It’s time to get back to what it does best
Dear BioWare: We need to have a talk.
You’ve been doing a really good job of listening to people, as the latest Andromeda patch proves. But instead of minor complaints like "dear god, that face is hideous" or "this character is written poorly," this one’s philosophical: BioWare, it’s time for you to stop with the open-world experiment.
Your games have gotten worse because of it, and there’s no reason to expect them to get better again. I’m sure you’ve seen the Mass Effect: Andromeda reviews. They’re the worst you’ve gotten for a major role-playing game, well, ever. While Dragon Age: Inquisition seemed to do well, that success was much more in spite of its open-world than because of it.
And I get that Skyrim sold a ton of copies, and The Witcher 3 won a ridiculous number of awards. But those aren’t your games. They aren’t your style of games, and chasing them isn’t a good look. You’ve gone from "best games ever" to "I guess I’ll play that when I have the time." Is that really what you want?
What BioWare Has Lost
Let’s take a look at your output from 2005 to 2012. Those eight years have six games that many people would consider all-time classics: the original Mass Effect trilogy, Jade Empire, and Dragon Age Origins/2 (You also released Star Wars: The Old Republic, and, uh … a Sonic RPG? Wow. Okay. Moving on.)
Like, if someone told me their three favorite role-playing games of all time came from this run, I might think they needed more variety in their tastes, but I’d totally believe them.
After all, this is up there with Square in the mid-1990s as an astonishing run, both of quality and popularity. Toss in four earlier RPGs — the two Baldur’s Gates, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic — and, BioWare, you’ve got a strong claim to be the greatest RPG developer of all time.
That reputation is in serious danger. Yes, there were already some issues with people disliking Mass Effect 3‘s ending, and Dragon Age 2 more generally. But they still fit in the BioWare model. Dragon Age: Inquisition did win a lot of awards, but time, The Witcher 3, and the realization that 2014 was kind of a terrible year for games have mitigated that accomplishment.
Andromeda hasn’t helped either: By having similar flaws in its open-world without as many clear story strengths, Andromeda makes the entire open-world model look worse.
What are those strong points? I asked Inquisition fans what their favorite parts were, and while a small handful loved the exploration, by far the most popular parts were the Winter Palace, where the player joins or foils a coup against the Empress of Orlais; and "Trespasser," the final, linear story-based expansion. I also got a ton of responses about the characters, their interactions and their romances — all of these are not only not part of the open world, but they’re very specific slices of the game that could easily exist in a game with no open world at all. And we know this because this is how you used to make your games.
Most every BioWare game, up to and including Inquisition and Andromeda, is at its best and most memorable when it focuses on three interconnected components: strong storytelling, level design and moral choices. The open-world design of Inquisition and Andromeda not only fails to support these things, but also it actively makes them worse. Here’s how.
What BioWare still does well
So, BioWare, what do you think the best sections of your games are? Just from the last decade, I’ll name some of my favorites from a few games: Virmire, Haven, the Collector Base, Lair of the Shadow Broker, the Arishok, Tuchanka, Citadel and Adamant Fortress.
All of these are specific story-based slices that pull players out of the the free movement of the game universe and put them on a relatively linear path for an hour or two.
And these still exist in your open-world games! Inquisition is especially good at these: the attack of Haven, the Winter Palace and the siege of Adamant specifically.
These scenes are all slices of traditional levels that are both superb and feel totally at odds with the game’s open-world segments. They’re so out of place that acquiring healing potions, the primary recovery method in Inquisition, is fundamentally different in both: in the open world, you go backward to camps to pick up potions; in the plot sections, you push forward to pull them out of chests. Andromeda, too, uses these slices to tell its story, and they’re nearly as successful. Its Voeld rescue mission, Salarian ark and Meridian missions were certainly not the game’s problems.
There are also inherent weaknesses that every open-world game possesses. The more quests that clutter a map — navpoints, in Andromeda — the more likely a player is to view these entirely mechanically. I don’t think "I’m going in this direction because of the strong narrative pull" so much as "I’m going in this direction because it’s the nearest location that lets me clear these quests from my log." That’s not fun, that’s the strategy we use when vacuuming our rug.
