Hey Rockstar, please don't make any more open world games

Over this past weekend, my new gaming PC (Bruce) and I (not Bruce) undertook a gaming journey over two nights and the majority of a Sunday with Rockstar’s Max Payne 3. Put simply, this game and Doom (2016) rank at the top of my list for games that exist just to make me squeal with unadulterated joy.

Following Max through the roughly 10-hour campaign of slow-motion firefights in skyscrapers, nightclubs, slums, dive bars, and even in a New Jersey graveyard for one glorious level, I was enraptured the entire time.

I have to clarify something - no, you do not use any dark mystical arts to command the dead to fight for you (sorry if that alone sold you on the game). Also, the skyscrapers only get weapons once you’ve beaten the game twelve and a half times.

Of course, those last two sentences were facetious, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the game is properly good. It’s a love letter to 1970s hardboiled Dirty Harry police movies and the cinematography of John Woo all at once sans doves. 

The gameplay is tight and uses smart-level design and an engaging story to pull you deep into the world. It was a game that, immediately after finishing, I couldn’t wait to play again.

It also proved something to me. Rockstar shouldn’t be making open-world games anymore.

If you’ve played Max Payne 3 and then naturally progressed to Rock Star’s ode to the classic western Red Dead Redemption 2, you’d be hard-pressed not to find influences from Max Payne 3. The slow-motion effect when you kill the last enemy in a group, the bullet time- I mean Dead Eye power. There are even times Arthur holds his pistol in one hand and his two-handed gun by the barrel… just like Max!

Having played both games, I found I had enjoyed my time with Max much more than with Arthur. I asked myself why and for me, it feels like Max Payne 3 respected the mechanics of its game more than Red Dead. Where the mechanics in Max Payne 3 are the tender slow-cooked beef cheek in a gourmet pasta dish, Red Dead feels like they’re tossing a $2 quarter pounder on top of our order for free as we’re sitting down to eat.

Clumsy metaphors aside, Max Payne just has a much tighter focus. Their levels and gameplay revolve around the kickass gunplay. They craft the story specifically to let players take advantage of how much fun the game is to play. The story and gameplay intersect so that you feel no more out of place entering rooms by diving through the windows than walking through the door.

Pictured: Max leaving something in the previous room.

Red Dead, by comparison, seems too busy trying to be everything to everyone. You can fish for hours, hunt, win your fortune in cards, drink yourself into a blackout or spend the same time sitting in a field blowing raspberries. It’s got so much crammed into its corset that whole game mechanics are being left underutilized or completely unused by players.

There are multiple videos of people playing Red Dead Redemption 2 without using guns or their Dead Eye power, which raises the question of whether these mechanics are essential to the game. Compare that to Max Payne 3, where every part of the gameplay is essential, so much that not using your guns or bullet time feels like you’ve sawn your legs off just to beat someone at a game of limbo. 

The fact that some of the game mechanics in Red Dead Redemption 2 can be completely disregarded and not really impact a player’s overall experience with the game makes them feel like an afterthought. This is a real problem I see with many of the open-world games big publishers like Rockstar are releasing at the moment.

All of this comes back to a fundamental lack of cohesion between a game’s story and gameplay. Don’t let anyone fool you; the game’s story is what sticks with you late at night, long after the memories of gameplay have faded away. However, the gameplay for me most times is the initial investment that hooks me with the story a couple of layers deeper, waiting to pull me under.

Before you all jump to the comments, yes, Red Dead Redemption 2 has a well-put-together story. It’s got a protagonist you can root for, characters whose motivations make sense, and the world is full of activity. The world tells its own story and shows its own character at times.

The ultimate cowboy.

Yes, the large open world is impressive for its scale, and when you want to take gorgeous screenshots of your rugged cowboy outlaw and his equally rugged horse, Whiskey Jones, it’s perfect.

However, the map size is so large that it feels like the writers stretched out the main plot just so players would have to explore more of the world. The world was so massive that the work put undue pressure on the employees as they worked massive crunch hours. The worst part was that most people won’t finish the main story making all that work pointless.

It took me a good 50 hours to reach the end of the main story (as well as an entire epilogue that I haven't finished to this day). Most of this epic western blends together in my mind as a hail of western tropes and cinematic landscapes. By the end, I couldn’t remember the inciting incident that sent Arthur on his journey apart from some fuzzy recollection of a house fire.

Sure, the main plot of Max Payne 3 has a pretty standard ex-cop pulpy serial feeling to it, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The shorter length of the game gives its small moments all the more impact for me because they feel like they’re there for a reason, not just added to pad some game time. The shorter length also leaves me wanting more instead of being relieved it’s over.

