gone ruined it, even though there are more clickers in TLOU than stealth sections in Days Gone, and DG has better stealth mechanics to boot; I think at this point, it’s just kind of a fact that if a game is in a beloved series, it will get a pass for things that games with better/easier/more forgiving/more fun mechanics do)

Anyways, here’s the kind of fucked thing:

Days Gone and Rage 2 are way better open world video games than Spider-Man, Breath of the Wild, and The Witcher 3.

TO BE CLEAR: I’m not saying they’re necessarily better games. I’m just saying that the open world part of them is way, way better. Rage 2 will get its own article later.

but obviously, making game worlds is hard and time-consuming and it’s kind of impossible to make a completely bespoke world unless you have infinite time and money, and by that point, what’s the point? games really just need to be good enough. this subhed is too long.

idk that’s really the point I wanted to make there.

Look, I love Mad Max. I think Mad Max is amazing in part because it has this really good sense of tragedy, fantastic gameplay, really neat approaches to its survival mechanics, a sound bug that makes people sound way closer than they are, on and on and on I could go.

Where it really blows me away? The world building. This is a game where every single inch of the world is something you can work your way backwards through. You can get a sense for what this world looked like before the apocalypse or why someone put a chair over a cliff (to take a dump). There’s so much about the world that you can just… kinda bask in.

Even though Mad Max is, in so many ways, the same kind of checklist-filled shenanigans that you get in other games, it goes a step beyond because A) everything has a history and a reason for being where it is, which makes it feel real (Everything.), and B) every objective in the world (except the postcards, though you find those inside little tragedy sites that reinforce the sense of reality to the world) feels like a necessary step forward rather than a random waste of time diversion. Like, go here, blow up gas to sabotage the enemy town, go there, blow up the enemy convoys to make the roads safer, etc.

It’s not perfect, it’s not the ideal simulation or anything, but it is… just one step closer to nailing that sense of suture than a game where you URGENTLY need to save Princess Zelda and all of Hyrule from Ganon (but also what if you ran around gathering 900 seeds from little plant guys who were playing hide and seek so they would give you some poop?).

which brings me to Days Gone

A bunch of people said Days Gone was mediocre. I was talking to some journo peer not too long ago and he was like “yeah, it’s just another checklist sim,” and… sure, it’s just another checklist sim the way a dump truck is just another car, I suppose. It’s a different thing trying to accomplish a different goal, and even though some of the tools are similar… it achieves a very different effect.

So. Days Gone is a game with a boring premise: what if Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead, two television shows well past their relevancy, were merged into one video game?

(as an aside, this is the problem with making games about topical things; AAA games take an average of 4 years to make, literally anything you want to talk about will no longer be relevant by the time you ship — if someone was inspired to make a game about Kony, we’d have seen that game in 2016, the time when Harambe got shot. If the short-lived Harambe meme got turned into a game, we’d start seeing Harambe games… next year. so in general, don’t make games about current events or pop culture subjects, because it takes longer to make a game than for any one topic to stay relevant)

Now, I’ve talked about the importance of a game’s fantasy and the impact it has on appeal before.

There was this twitter thread, where I talked about how some game developers made a platformer with a twist, got a booth at gamescom, and then had a very depressed gamasutra post where they were upset no one paid their game any attention.

Then there was this article, where I talked about the brilliance in design of 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, a game that most people ignored because, well, it was about the rapper 50 Cent and seemed like a bizarre ego piece set in the then-topical War on Terror in the Middle East.

The fact is, a game can be excellent, but if people are turned off by the premise, you’re gonna have a hard time convincing them to check it out.

Days Gone is an open world game about a biker and zombies.

It’s like… the least-inspiring sell to a bunch of game critics. This is not a game that is going to win awards. The uninspired cinematography and bugs didn’t help, but I know so many critics who seemed to dismiss it based on premise alone. Never mind that it’s actually fuckin brilliant or anything, I guess.

no really! first, the quest structure:

So, traditional open world: do a bunch of linear ass bullshit for a few hours, then open up a big-ass open world with a shitload of icons to check off. Maybe you climb some towers to find more icons. I dunno. Once you find them, you wander over to them, do these discrete activities, and be on your merry way, a job well done.

That’s it.

That’s all you do.

In Days Gone, you’re thrown into the action a lot quicker. Do a couple missions, your friend Boozer (yeah, yeah, I know) gets hurt, it’s your fault, and you start taking jobs in order to take care of him. You do missions, then more missions pop up. In most open world games, there’s one main quest and with a unique map icon and a bunch of side quests. Some games give you one main quest and then like, say, three different possible ways to tackle it (kill the Dark Lord in the East, the Dark Lord in the South, and the Dark Lord in the West). Do it in any order, but other than that, the progression is basically the same.

Days Gone follows the Grand Theft Auto model, where there are several characters who all need to be approached to advance the plot, so it’s a bunch of possible story threads and arcs you need to get through, rather than Do The Linear Quest, Then Do A Trio Of Main Quests In Any Order, Then Go Back To Linearity.

