I went through a curious transition from being a child to a teenager, the same one that, in our own unique ways, I suppose we all must endure to a varying extent. Mine, it must be said, was on the more benign end of the scale. I loved LEGO growing up (buy your kids a massive box of bricks and you'll save a small fortune on toy purchases throughout their lifetime), and I found it really difficult giving it up as I grew older, so I just didn’t. This led to strange juxtapositions like my fifteenth birthday party, which saw a group of similarly aged adolescents in my room all drinking Skol lager (just like at Dave’s party a few months previously) and watching The Evil Dead, surrounded by LEGO models and the echoing sounds of ‘don’t touch them please, they’re fragile.’ They touched them, of course, because LEGO is universally fascinating and they were probably a tiny bit jealous of me having the wherewithal to still have it proudly displayed in my boudoir. Or maybe they just wanted to laugh at me. Regardless, I was enraptured by those bricks long after my peers had passed them by.
Now, I was fifteen in 2004, so that most hallowed of games, Grand Theft Auto III, had been a part of my life for going on three years. In my metropolis, which I'd named Carcer City after a couple of in-game radio broadcasts mentioned it neighboured GTA III’s Liberty City (it later went on to be the setting of Manhunt, within Rockstar Games' PS2 era metafiction), I'd play out all sorts of crime capers. Some were heroic 70s inspired romps like The Italian Job or Roger Moore James Bond stories, but most were violent tales of the sort of villainy I'd seen in GTA. I'd stand in my room for hours on end, acting out revenge stories, gangland takeovers, and bloody massacres with my little plastic people. I'd voice all the characters out loud, as well as that of the narrator, who, looking back, was a strangely literary addition to my video game reproductions. I loved my little LEGO city because it was a canvas for my stories, its plastic walls and roads the setting for the infinite possibilities contained within my young brain. Everything was a mishmash, and so I'd write in explanations for any visual anachronisms. Grizzled robbers from a Western themed set became extrovert gangsters with a penchant for dressing up, much like the droogs from A Clockwork Orange, and sat perfectly in my fiction alongside working folk and aliens (they were futuristic assassins) alike. Everything made sense because anything was possible.
Another of my weirdly childlike GTA-inspired hobbies was drawing maps. I've found maps fascinating from a very young age, partly because of my time as a scout and partly because of The Hobbit. Just like the LEGO cities, my maps held infinite possibilities. Maps are tools, yes, and tools that have been signifiers of some truly deplorable occurrences; Leopold II of Belgium carving up a large part of Africa to form his preposterously named Congo Free State springs to mind when thinking of misery-stained cartography. And while it's true that my maps were inspired by the violence-steeped streets of places like Liberty City, they were first and foremost places of opportunity. Every boulevard, alley, and highway was the setting of some exciting imagined car chase or race. The large compound set back from the road could, at any single moment, be a secret governmental listening post, a high security gang hideout, or a contraband distribution centre. These places were just biro lines in a spiral bound notebook, but they meant so much more to me because I could ascribe whatever meaning I chose to their many abstractions. Maps, in being simplified representations of absolutes, hold the power to show us whatever we wish to see.
The only GTA I’ve ever finished without cheating is IV, and, with the exception of the PS2 trilogy, I’ve never come close to completing most of them. Despite this, “GTA Day” is always exciting for me, because it means I get to carefully unfold a new map and study it maniacally for about half an hour. Whether I’m at home and able to play right there, or at work or in a shopping centre, I always go to the map before the game. Even though that room full of mid-strength lager and LEGO is but a distant memory, I still get a strange buzz out of looking down on roads, building, and tiny people from up on high. I love imagining the stories these places might hold, and the wealth of possibilities I might experience. I hardly ever get the whole way through the games themselves because they can never meet my lofty expectations. They are long and repetitive, and unlike the spaces they take place within, devoid of much meaningful variety.
