When you go to a restaurant, it’s generally assumed that you aren’t there to engage in Greco-Roman wrestling. But imagine that you walk through the door, starving and hoping to satiate your growling tummy, only to have the staff constantly trying to get you on the mat. They give you the menu, ask you what you’d like to eat, and then try to get you into a headlock. Sounds pretty frustrating, right?
A friend of mine just finished Watch Dogs, which is mostly a decent game. It certainly isn’t the runaway success that Ubisoft was hoping for, but it also isn’t an abysmal showing for a franchise’s maiden voyage. It doesn’t necessarily do anything terribly wrong. In fact, nearly every major component of the game is remarkably mature, though perhaps unremarkably so if this was any later iteration.
Its shooting mechanics are perfectly acceptable and even sometimes fun. The driving can be oddly stiff but never gets in the way. And the hacking actually adds to the world, all of which is on top of a story that surprisingly eschews more than a handful of clichés. It’s a game that deserves a smattering of applause but not much else.
However, there is a pitfall that the game lands in so deftly that you’d think it was trying to hit the bottom. It was actually the first thing that my friend wanted to talk about upon completion. If you didn’t know, Watch Dogs actually has a reservoir of minigames for you to dive into when you aren’t trying to solve the game’s overarching narrative mystery. This involves chess, poker, and the classic street hustle shell game.
Unfortunately, the story requires you to embark upon playing a few of these minigames. And this is exactly what my friend and I discussed, half in a fair light and the other half in a hateful dark. About two-thirds of the way through the game, you begin searching for a man to help you decrypt a piece of data. There’s actually only one man who can help you, but lucky for you, he happens to be in the same town as you.
To convince him to help, though, you have to take part of the drinking minigame, institutionalized to be the crux of this particular mission. The minigame itself is a fun distraction, trying to guide a semi-uncontrollable cursor over button prompts that can move, change buttons, and hide all before the timer runs out. But in the context of the narrative curve, it brings everything to a grinding halt.
It definitely doesn’t help that the previous mission capping off Act II involved a gunfight, a car chase, and a few explosions. And then things slow down with this starter to Act III with some environmental puzzles involving finding how to unlock doors, and whammy. Drinking game.
You came to this game to drive, hack, shoot, and hack some more. The game put a menu down, asked what you’d like to do in this open world, and then said, “But real quick, do you mind playing this minigame that has nothing to do with the rest of me?” (That’s not to mention it’s a terrible message. Aiden gets blasted and then gets behind the wheel of a car with little to no repercussions aside from slightly blurry vision.)
Of course, that’s part of the charm of open world games, having a bevy of side activities. And Watch Dogs certainly is not the only sandbox to force its minigames on the player during its campaign. Grand Theft Auto IV made you bowl, and my god was that bowling a painful excursion. Red Dead Redemption had you play liar’s dice to goddamn completion, giving your free time a giant middle finger. But that’s precisely why they should stay side activities and remain off the beaten path.
I’m sure somewhere along the milestone planning of development, any of these could be excised quite easily, and there’s a reason for that: they’re nonessential. More than that, they are not integral to the game, which means their design was not top priority. Chances are, they are not as fully fleshed out as they need to be to hold your attention beyond the initial five minutes of curiosity. But through hubris or foolishness, open world games have a terrible tendency to shoehorn them into a mission or two.
The most frustrating part is that Watch Dogs was aware enough of this awful habit of the genre and bit a thumb or two at it. In an earlier mission, you have show up at an underground poker game with the hopes of finding a black market peddler. There are a few other dudes at the table by the time Aiden gets dealt in, and it seemed my worst fear was realized: a poker video game slapping me in the face when I’d rather be shooting bad guys.
But imagine my surprise when after the first bid (I raised), Aiden straight-up calls out the man you’re looking for and shit gets going again. It was a delicious stiff-arm to the open world staple. I loved that moment so much as I had just moments prior resigned myself to trying to guess how this poker AI was programmed. I chuckled at both the situation and the meta jollies I derived from it.
That’s why it’s so frustrating. Clearly Ubisoft knows better as it did better just a dozen or so missions earlier. They knew why we sat down at the table: to eat. And they knew better than to bother you when you’re so hungry for a fat juicy cheeseburger. But less than two hours later, they came back around and slapped it out of your hands and stuffed a pace-killing minigame into your mouth.
It’s a problem with many open world games even though there’s an obvious solution. That is to say, just don’t fucking do it. Maybe it’s the developers showing off or maybe it’s them not understanding the appeal of their own game, but it’s pervasive enough to be a checkbox on the list of What Makes An Open World Game. Really, just let the player eat in peace. This is a restaurant, after all.