While anxiously awaiting the release of Dragon Quest Builders on the Switch (I finally get to play it today!) I’ve been jumping back and forth between some other games just to kill time when I feel like playing a video game. As part of that, I’ve played some more Super Mario Odyssey and collected fifty or so more Power Moons. During my play time, I found myself enjoying the act of revisiting some worlds more than I did others. When I noticed a pattern across my favorite worlds, what I saw was that I consistently prefer the game’s smaller kingdoms compared to the larger ones.
We live in a world where the philosophy around video games is that “bigger is better.” Open world titles measure themselves based on how big their maps are compared to Skyrim. RPGs fill themselves with the most sidequests and customization options. Platformers give us hundreds and hundreds of collectible to seek out. And how many blasted Pokemon are there now? Over 800? And you know the next game will give us even more!
Conventional gaming wisdom says that the best worlds in Super Mario Odyssey are the biggest ones with the most stuff to find and the most places to explore. The Sand Kingdom, the Wooded Kingdom, and of course the absolutely massive Metro Kingdom are often raised up as some of the best in the game. However, for me personally, these are not the ones I find myself drawn to as a return to the game. I’ve had the most fun in the smaller, more contained areas, places like the Cap Kingdom and Cascade Kingdom.
Small worlds definitely have some advantages to them. There may be less literal space to explore, but often because of that the space is more intricate and nuanced. Because a contained area takes less time to explore, level designers are more comfortable about placing secrets or rewards in the nooks and crannies of the world. You can travel quickly from place to place, which means that you can afford to make multiple loops in order to verify that you’ve found everything you’re looking for without burning a ton of your time. Whereas an open world can feel big but empty, contained worlds (when done well) feel as if they are packed to the brim with things to discover.
I think something we’re seeing in the current game-design climate is that the phrase “open world” carries with it certain expectations that should not necessarily be included in the term. We hear open world and think about Skyrim or Fallout, games that give us these huge environments to explore and discover. But the idea of an open world game isn’t necessarily referring to the size of the world itself – it is referring to how you can approach that world.
An open world game is one in which you as the player are not guided onto a specific path in order to progress the game. In a non-open world game (what we might refer to as a linear game), you go from point A to point B and have to do things in a specific order. You might be able to do some exploration on your own, but go too far and you’re punished by the game with enemies who are too strong, puzzles that are impossible to solve with your current tools, or worst of all, an invisible wall which simply stops you from progressing for no justified reason within the game world.
Conversely, in an open world game, you have the ability to go wherever you wish. While there might be an overarching story that gives you an incentive to go a certain way, you are free to ignore that story and instead focus on other quests or tasks. You’re free to explore and are often rewarded for exploring with new gear, more money, or EXP and levels as a result of going out of your way. In an open world game, the game doesn’t guide you along a particular path – you choose your path for yourself.
Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t quite fall into the territory of open world because you travel the kingdoms in a (mostly) predetermined order. There’s a very specific and linear story for you to experience as Mario. However, when you are inside a kingdom, you are free to explore that kingdom to your heart’s content. You can power through the story to find out what happens or ignore the story, grabbing moons until you have enough to proceed to the next kingdom.
There’s a kind of appeal to this contained space that you can explore in any way you want. An open-closed world, if you will. You get all the joy of freedom of movement but also the advantages of a contained space. It’s easier to explore, easier for developers to cram the space with content, and because you can complete all of the tasks quicker you get the joy of actually accomplishing something a lot faster than you would in a huge environment.
For me, I think this is a better direction for the open world genre of games. If worlds continue to get bigger and bigger games will eventually reach the point of being totally unmanageable. The amount of time and effort required to complete one game won’t be worth it to most players. Heck, for some games that’s already the case – who actually bothered to get all 900 Korok seeds in Breath of the Wild? At some point games will have to stop expanding outward for no other reason than sheer practicality. So rather than pushing that barrier, I think it would be way more interesting to focus energy on filling the existing space with interesting things to do.
What do you think, adventurers? Is bigger really better, or would you find more enjoyment in a more contained open world experience? Let me know in the comments below, and I hope you have an excellent weekend!