Take a scene late in the final chapter of Max Payne 3 where Max can stop in the middle of planting explosives on an abandoned building to play a couple of keys on the piano. 

It’s the first time we are given a tiny glimpse of a version of Max that he won’t share with anyone. The game doesn’t announce it with any massive fanfare; it lets you enjoy this little moment that just you and Max share.

I can guarantee you the majority of people that have played the game know about this scene because it doesn’t take over 24 hours of playtime to get there. You’re also not distracted by all the extra baggage weighing down Red Dead Redemption 2.

I know a lot of this is personal opinion. There’s nothing that Red Dead Redemption 2 gave me in its gameplay that I couldn’t get from all the other open-world games Triple-A studios are pumping out. Take out the characters and story, and it’d be hard for me to pick it out of a lineup.

You may be saying, “but the characters and story are what makes Rock Star games so good.” I can’t argue that with you. They know how to craft memorable characters, set pieces, and write dialogue better than the low bar that is the average triple-A video game.

However, they had all of that in Max Payne 3. That game had a good story and gameplay loop, and I didn’t have to sacrifice weeks of my life to finish it.

Rock Star used to be the only guys in town making open-world games. However, like the era of cowboys and the wild west, that time has long passed. What is the point of continuing to make these open-world games if the market attention you get from consumers is split between every other open-world game on the market?

Rockstar having just released a new bunch of DLC for GTA Online.

We all know the answer to that question. Their two open-world juggernauts, GTA Online and Red Dead Redemption 2 have Rock Star sitting pretty upon a horde of treasure large enough to make Smaug jealous. They’ve just announced GTA 6 is in the works. They’re making money hand over fist; why would they stop?

The answer is, they’re not, and it’s sad because the ones that will suffer are the developers putting in the hard yards to get the next massive open-world game finished. The games themselves will become more homogenized as the game’s earning potential will continue to come first and the artistic value of the work a far second. 

Rock Star, please, listen. People are going to get sick of massive open worlds.

Just like they got sick of rhythm games.

Just like they got sick of point-and-click adventures.

Eventually, they’ll get sick of you as well if all you put out are massive open worlds. Why not take a break from making globe-spanning open-world games and drop a couple of smaller intimate games. I wouldn’t say no to another Max Payne game, and a lot of people seem eager for Bully 2…Just some food for thought.

What do you think about Rockstar’s open-world games? Do you want to see GTA 10 and Red Dead Redemption: Vengeance, or rather have them make something besides another open-world game? Let me know down in the comments.

Emotions in Gaming: Hit or Miss?

I feel like the color wheel that I learned in primary school may have a few gaps that need to be filled in. I mean, the basics are all there; happy, sad, mad, scared, excited, but there are so many more emotions that life throws at us – depression, anxiety, arousal, the unique hell that is hangry, and the true fear and desperation that grips you after the triple-layer chili bean burrito kicks in 1 hour into a 2-and-a-half-hour road trip.

That particularly exciting pants-shitting incident aside, the point I’m trying to get across is that humans have a lot of emotions (which we don’t always deal with in the healthiest of manners). As an explicit outlet for our creative impulses, the artistic world tries to elicit responses from its audience by tapping into these emotions.

Movies, television, novels, and most of pop culture seem to have this sort of stuff down pat by now, but as a younger medium, it feels like video games are much more hit or miss.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely games that deliver the old one-two emotional gut punch that knocks you off your feet and keep kicking you while you’re down. Hell, I bawled my eyes out during that scene with Aunt May in the hospital in Spiderman and the end of Infamous 2 like everybody else. I rewatched both these scenes prior to writing this and it still brings me to tears.

Yes games have long aspired to reach the emotional heights of their older brethren film and television and now that people are becoming more comfortable with the idea that video games can be art we have begun to see some games reach these lofty goals. The “some” in that sentence is doing a lot of lifting there so let’s unpack.

Where film and television can keep a psychotic death grip on the pacing through the use of leaving stuff on the cutting room floor and only picking the most essential parts (and keeping the rest to add in for the eventual Directors Cut), video games don’t have that luxury.

As a medium where the audience has an unprecedented level of control on the proceedings of the game it’s impossible for developers to ensure the experience is the same for everyone.

As a result the developers can dump all the story into the worldbuilding and crowbar it in as exposition in between gameplay (the original Titanfall being a prominent example). That’s not a story, that’s being dictated to.

When I play games, I don’t want to be told to feel a certain way about the events and what’s happening to the characters just because the developers say I have to. That’s just lazy storytelling or poor planning.

