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Break Out the Compass

Josh Martz

You have reached a clearing.

To the East lies a wooden shack.

To the West lies a pond with a mermaid who only tells dirty jokes.

To the North direction lies a town with the name Shpadoinkle.

...Two hours later...

To the just-left-of-North-but-kinda-to-the-right lies...

This might be a little excessive, especially when presented in MUD format. However, this is a problem that I face in many games: Open-endedness. Frankly, while many times I enjoy the fact that I can do whatever I want (a la Grand Theft Auto), sometimes it bothers me to the point of pure frustration. What are the problems, you ask? Well, I'll tell you...not that you had a choice, anyway.

  1. Too much to do - This isn't really a problem, per se. On one hand, the fact that games can provide a user with so much to do is the mark of a well-made game. Gamers are practically ensured not to become bored. Not me, though...I'm nitpicky. I picked up Morrowind at the recommendation of my roommate, who played the game to death. I started it up and ran around Seyda Neen for a bit, but...then what? There was this 'main quest' I could partake in, but it was much more interesting to go off and just destroy random things, as well as exploring the caves that littered the countryside. Despite the draw of this, the fact remained that without a strategy guide, it was almost guaranteed that I wouldn't find everything, and the completionist inside of me broke down and wept like a baby who had had his lollipop stolen by a guy with a false beard and crooked teeth.
  2. Short-Term Memory Loss - Everytime I stopped the main quest to go do some sidequest (or three hundred), I could not for the life of me remember what I was doing. In Romancing SaGa, where there really isn't a way to see what the main thing is you're supposed to be doing, this posed quite a problem. Eventually it boiled down to me running around and poking everything in sight, hoping that a cutscene would trigger. This was of course only enhanced by the fact that I multitask with games, and already incur some memory loss due to constant game-switching.

I appreciate the fact that options exist; it's quite comforting to know that you could be doing something else, and at some point you can do it. If developers are going to go the open-ended route, there are a few things that I suggest:

  1. Provide a Helpful Arrow - If I go off and do something that takes me quite some time to finish, I want to make sure that when I'm done, it's clear to me where I should be going to complete whatever track I was previously on. This can be in the form of a little arrow on the minimap, or a quest log entry that isn't so ambiguous that I'm left wondering just exactly the "mark on the wooden people that we told you about once and will never say again" is.
  2. Make Sidequests Challenging, but Shorter - I want the extra things I do to get that extra +1 armor to be difficult. Sure, there can be some easy ones leading up to the more difficult ones, but by breaking the quest up into smaller pieces, I'm able to leave it for the time being and come back later, possibly with more knowledge to impart to the situation.
  3. Find Me a New Girlfriend - It's important that...oh wait. Wrong list.
  4. Make Sidequests Interesting - It's understandable that the main quest must contain enough information about the story to provide adequate history and closure, but why not add more plot to the rest of the quests? Make it interesting, rather like a whole new plot line. Helping Timmy who just fell down a well by running to the store to get rope isn't very entertaining (as are practically all fetch quests). Why not make the player climb down the well to find him, only to find a set of underground caves where some evil has been sleeping for a time? The whole town suddenly becomes afraid, and enlists you to help. They provide him with the background of the evil, and the consequences of what will happen if the player fails. Suddenly, you aren't just doing a fetch quest that leads into another fetch quest, you've got a whole extra plotline that is actually interesting to address!

Don't go away, open-ended games. Amaze us with your massive worlds, diverse locales, and loads of things to do. Just please don't be boring.

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