If open world games are going to stick around for the next generation, they need to start doing more with their sprawling maps. The latest gameplay demonstration for Ghost of Tsushima reveals one possible way this can happen, though it does so while still hanging on to tired formulas of the genre.
I should be clear: Ghost of Tsushima looks simply wonderful and I look forward to playing it; I do not look forward, however, to the kind scavenger hunting, checklist hunting, played out busywork that seems to be unavoidable in virtually any game that has an open world these days.
Despite an interesting take on exploring the map–which I’ll get to–I was disappointed with seeing, yet again, all the things I’ve done in other open world games. Instead of “bandit camps,” Tsushima will have the player clearing out shipyards and Mongolian-occupied territory–so, basically, bandit camps. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are also caravans open for raiding, and lost wanderers who need to be rescued from bad guys–though maybe less obnoxious and formulaic than your typical Ubisoft open world title.
While the combat does look thrilling, I easily lose track of the amount of times I’ve had to throw a “distraction item” to get an enemy to move so I can emerge from a patch of grass (or a rooftop in this case) and stealthfully “remove” them from the map–essentially combat check listing. These are the kinds of experiences I’m not looking to have anymore–because they’ve been done to death. We’ve seen them again and again and again; video games, especially open world games, need to demonstrate a radical rethinking in how they’re going to use maps and encounters to avoid what feels like last year’s open-world hit but with a samurai skin.
The exploration of the map looks to be the most interesting development here, as it seems to be willing to break with tradition and eject an in-game mini-map with some kind of GPS-style indication of where to go in place of more subtle visual cues that feel organic to the environment. While the magic is sure to wear off after a dozen or so hours in, the notion of relying on gusts of wind keeps the player’s eyes on the environment and the world around them. This I love, as I find myself often staring too much at in-game mini-maps while driving or running about, completely ignoring the laborious detail that goes into some of these worlds.
The notion of keeping an eye out for animals and other environmental signals is another brilliant idea that I hope doesn’t reduce itself down to formula too much. In other words, I hope the game does settle into a pattern of: see a green bird? That means a shrine is nearby. I would prefer the idea of seeing a mysterious or interesting animal and having that imply that there’s something just around the corner, some secret that will be revealed by taking a detour, without my knowing what that may be. I want this to feel like an organic experience and not have the animal essentially be a more cute take on the “waypoint.” It can be an opportunity to breathe life into an open world, especially when so many feel like hollow expanses of land.
And while I love the idea of traversing this open world, rendered in gorgeous detail, and discovering shrines and other mysteries buried deep in forests, caves, and placed atop mountains, I would love it if there was more mystery about what these things are and how many of them they are–in other words, I don’t want to see prompts that indicate there are X number of shrines or other objects in a specific region as, for me, it instantly makes the experience feel like a pointless scavenger hunt instead of a journey through a virtual world.
What I’m getting at here, of course, is that I’d like to see less HUD, more cues from the environment, and more ambiguity and mystery about what is hidden and tucked away in these worlds. If we’re going to see ever more effort and labor put into obsessive, intricate detail of these maps and environments, they really ought to present themselves in the gameplay more, communicate with the player more. Tsushima definitely shows us how this might be achieved and hopefully it’s the start of some serious change in the open-world formula that brings to life the spirit of exploration, of truly getting lost in the positive sense, in a virtual space that communicates art and wonder to the player, not a list of tasks to accomplish.