The first time I really encountered this was in the indie game This War of Mine. For those of you that haven’t played This War of Mine, you’re running a survivor’s colony in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world where this war is a big nebulous cloud hanging over everything as you just try to avoid getting swept up into it.

You start out by scavenging and looting abandoned stores and houses, but you can only loot sweet shops for so long. Eventually, you have to graduate from robbing the deceased to robbing from the very alive and armed.

This culminates in a harrowing moment early on in the game when you’re looting an old man’s house, and he catches you in the act. At first, you think he’s going to attack you but then you realize he’s no threat and can only whine as you nick all his stuff.

It was heartbreaking watching as my character stripped the old man's means of survival right out of his withered, bony hands. Knowing that he would surely perish because of my actions made me tear up a little.

That raw emotional goodwill that the game had built up curdled somewhat when a bit later in the game, my scavenger got gunned down raiding a military base. Assault rifles being much more effective than a game of paper, scissors, rock.

I returned to the bunker down one scavenger and the people in the camp flicked their emotional levers from “whining about the lack of food and the existential dread of their situation in life,” to “sad and whining about the lack of food and the existential dread of their situation in life”.

I don’t know why they were so sad. I’d never seen any of them so much as talk to the guy let alone play any soul-bonding sessions of Jenga together. I didn’t have the backstory or the relevant context on their relationship that I needed to care about them.

Compare that to Red Dead Redemption 2 and the (spoiler) death of Arthur Morgan’s horse. I’d watched Arthur Morgan and his horse bond and grow closer as a result of my own direct actions. I’d survived shootouts and outrun bandits and the law from one end of the US to the other on the back of my trusty steed. I’d seen that and had that context so that when I watched my beloved horse stumble and die all those memories and experiences were right there to emotionally break me. I felt the pain of Arthur as he watched his trusty steed leave him.

You can’t just tell someone they’re sad; they have to feel it; they have to absorb those feelings and process them in a way that’s personal to them. Their personal experiences and context inform all of their emotional responses. Let me explain (or try to with the grace of an alpine skier navigating an apartment stairwell during a fire).

I love the Uncharted franchise. I think it's some of Naughty Dog’s best work and it’s a game series that I can always boot up, sit back, and enjoy. The first time I finished Among Thieves (the franchise’s best entry) the tears were rolling down my face just like the end credits. I didn’t even realize why I was crying until after I met Nolan North and told him what happened, much to his understandable confusion (also got some great selfies with him like the one below).

I had just spent a great twelve hours experiencing a great game controlling Nathan Drake through a globe-trotting adventure capped off with an absolute thrilling boss fight that I definitely didn’t squeal like a pig during, and now it was all over. It was all over, and I’d never experience that for the first time ever again.

If the game had then flashed up a message in the sky that said: “Game Over, you be sad now,” all the emotional weight the game had built up would have sucked right back into me like a traumatic reverse childbirth.

A game that I think does this really well is Spec Ops: The Line. It’s the only war shooter that’s made me feel fear, guilt, and physical sickness. As you pilot Captain Martin Walker on his descent through a ruined Dubai, you become less a pilot and more like a witness to the horrible acts Walker commits, acting as the last vestige of consciousness.

The game puts you in horrible situations, gives you choices where the only difference is the degree to which Walker continues to spiral downwards, and gives you the freedom to make that choice. Then the game moves on and leaves you to come to terms with the undoubtedly horrible war crime you committed.

The best part is that the game never sits you down after these acts and explicitly states what emotions the characters are feeling. It trusts you enough to be able to figure it out; mind-blowing concept as that is.

Shadow of The Colossus, The Last Of Us, Red Dead, Bioshock. These games aren’t scared to push emotionally complex themes and ideas on their audiences and just leave them to figure it out for themselves.

For me, that’s what this all comes down to. The emotions we feel don’t come from the games themselves. Sure, the games bring out these emotions in us but ultimately, the emotions come from us and our personal context.

The frustrating thing is that I feel like the majority of the triple-A video game industry just expects that if they throw in enough elements that worked in other games, the audience will magically feel all those same emotions just because they’re there.

It’s like looking at a beautiful sculpture that an artist poured blood, sweat, and tears into, then taking a marble slab and hacking at it with a chainsaw all with the expectation that the end result will stack up anywhere close to the original.

Pure insanity. 

What game gave you a case of the feels? Let me know down below.

My Journey with Red Dead Redemption 2

I remember buying my first PlayStation 4 back in 2018. I was playing games like the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. But by the time I started playing those games, I felt like I was late to the party. I really wanted to play a game that I would be playing at the same time as everyone else. 