This gives Days Gone way more narrative control over your experience; it gets to weave in all sorts of events in a way that feels like you’re watching a TV show that’s juggling a lot of different plotlines. Since every character is tied to their own plot line, sometimes more than one, different interactions can advance multiple plots. Maybe you save a kid from roving marauders at one point, but her plot doesn’t advance until you deal with other missions in the camp you took her to; after a while, she leaves that camp, and you can continue her questline.

Instead of going balls deep in one guy’s plot and forgetting about the others until its done, the game is constantly giving you interesting things to do, and unlike a Rockstar game, which follows a simplistic three-act structure, Days Gone has a lot more threads and feels like a really big serialized narrative.

It’s an easy game to sit down and get through because it’s not broken up into these clearly-delineated chunks. It goes down smooth.

But here’s the kicker.

that’s all you do.

the stuff in the world

Days Gone does not really have pointless busywork map markers. Don’t get me wrong, there are things to do in the world, like clearing out the big zombie hordes, which, in some cases, have literally hundreds of zombies in them and are tremendously fun to fight, but rather than the game having like, a single map region with a tower you climb that reveals the locations of all the zombie hordes… you kinda have to find them yourself (after you finish the game, days gone will show you the locations of everything you missed which is super nice; the game actually has a great approach to not having any missable content which i appreciated wholeheartedly)

With Hordes, you can see these weird swathes of dark stuff on the ground — I think it’s mud, blood, and shit, for the most part, and if you follow them, you can find the paths for zombies. If you find that stuff near a cave, and it’s daytime, you know there’s a horde inside. Every map has an explicit number of hordes, and they all have nests that they only leave at night. Horde nests are dangerous to enter during the day, but hordes themselves are even more dangerous to encounter when roaming around at night, because they’re alerted by loud sounds and will pursue you aggressively until killed or outrun on your motorcycle.

There are some elements of predictability here. Roving bands of gangsters have set up camps, and you have to kill them all, find a hatch, enter a bunker, and locate a map to complete every objective, which will reveal NERO camps, give you a weapons locker, and give you a bed.

When you find a NERO (National Emergency Response Organization) camp, sure, you know you have to power on a generator to unlock the doors, occasionally flip a circuit breaker, and cut all the speakers that will start up once you power the generator on. Doing so will let you access a weapons locker and a bed.

There. We have two different things that basically function the exact same way. Just like every other game, right?

Well… yeah. Kinda. It’s another baby step forward. Apparently, Sony Bend’s open world team (the folks who built the world) was made up of 5–6 people, and while it sucks that there are basically two different kinds of camps that can be approached with the same sense of predictability, those camps are all really unique (there’s one that’s a series of tree houses and another that takes place in a tourist trap, for instance).

but it’s not always like this

Take the bounty missions, for instance. In a traditional open world game, most bounties you get are gonna be like “go kill Random Guy,” and you go to the location where Random Guy is, and you shoot his lieutenant, then face three waves of enemies, then eventually Random Guy spawns and you kill him.

Then you do that for every. single. bounty.

It gets boring, right? Games have tackled this approach with varying levels of success. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s mercenary system had mercs you had to fight, but you basically had Person With An Animal, Person Who Threw Fireballs, that kind of thing. After a handful of mercenaries, it just got super repetitive.

Perhaps the most successful system was the Nemesis System from Shadow of War, which you absolutely need to read about here:

Seriously, this is one of the best articles in all of video games writing, please read it.

But Days Gone? It does something different. Bounty Hunting is a profession in the world, but every bounty has a story. Maybe some kid guarding the wall got shot up by a gang of marauders, or there was a guy who got run off and tried to start a motorcycle gang. Everyone has a story, and every quest is unique.

I recently found myself sneaking through a camp where a man had been claiming zombie bounties… with human body parts. Rather than risk his life fighting zombies, the coward (or serial killer, not sure which) was murdering unsuspecting humans. I chased him to a lumber mill, where he immediately bolted. Unable to find him, I started scouting the lumber mill and accidentally found an entire zombie horde.

I died.

So I tried again. The coward ran away again. That’s when it clicked; this wasn’t some weird glitch, that’s just who this guy is and how this particular bounty would work: the guy would take refuge in a lumber mill where a bunch of zombies were hanging out, and I’d have to find him while avoiding alerting the entire horde.

I accidentally alerted a smaller group of zombies, and in the process of running away from them, I leaped off a roof… and right on top of the guy. The zombie horde soon followed. While he shouted curses at me, I backpedaled, reloading my heavy machine gun. It was too late for the bounty — when the zombies rounded the corner, they took him out before turning their attention to me.


I’d have to wade back in if I wanted proof of the guy’s death.

So I went back in, doing my best to stealth kill what zombies I could, before it all went to hell. The big horde didn’t get alerted, and I managed, but in a game where just three zombies can prove too much for an unprepared player, taking on nearly a dozen was a helluva challenge.

