Open world games are tough. No, wait, hold on: open world games are tough to make. There we go. The thing about giving the player a huge sandbox to play in is that you have to be able to both give enough tools for them to find their own fun but also give them reason to use them to even start searching. That’s a hard thing to do.
Obviously that’s not the only solution, but the games that work are more or less a variant of that. Even games that seem to be wholly constructed by mystery have a facet of poking and retreating, showing and luring. Miasmata, for example, is designed around the idea that all of the experiences the developers conceived from the get-go will be discovered as the player starts to succeed more and more while its overarching narrative mystery compels you to even try.
Part of that is because the exploration of the who, what, when, where, and why are all tied into the mechanics of the game. By simply interacting with the world, you get more answers, and thus your desire to continue interacting is sustained. It’s a brilliant web they’ve spun.
The other end of the spectrum is something like Grand Theft Auto V (or any of the GTAs, really), though it still fits into the mold. Especially since its transition into a 3D world, Rockstar has been filling its games with more and more real life activity analogs such as bowling, drinking, and eating, but the crux has always been driving.
And in a world where, true to its realistic inspiration, everything is severely interactable via driving into it at high speeds, that can be enough to keep interests high. The “tools,” so to speak, that Rockstar gives you are actually scenarios that you begin to recognize and are able to influence on an instinctual level. Each story mission generally involves a sizable set piece that introduces you to a new “thing” to add to your shenanigan repertoire.
The simple act of ramming a cop car in the middle of a high speed pursuit is the start of a branching tree of possibilities that could end up nearly anywhere. It’s that element of emergent gameplay that allows the relatively simple actions of driving and shooting (simple in a game, anyways) to be all you need to make a fake Los Angeles a factory for Michael Baysian fun.
But that and Miasmata and many other open world games succeed because they are built around the idea that an open world serves the player best as a platform for discovery and asking “what if” and then finding out. There’s an inordinate amount of simply going from one place to another in a sandbox environment, and unless you like the idea of what could happen as you traverse the landscape, you probably like all that walking/driving/flying/whatever.
That is largely the failing of Infamous: Second Son. It’s a decent game that seems to be set in a largely disingenuous real world setting, but its open world—and, truth be told, those of its two predecessors—is troubled precisely because it fails to make you wonder what could happen as you leave one rooftop and dash over to another.
Almost as soon as you start the game and get through the introductory sequence where Delsin discovers his powers and gets into Seattle, Second Son shows you its entire hand. And if not then, within the next hour or two, it will. You see all of the ambient karmic events, all of the side quest types, and much of what Delsin himself can do.
Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if there was more to do with Delsin’s abilities. You can shoot dudes in ways you’ve shot them before but with different elemental effects and you can traverse the world. The latter has substantial differences between the powers, but the shooting always has the same effect: someone goes down and you might earn some karma along the way.
You can also hit guys with your chain, but that often has the same result. You see, there’s never a question of what might happen when you set out to reach another waypoint. You know you will see some drug dealers and a few quadcopters and you know how they always end up, so long as you don’t die.
Truthfully, the only thing holding the staleness of the rote actions embedded into Second Son is the fact that the act of doing those things is fundamentally entertaining. Zipping around the world is especially fun as you flash over walls and through fences and up vents, challenging yourself to never touching the ground and never stop moving.
And the engagement of battles is worthwhile, even if a bit tiring in their length (those boss battles needed to be at least half as long). Moving throughout the world at a breakneck pace but with the tight, confident handling that Sucker Punch is pretty well known for is incredibly satisfying.
Satisfying enough, in fact, to overcome the problem of being in an open world. Second Son falls into the trap of being right in the middle of that sandbox spectrum, never giving narrative impetus to interact with the world (though enough to continue the story missions) and never giving enough emergent value to make you just experiment.
It makes you wonder what would have happened if it had been designed much like BioShock Infinite, building open arenas into a mostly linear world. Granted, that would excise the much lauded traversal aspect of Second Son, but it would certainly give the taut controls a chance to shine. But then again, what ifs don’t do much for retrospect but to generate regret. What ifs in open worlds, on the other hand…