I have this problem in getting along with most large-scale open world games, and it's because they rarely leverage their massive size to satisfying ends. Just like any big city or municipality, they essentially boil down to being large patchworks of smaller spaces, all of which perform similar functions and service similar needs. Real places are structured as such because they have to accommodate millions of people, whereas open world game spaces are created exclusively for the player. I can buy my bread and milk along any number of North London's shopping streets, but I go to the one closest to me for obvious reasons, regardless of them all having their unique charms. Lots of open world games neglect to acknowledge this, and pepper themselves with Wood Greens, Tottenhams, Stamford Hills, Edmontons, Stoke Newingtons, Finsbury Parks, and Dalstons, asking us to visit each one and buy the same list of groceries as we go, as if we were inhabiting the lives of a great many people in quick succession. There are loads of lovely pubs or greasy spoons to tempt me away from my local area on a Sunday afternoon, but simple pleasures like those don’t transfer over into games; I just go from one place to the next killing men, stealing posters, and opening crates. The variety of tasks seen in most open world games is very superficial, and so giant tracts of land are placed in between the copy/paste activities to create a paper-thin illusion that what we're doing is in some way unique. But just like buying a bag of tomatoes seventeen times on your way home, doing the same thing in loads of different places isn’t quite analogous to doing different things in loads of different places.
I've been spending lots of time with The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V recently, and they both approach open world design in a slightly different way. Instead of structuring their sprawls as many discrete locations stitched together with roads and fields or city blocks, where each place acts as a level to house only a story beat or side activity and nothing further, these two ask you to liberally revisit locations. I've long found it strange that a game like Far Cry 3 contains so many lavishly designed places that the player is only ever going to see once for about ten minutes. Dirty great temples, townships, and fortresses, places that loads of people spent ages making, are created to be run through at full pelt and then forgotten. It is, in my mind, a sign of the bloated nature of big-ticket video game extravagance, a practice that at some point has to stop before games begin costing the GDP of small countries to produce. In both The Witcher and Metal Gear, your objectives regularly call upon you to go back to places with new eyes. This is not just a smart way to get the most out of their environments, which are still certifiably massive, but it also allows the player to reconfigure their understanding of them as well. Simple changes such as the time of day, direction of approach, and enemy type and distribution -- really simple things already built into each game -- can dramatically alter our understanding of a space we're already familiar with. We really don’t need to explore a dozen déjà vu-inducing villages to feel variety, simply a single one to revisit in unique ways.
At the beginning of Far Cry 3 you take part in a daring escape from a prison camp. I dearly wanted to re-explore the place many hours later when my character had become stronger, just to see if I could sneak back in there and have a snoop around while not running for dear life. I scoured the game's map, searching for the camp's environmental hallmarks: the long rope bridge, a large dirt courtyard, its circular configuration of cages and huts. But the place doesn't exist within the game's open world. It is a video game level in the most literal of senses: a separate space to be loaded into and out of, locked away from the player once it's function has been exhausted. At one point later in the game you have to escape from a burning hotel, which involves a lot of scrambling about and well timed jumping. Unlike the camp, you can return there whenever you wish, but there's no point in doing so. The charred remains of the building stand empty, its doors barred with rubble and its gardens deserted. The place sits at the end of a long valley, only accessible from a single track that leads to it and nothing else. The whole area is designed to fulfil the solitary need for a large burning building to have the player escape from; its topography, isolation, and emptiness scream 'one time only', as it stands disused for the rest of eternity.
Open world games are largely fixated not with the places where things take place, but the spaces in between: one-off set piece locations and unnervingly familiar villages and neighbourhoods strung together with miles of less interesting terrain. But this approach has resulted in players spending as much time travelling to and from points of interest as they do actually interacting with them once there. My tiny LEGO cities and homemade maps, along with the concise spatial reconfiguration seen in The Witcher and Metal Gear, tell me that a huge landmass alone isn't necessarily going to assuage the pains of repetition. Nor too, will a place as endlessly varied as Grand Theft Auto V’s San Andreas stand to stem the tide of fatigue if all it contains is forty hours of recapitulation. The stories told and the events that take place within spaces have always been where my interests lie, and looking down on a map lets me imagine all the stories I’m probably never going to be told. Maps chart the unknown, show us places we've never been and let us imagine what all their lines and symbols might represent. They are tools of navigation and conquest, but they also hold within them infinite possibilities. The exciting ambiguities of a map rarely carry over into the places it represents, but that's their beauty: we don't, after all, need one of somewhere we already know.
The above prose is proud to be associated with Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table, an initiative which seeks to bring the diverse voices of video game criticism together about the person of a monthly topic. I think it's dead good, and so do these lovely individuals:
Skol is £2.50 a four pack, so if I had a tenner and a fridge I could have a pretty lively evening at 2.8% ABV. Thusly... If you're thankful in any way for my free written gift to you, maybe consider making it ever so slightly less free by donating to my lovely Patreon, it resides here: patreon.com/ashouses. Chrz.