That was just one bounty. I could tell you about the time I used berserk arrows, which make the people you shoot go berserk and attack their friends, as well as some cleverly-placed bear traps, to wipe out a camp. I could tell you about the time I tried to clear out a camp, but they saw me, started shooting, alerted a nearby zombie horde that cut me off from my motorcycle, and died to the zombies, which I was only able to evade by chugging stamina potions and running back to the safety of a camp 600 meters away. I could tell you a lot, but it would all be to teach you one simple lesson:

it’s how the systems intertwine that makes the game work

slight addendum bit here, under the bolded and above the picture; added in ’cause writing on 4 hours of sleep means sometimes you forget to say something

Breath of the Wild gives you a fuckload of tools — you can set grass on fire and leap into the air, for instance — but it silos all its little activities into discrete chunks. You’re never going to have a moment in Breath of the Wild where you find an army of zombies between you and your bike that causes you to run for the safety of your camp only to be interrupted by a Very Angry Bear that charges at you but gets into a fight with the swarm, giving you just enough breathing room to get shot in the face by a roaming biker. In Breath of the Wild, everything’s spread apart just so, which means that while there are a lot of ways you can handle a skirmish, there aren’t that many ways the world can surprise you by itself. You’re not going to find really intriguing physics and AI interactions in Breath of the Wild or most other open-world games.

This is the thing that sets Days Gone, Bethesda games, and STALKER apart from everything else: they allow weird ass bullshit to happen without your intervention. Sometimes, you get to be a part of it.

In Breath of the Wild, whether due to the WiiU/Switch memory limitations (it released on both) or Nintendo’s design decisions or something else, Nintendo has very neatly segmented everything off. If an enemy chases you, run away far enough, and it will lose interest and wander back to its hole. Sure, there’s a degree of that in Days Gone, but that game is still way more interested in letting the systems play with each other in ways that consistently surprise and delight the player.

Systems are way more likely to collide in Days Gone than most other games. Sure, it still has, say, the “you are leaving the mission area!” thing that sometimes sucks, and there’s ONE mission where I had to use a weapon I didn’t want, and some missions where you can’t use weapons at all, but in the 30+ hours I’ve played, I find myself constantly running into situations I didn’t expect.

Now, some game designers seem to think that the inherent randomness of their games is enough to make the game work. Right here, right now, in video games, most systems alone aren’t varied and robust enough to consistently create interesting experiences with no outside input.

It’s the way those systems are blended with bespoke elements that really makes them pop. Sony Bend didn’t just create 50 identical bounty missions and hope that the randomness of its systems would make them feel different, it gave every single bounty unique locations, conditions (a NERO camp, a lumberyard with a horde in it, during the middle of a zombie attack, having bikers show up mid-mission, having a single guy who discovered you while you were tracking him and bolting, introducing wolves mid-way through the fight, etc), and dialogue to really make it stand out.

The missions create interesting setups, and the systems create interesting outcomes. These two things together result in a game that feels less like a series of predictable chores and more like a living, breathing world that is consistently surprising and fun.

I think you should play Days Gone. It might not have got the great review scores of a game like The Last of Us, Sony’s other big Zombie Exclusive, but as I play The Last of Us (you can watch on mixer.com/docseuss), I find myself discovering a game that teaches you what not to do. Days Gone, on the other hand, is an inspiration. It’s a game that isn’t always The Most Original Thing, and it’s not The Most Robust 3D Open World Systems Game (that award would go to STALKER or STALKER with AMK), but man… this is one of the freshest takes on an open world game out there right now.

Does it have problems? Yeah. The camera work in cutscenes is weak, the game doesn’t understand the importance of personal motivation, the aiming is just as fiddly as Sony’s other exclusive third person shooters and should take some lessons from Gears of War 3’s nice camera stickiness, the sound mix is strange, Deacon’s character performance is weird, the biker gang elements don’t add anything to the game so far (I’m not done, did I mention that? I have like 30–40 hours in the game tho), and most importantly of all, the game actually kinda sucks until you get the crossbow that lets you one-hit kill enemies; before that, it’s a stealth weapon that, somehow, always causes stealth to fail when you use it because it doesn’t do enough damage. Once you get that upgrade, though, the game falls into place.

You should #playthis because damned if the game doesn’t actually have a really great series of complex characters and relationships, a really unique take on zombies, and a really good interplay between systems and missions, balancing bespoke with dynamic in a way that’s sure to surprise and delight in a way that makes the world feel like a real space.

I want to see more open world games learning from this because I’m tired of the rigidity that games like Breath of the Wild stick me with. That game might be charming, gorgeous, and have a lot of physics interactions that can lead to cool things like this:

But Days Gone’s world blends that bespoke/dynamic approach in a way that brings its world to life, and Breath of the Wild’s feels like a toybox where the limitations of the AI are readily apparent.

Also this was me being stupid, have fun:

what a game


ALSO if you wanna know my in-depth, edited-by-an-actual-editor thoughts on breath of the wild:

and here’s my take on mad max

i had thoughts 4 u

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.