Luckily for me, as a fan of Rockstar Games, their newest release was set to be Red Dead Redemption 2. I bought Red Dead Redemption for my brother back in 2010, and I tried playing it as a preteen, but I couldn't personally understand the interest. My brother assured me, though, that it was "the best game ever," and when I asked what it was about, he simply responded, "Grand Theft Auto with cowboys." 

I was 20 when Red Dead Redemption 2 came out. As a more avid gamer then, and upon discovering that the game was a prequel to the game my brother loved, I thought I'd preorder it and give it a try. 

Oh boy, what a journey I had! 

From the moment the opening titles popped onto the screen, I knew that it would be one hell of a story. The player takes the role of Arthur Morgan, an outlaw in the Van Der Linde gang, running from the law after a botched robbery. Starting in the snowy mountains of Colter was not what I was expecting. The scenery was just breathtaking. From hearing the crunching of the snow beneath Arthur's feet to the sharp gunfire at rival gang The O’Driscolls, every little detail was just perfect. 

The amount of time and effort developers had put into the game was just unbelievable, and I tip my metaphorical yet very real cowboy hat to the team at Rockstar Games for creating such a real and beautiful world. Even the details within the camp are insane. Every playthrough I have, there seems to be a new conversation within the gang that I missed: another time 'round, another camp song, another altercation. As a player, you are never short of details to discover.

Red Dead Redemption 2, nighttime scenery

Of course, as the Van der Linde gang were outlaws, they wouldn't be staying in one place too long. As a player, I had to join Arthur Morgan and the gang through various areas: Colter, Valentine, Rhodes, Saint Denis, and Annesburg. Although each town had varying lengths, there was enough time in each one to grow some kind of attachment. For example, every time I do a replay, I'm super excited to visit Valentine as it’s the first town we get to know as we start to dip our toes into the world that Rockstar has to offer—a very big, very open world. I personally did not like Annesburg, mainly because of the significant shift and tension within the group, and the town was very dark, dry, and dingy. I suppose it was very fitting to how the relationships within the gang were evolving.  

Kay Simpson with Roger ClarkThe acting in the game is just phenomenal. It makes me so happy to know those performances are getting the recognition they deserve. The chemistry between each gang member is just wonderful, so dynamic and fresh. Seeing all the actors off-screen is just such a joy because they are just as close, if not closer off-screen, than they were on. Roger Clark, who plays Arthur Morgan, truly outdid himself as he offered such an honest, raw, and emotional amount of depth to a beautiful character. 

I began writing about video games after Red Dead came out and shared it with the cast, and I gradually developed connections and friendships with them. I have interviewed many of the cast during my game journalism career, and Roger has helped me throughout some personal struggles and offered me advice to get through these hardships. Rob Wiethoff, who plays John Marston, has been a person I have opened up to many times, and he has expressed nothing but kindness and consideration. As a person who suffers from severe anxiety and depression, having a game to allow me an escape that's as big and as vast as Red Dead, plus having these connections and feeling so accepted by such a wonderful crowd of people, is just so incredible to me. I owe a lot to the cast and the incredible community that this game has built. 

I owe a massive thank you to every person involved in making this phenomenal game.

Again, with my mental health, the escape and thrill I get with the game is just unbelievable. When I feel a little anxious, I'll put my headphones on and accompany Arthur on a ride through the wilderness. The music that plays on a simple ride is just lovely and relaxing, whereas when you are having a big shoot out the music is fast, intense, and gets the blood pumping and adrenaline running. The game also includes some scenes that are perfect for when you need a little cry (or, in my case, an emotional sob fest).

If you don’t believe me, play the mission of the attack on Braithwaite Manor. That mission was just INCREDIBLE with just the gang walking up to this huge plantation house to get vengeance on Catherine Braithwate and her sons after kidnapping John Martson's son. The build-up with the music, action and Benjamin Byron Davis' performance as Dutch Van Der Linde were insane. I felt genuine anger towards the Braithwates, wanting Jack back myself as much as the gang did. Watching Dutch drag Catherine out of her burning home as the gang walks away was just powerful and made me want to play it all over again. 

Red Dead Redemption 2, Braithwaite Manor

I know these kinds of games aren't for everyone, and I completely understand. But to experience such a fun and unique experience as Red Dead Redemption... it's honestly unlike any gaming experience I have ever had. I owe a massive thank you to every person involved in making this phenomenal game, from game developers, animators, directors, and score writers. The whole team just did an outstanding job, and I know I'm not the only person wanting to share an article like this one. Thank you again for this wonderful journey, and I hope to join another outlaw on another one. Outlaws For Life!

Have you had some great memories playing Red Dead Redemption 2? Share your stories in the comments.