Open-worlds/-universes are my bread and butter. I just love them—they're what made my young adult and college years so exciting.
As I've stated in previous blog postings, I am a child of the late-90s and early-2000s. My high school and undergraduate years were spent playing expansive (at the time) games like Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Assassin's Creed, and even Fallout 3. These games were appealing not for their cathartic violence—something quite satisfying, in an odd way. They were most appealing because of their vastness. They were like a deep well, with cool and refreshing water, at a time when shooters like Call of Duty dominated the gaming market. Their depth was both profound and like a black hole, from which nothing could return to its original state after kissing the event horizon and being flung back into the vacuum of space.
What exactly makes an open world/universe game so engrossing, moving beyond clichés and bloated language?
I would argue that open-world/-universe games allow players to experience something most don't get to experience in baseline reality. In other words, gamers can experience a world or universe where their decisions, their actions, their reactions, have real consequences. That means players can affect change in the larger world or universe they are interacting with. The most profound examples I can think of are Bethesda's Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3. These games made consequences feel like Newtonian gravity: For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Whether you are playing in Cyrodiil or the Capital Wasteland, your character's actions have consequences, and serious ones at that, on the world players interact with during gameplay. Can we say the same thing about our own actions in baseline reality? Probably not.
Baseline reality has the tendency of making our actions, our reactions, our voices, feel insignificant, or even lesser than insignificant. In other words, we tend to feel empty, facing a world where our efficacy is almost nil and our very being is quite meaningless. In the late-capitalist era, we are living in an age of meaninglessness, an age without purpose, an age in which we buy shit we don't want, with money we don't have.
We are living in an age when our very technologies surpass anything that put humans on the moon. We are living in an age when our technologies can do more and access more than any other technology before it. We have the world at our fingertips. We have everything, and we're bored with it. There's too much noise. Too much static on the line. Too much negativity. Too much positivity. Too much spin. Too much contradiction. Too many lies. Too many alternative facts.
In open-world/-universe games, things are more clear-cut. Our fates feel as if they are in our control. We can mold these fates like the stats on our characters, the weapons we build, and the interactions we forge with NPCs and fellow gamers. This has an incredible allure. To top it off, gaming, especially gaming in deep and refreshing open-worlds, allows us to feel human again, in a world where we have been dehumanized. We don't escape reality, per se, when we play games. Instead, we join a reality that suits the humanness at the heart of our very being.
The so-called real-world is cold, inhuman, and, if we're completely honest, entirely too alienating for many folks. Gaming, especially gaming that offers an effective change in one's reality, is far more alluring than being told you can affect change in the so-called real world. In the real world, things are far more ambiguous than in the gaming realm. The baddies aren't always who we'd assume them to be. The challenges facing change are far more complex. In the gaming realm, we are giving clear objectives, things seem easier, and, more importantly, the gaming realm always sees the triumph of the greater good. Not so in the real world. The good guy doesn't always win. In fact, in many cases, the good guy ends up in a shallow grave, as the people in charge had their goons bury the bodies of the so-called good guys they've just lined up and shot.
Maybe it is a bit naïve for open-worlds/-universes to assume that good triumphs over evil. That karma repays those who've upset the cosmic balancing act. Nevertheless, it speaks to our better nature, our nature to want to affect change in the world. It speaks to the part of us that wants to make the world a better place, despite our own contributions to the other direction, to the detriment of our troubled species.
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