As soon as the open-world gets mixed in with narrative, your games can start to struggle. Andromeda is especially wobbly on this.
For example, I left almost every part of Peebee’s loyalty quest until the very end of the game, and was stuck traveling to all seven major locations before I could actually get to interesting story. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Drack’s loyalty quest is constructed similarly with pieces across multiple planets. I did those much more organically, but by the time I got to the main sliced-out level it had been 20+ hours since I’d seen any major narrative parts of the quest. I had no memory of who the bad guy we were supposed to be chasing actually was. I guess he seemed important.
The problem is simple: it’s extremely difficult to maintain a storyline across multiple parts because you have no idea when a player’s gonna do them. You know what’s possible? A quest that takes place across a specific range of geography, started here, ended there, and the writing in the middle. You know this because you used to actually do it.
To be fair, at least Andromeda is trying. Dragon Age: Inquisition attempted to avoid this problem by not having any interesting story at all in its open-world sections. That … wasn’t preferable.
Skyrim and other Bethesda games are seriously hurt by this — but Skyrim in particular manages to bypass it by being beautiful, non-story focused and having great emergent moments. Bioware, you haven’t really built the systems necessary for that player-driven narrative to emerge yet.
The Witcher 3, meanwhile, succeeds largely because it takes each quest and turns it into its own little satisfying slice of story, even in a multi-part chain. You’re never told just to "go here to pick up this item" in any kind of story. Having level caps on quests and only showing one on the map at a time also motivates players to sort them by current relevance, instead of simple proximity.
These are possible options for improvement, BioWare — if you’re absolutely set on open-world — but the kind of games you make aren’t going to work for this, as we’re about to see.
Level Design is Important
So here’s a major problem with open-world games: you cannot tell a story with specific places. If a player can go anywhere at any time and from any direction, it becomes impossible to plan for how a player is going to interact with your world. That makes it tough to do good level design: the plan for how your players will move through your world.
The thing is, BioWare, you’re really good at level design — or at least you used to be. Those missions I mentioned above? Those weren’t just stories; they were entire planned sequences combining combat, dialogue, music, cutscenes, architecture and more. In harmony, these things could be used to raise and lower emotional states and tell the stories that your game wants to tell.
Think of Virmire, the best section of the original Mass Effect. Initially players don’t know what’s going on on the planet, just that it’s desperate. They’re dropped in on the Mako, in a heavy Geth presence, with the music thumping and probably the best Mako combat section in the game: a mixture of open arenas, corridors, and gates that need to be opened on foot.
Finishing that leads to the STG camp; a place of theoretical rest, up until the first confrontation that can leave a party member dead. Then the assault on Saren’s base: supremely exciting initially, slowly ominous leading up to Harbinger conversation. And it ends with perhaps the most famous segment in the game: the first direct confrontation with Saren, and the grand choice of which companion to save.
Virmire’s emotional arc, therefore, goes like so: heightened, relaxed, heightened, awed, heightened, and finally, staring at the screen for 15 minutes because you can’t believe what just happened, all across a mission of an hour or three.
And here’s the thing, BioWare: you got better at combining level design with storytelling. Dragon Age: Origins did a great job of using its tactical combat to build up the narrative importance of certain fights. Suddenly facing a powerful set of enemies, you realized the need to take and hold a bridge, or a doorway. And when Mass Effect 2 switched to an explicitly cover-based combat system, that series became far more able to use combat difficulty and chaos to tell its stories — a method that Mass Effect 3 took to new and exciting levels.
When viewed this way, it’s no surprise that the most memorable parts of Inquisition were its set pieces: Haven, Winter Palace, Adamant, and "Trespasser." Andromeda is similar: the combat is best when set in constrained spaces like the multiplayer levels, or in levels that actually offer a sense of progression and difficulty beyond "another shuttle just landed."
This includes things like the Kett dreadnaught, Cora and Liam’s loyalty missions and even nominally open-world things like the Kett bases on Eos and Voeld that put the player in relatively linear areas. These things are fun. Combat, movement, music, architecture, companions, all these things make sense there. In the open world? It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. There’s no emotional attachment beyond achievement or annoyance.
