The concept of freedom in open-world games

Christian Patterson
2018-09-26
Underground Mall

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I recently got a PS4 and have been playing three games: Dark Souls 3, Metal Gear Solid 5, and Sleeping Dogs. All three are “open-world games”, but their approach to open worlds are all different. In this post, I’ll describe the games, and explain how they combine their premise and gameplay, and how their ludonarratives are all differently defined by context.

The point I want to make is that “open-world” is the ludic (gameplay) oriented description of what we describe as “freedom”. They aren’t direct synonyms, but open-world implies freedom to access, freedom to movement, freedom of communication etc. With basic analysis of three open-world games, I want to show how “freedom” is a vague and malleable concept, and how it’s rhetorically manipulated, especially in the U.S. to advocate for capitalism.

Dark Souls 3 is an open-world that takes place in a post-apocalyptic, pseudo-Medieval World. Metal Gear Solid 5 is an open-world game where you play a spy in 1980s, Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Finally, Sleeping Dogs is an open-world game where you play a Hong Kongese-American who goes back to Hong Kong as an undercover cop.

I’ll start with Sleeping Dogs, because it’s the most conventional open-world game. It’s basically a Grand Theft Auto game set in Hong Kong. The ludic (gameplay) elements of a game are informed by the narrative, then Sleeping Dogs should, and does, feel like a GTA game. If you were in Hong Kong, you would experience your “freedom” similarly to how you do in Sleeping Dogs, minus the abject disregard for human norms and laws, rampant vehicular homicide etc.

In other words, for games like Sleeping Dogs, GTA, Saints Row, etc, open-world means freedom. These games signify a world that is as open as the everyday world; they are our free world, made more free because it abolishes “softer” barriers to freedom, like decreased social consequences, and the decreased material barriers.

The next game is Metal Gear Solid V. The game begins with you, with complete amnesia, waking up from a coma. You are informed that the hospital is being attacked because people want you dead. Eventually you flee, and go to 1980s Afghanistan as a military spy against the Soviets. You have complete access to Afghanistan, except, nearly everyone you can interact with is a Soviet. This means you can go anywhere AS LONG AS you aren’t spotted by the Soviets, or can at least kill some Soviets or hide very well.

And then there’s Dark Souls 3. When you’re playing that game, it doesn’t feel very much like an open-world game. This is for two reasons. The first is because there are many parts that are along rigidly defined, interior maze hallways. The second is because the enemies are so difficult to kill and respawn every time you stop at a checkpoint, that any sense of freedom is squashed by a desperate, slow crawl throughout the world.

What is the impact of all this? For one, it shows that all of these games are “open-world” in the most general sense of a world being open. The world isn’t just an assemblage of levels/hallways/linear “railroading”. You truly can go anywhere in these games.

However, Sleeping Dogs, is the only one that’s a conventional open-world game. Why?

The simple answer is how we see “freedom”, in many ways a synonym for “openness”, is more complicated than it seems on first blush. A lot of the dissonance and inconsistent understanding the way we understand freedom politically is incompatible with how we see freedom in other contexts.

In the U.S., we see freedom as something the government grants us, by restricting their own overreach into our life. The more the government butts out, the more freedom we have. This is a parallel to the raw linearity of a world. If a game is rigidly linear, it demonstrates a lack of freedom in the same way “big government” constricts freedom.

But then, what if you are in a world where everyone else is an enemy spy who wants you dead? What good is freedom then, when the world, by its own power structures, has restrictions on freedom, that are in fact granted by the lack of overreach/linearity.

Is someone really free if the constitution of their world, independent of gameplay design restriction, is linear? For example, Dark Souls games usually have large portions that are castle levels. These castles tend to be linear, because you’re scaling walls and going throw claustrophobic hallways.

Or, to apply those same questions to everyday life, are you really “free” if you live in a rural community in Kansas, and have no car or job? Where can you go? You can walk, but maybe the nearest place you can walk, that isn’t strictly enforced private property, is a Dairy Queen that’s a mile away, and a gas station that’s a mile and a half away. Not only that, but you’re able to walk there, but the shoulders of the roads are very narrow, with no sidewalk, so you are at danger while walking. You shouldn’t go out at night, because you could easily get hit by a passing car.

Going back to Dark Souls, even though the game is open–as open as a game set in a world laid out on fairly linear tracks can be open–it doesn’t feel open because of how difficult enemies are. If it takes you several hours to progress from one bonfire (bonfires are in-game checkpoints) to the next, only having to beat about 20 enemies total to get there, you won’t feel very free.

Or, to look to the real world again, are you really “free” if you’re homeless in New York City? You live in one of the biggest concentrations of wealth in the world. You’re surrounded by towering monuments to capital and capitalism. The monuments are filled with people sucking value from elsewhere, and creating more out of it in the finance sector. You could buy almost any excessive consumer good in this city. And yet, if you’re homeless and jobless, you will have no access to any of it. Are you really free if you have to sleep on the street?

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