Hacked Off: Having Too Much Freedom in a Game and Not Knowing Where the Hell to Go Next

How many times have you been adventuring in a game which lets you choose the order in which you play missions, and you see something off in the distance which looks like it could lead to more plot? It’s been about a week since you’ve seen anything related to the story, so you eagerly run towards it. You don’t save because what’s the worst that could happen? Then, the Dr. Pepper theme tune starts randomly playing in the background, and you die. It’s not even a death you can see happening, just some freak accident which would never have happened if you had saved. All one can do in this situation is smirk at the irony of the whole ordeal. Now you’ve lost who knows how many hours of work, all because you saw something sparkly that looked vaguely like a quest. At which point rage builds up, and for the next hour you are lost in a rant, telling everyone and anyone you can find of the ridiculous events. Now, this is not a complaint about open-world games, just the freedom of what order in which to do missions.

Currently, I’m playing two games where one does freedom well, the other, not so much. Both are Zelda games, surprisingly, and ten points to Gryffindor if you can guess what one of them is. Let’s start with the not so good one, A Link Between Worlds. The game as a whole is fine. While it lacks a certain spark, it is still a fully functioning game. Though, something I can’t enjoy about it is the aimless walking around in the hopes I stumble across where I’m meant to be going. Unlike in most Zelda games, you can do most of the temples in whatever order you fancy. If you want want to get halfway through one and then just start the next, go for it. However, this lack of structure means most of the time between a temple is just turning over rocks until you find an entrance. It just lacks any real content between temples. It’s as if they knew people would be spending too much time figuring out where to go and that they wouldn’t want to waste time looking for even more things to do.

Then, in the stark opposite Breath of the Wild (did you guess right? If not, it’s okay, you were probably trying to find out where to go in a game) does freedom phenomenally well. It’s just incredible. The best part of the game is doing what you want and exploring the breathtaking world. If you come across what you’re meant to, then that’s just a fortunate accident. The reason it works is because the world is so beautiful, so you actually want to explore it. There are very few games where you can actually look across the whole world and go everywhere. This actually feels like an adventure, rather than most which are just, ‘Hey, if you find something to do, do it, it may work towards an ending.’ It also feels structured. There aren’t an overwhelming number of different places you need to go to within the main quest at one time. They also feel better integrated than those in A Link Between Worlds, not so much of a ‘oh, here’s a temple, let me just quickly bash this one out and go on to the next.’

Having freedom in a game can be done well and work, but normally the story suffers. It’s hard to make a plotline flow smoothly if people are doing things in different orders. Most of the time it just disjointedly fits together, not really going into too much depth. Also, having all the areas feel like a challenge but not impossible throughout a game is difficult. You don’t want to be constantly one-shot in an area as you’ve only just started the game; likewise, you want an enemy to do more than barely scratch you when you get further in. Too much freedom can get boring. There needs to be a safety net. What if someone just keeps getting lost and is just walking around in circles until a fellow adventurer nudges them in the right direction? How many times have you had to go to a walkthrough just to find out where the hell you’re meant to be? It’s better to be slowly steered in the right direction than just thrown in a sea with nothing more than a ‘good luck.’

Skyrim has a linear structure. Well, sort of. There is a bottomless pit of side-quests. Now, this is where I got lost with what to do. I dislike having an uncomplete missions list, but I had to give up, seeing as there was no end. I still wanted to do missions which were properly designed and were enjoyable to complete. The only trouble was I had no clue which ones they were. So instead, I would waste hours trying to find Steve from accounting a Dwemer cog, only for him to say thanks, give me a handful of gold and then be off on his merry way. Great, thanks. As the list just kept getting longer without actually progressing with the story, which was my own fault as they are clearly marked, I decided to head to the pub and wait for it to all blow over. It never did, but I was at the pub, so did I care? Yes, yes I did.

Some people might love the idea of freedom. The idea they can go where they want, when they want and potentially progress with the game. I’m not one of that opinion. I don’t see the fun in thinking, ‘Hmm, I haven’t been over there yet, maybe something will happen if I do, it probably won’t, but that’s the fun.’ What if I never find where to go? Maybe I just keep walking past it, oblivious to the fact that the fruits from my weeks of searching are just under that leaf. It would be like a police officer just throwing away their radio and picking a random spot of the country to explore for the day on the off chance there will be some crime. Maybe I’m wrong, and everyone else would rather just frolic around the wilderness until they happen to find something.

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