I recently played Bloodborne and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt back-to-back. And while I don’t wish to compare the two games overall, or review them as such, I believe discussing one way in which they differ can highlight where a lot of developers might be going wrong.
The Witcher 3 (alongside Batman: Arkham Knight, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain) has deviated from earlier instalments in the series by situating its latest adventure in an open world. This transition, no doubt inspired by the consistent success of Bethesda and Rockstar’s games, has become popular of late, and proposes to be the logical step forward in game development.
For a time, I was very much in favour of this idea. Having enjoyed plenty of open world games in the past, I saw no reason why their influence should have a negative impact on titles elsewhere. Player freedom, non-linearity, unpredictable outcomes, are all very romantic ideas within the industry, and the open world accommodates them all. After playing The Witcher 3, however, and feeling, despite my excitement at the outset, completely uninspired to finish the game, I marked a pattern among these games I failed to notice before, and looked to determine why these franchises, whose earlier titles I loved, suddenly gained the habit of boring me halfway through their campaign.
I believe the prospect of the open world to be alluring because it plants an ideal in the mind of the player. Setting off, you are presented with a vague promise of adventure – of foes to vanquish, challenges to overcome, secrets to reveal, treasures to collect – and the anticipation of experiencing whatever your imagination has supposed compels you to explore. The problem with this promise, however, is once you realise how far short the reality falls from your ideal.
All too often with these open world titles, what begins as an escapade into the great unknown concludes with you mindlessly fast travelling between towns to push forward the plot; those nameless creatures lurking in the wilderness turn out to be just the same enemies with varying health pools; the array of quests turn out to be the same handful of challenges in circulation; and the treasures scattered across the land are found to be superfluous, and sorting them becomes a tedious affair. At some point on your voyage – usually after you’ve just spent an hour riding to the northernmost point on the map, or sailing to some foggy islands out at sea, only to find nothing there – it suddenly occurs to you that there isn’t really much to discover in this open world, and as soon as this realisation dawns, the whole experience begins to feel rather empty.
This sense of futility doesn’t surface in a game world that’s been scrupulously constructed, a world where every path has been planned. It’s one of the reasons why games like Dark Souls keep players coming back for more. From Software’s president takes particular pride in the world of his games, reportedly stating that it was his favourite part of development and a duty that he always personally performs. The interconnected pathways, implicit storytelling, fidelity to an overall theme or mood, that co-operate to enrich the journey in Bloodborne, are characteristic of his unique approach to level design. Miyazaki, much like Fumito Ueda, is an auteur, and just like Ueda, his games demonstrate extreme attention to detail.
Yharnam is far from an open world. There’s no plethora of quests to complete, no vacant fields to traverse. It’s closed and dense and oppressive. At no point while playing did I venture away to a place without purpose, find nothing, and feel uninspired to press on. Every weeping statue, each lowered portcullis, every prostrate corpse, feels as though it was placed by Miyazaki himself, and for a reason. Contrary to how I felt about The Witcher 3, the further I went into Bloodborne’s dark and desperate world, the more I wanted to reveal.
By no means was it for lack of ability that CD Projekt Red made a less intriguing game than From. It’s clear from The Witcher’s qualities that they have incredible talent. The reason why
Bloodborne is superior, at least in my view, is partly due to their difference in approach. From Software set about making their spiritual successor to Dark Souls with refinement, designing a complex world with a small number of items and characters that they could afford to charge with depth. CD Projekt Red took what they had from The Witcher 2 and looked to expand everything. What they ended up with was an huge world riddled with menial tasks: horse racing, boxing, sailing, Gwent, crafting, detective work – all activities that added nothing of real value to the experience, but were necessary to fulfil the demands of the open world.
I suspect that if the developer streamlined everything they’d previously been working on, put all their effort into composing one fascinating quest rather than numerous generic ones, designed a concentrated game world instead of a vast and typical one, they might’ve produced something more than just another open world medieval fantasy RPG about defeating Sauron and saving the world. As it stands though, my copy of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt remains in a climbing pile of ambitious games that were stretched too thin, while I continue to peal back the layers of Bloodborne.