This is where The Witcher 3, as great as it is, isn’t a good comparison. See, it can still do these things in an open world because it’s a single-character game, and Geralt’s combat is not based on the use of the environment. In both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, the use of walls, crates, bridges, and so on is how players deal with combat. With Geralt, it’s all about his and his enemies’ movements. Or, to put it more bluntly, Geralt fights action-packed battles alone, BioWare heroes and their companions have to work more tactically. Geralt being alone suits his story, BioWare characters being in a group suits theirs.
The ways combat interacts with story is at the core of what made your games great, BioWare. Open-world games simply cannot accomplish the same goals. And in trying to do so, they actively work against your greatest gameplay strengths.
But guess what, BioWare? It gets worse.
Lack of Choices Ruins Cinematic RPGs
BioWare, you made your name on moral choices. There were some in Baldur’s Gate, not as many as Fallout and more in BG2 and Neverwinter Nights, but they really came of age in Knights of the Old Republic.
I mean, it was perfect for Star Wars: help people like a Jedi, or hurt them like a Sith! And yes, it was superficial, but it was a seemingly essential part of your brand, as both Mass Effect (Paragon and Renegade) and Dragon Age (centered on companion approval) took it in different directions.
But to be fair the moral choice thing also became a bit of a joke. "Do you save the adorable puppy and let it become Martin Luther Pup Jr., or do you drink its blood in front of a family of children who love it?" We’ve all made those jokes. And apparently you’ve heard them, BioWare, because both Inquisition and Andromeda have seriously limited the importance of moral choices as storytelling vehicles in favor of open-world navpoint travel.
Having a moral choice attached to each quest forced you, BioWare, to make your quests interesting. With choices, you get situations like, hypothetically, an elderly landlady being threatened by thugs. Finding out why reveals how much she exploited her tenants, and ta-da, interesting moral choice! Help the violent oppressed, or the physically weak oppressor. There is no right or wrong answer, but there is a conversation with a player.
Meanwhile, well more than half the quests in Inquisition and Andromeda are like "hey, I dropped six pieces of wood scattered across the planet/region, can you go find them." Those navpoints on the map are often just mechanical "go here, get this" because the quest writing is nothing more than that. The grandest narrative-based role-playing games in history are reduced to this?
Providing moral choices at the end of a quest doesn’t just motivate players to do the quest, it gives them reason to care about the end of a quest beyond simply removing it from their journal and getting some experience. It provides an emotional release, or catharsis, to the quest itself.
This is seen most directly in Andromeda when, traveling around a planet fulfilling a quest that seems to have narrative weight, you’re treated to … a disembodied voice saying "something has changed, Pathfinder, and that’s good."
Where moral choices in previous games served as the culmination and reward for quests, in recent years, BioWare, you’ve gone for totally irrelevant open-world bullshit. In Mass Effect 3 this was "war assets," which were irrelevantly ending-focused, and merely additional rewards on top of an already existing moral choice then debriefing narrative structure.
Inquisition, however, as a true open-world game, buried quest rewards under its bullshit "Power" number counter, while Andromeda buries its rewards under a theoretically different yet still identically boring "Viability points" system. In other words, writing an interesting quest has been replaced by a number going up. I have no idea how this is supposed to be a preferable design model.
Okay, that’s not entirely true: it’s a preferable design model because it’s easier to design open-world quests around going to a place, doing a thing, and making a global statistic level up. The point, in an open-world game, becomes traveling to a certain position, accomplishing a certain task, and getting rewarded for it. It doesn’t matter what the task is, only that it’s been done.
Which can be interesting from an exploration point of view, but is boring as hell from any narrative-centered perspective. And BioWare, you’re not Bethesda. You do narrative games.
The Open World is Dragging BioWare Games Down
If Dragon Age: Inquisition is a 35-hour game based on its critical path and loyalty quests, who loses out? Certainly not me; I’d likely consider that an RPG on par with your previous works. The open world adds very little value beyond its existence as content.
And Andromeda? That’s trickier, but it almost certainly wouldn’t have hurt for the game to demonstrate a reason for existing beyond driving a jeep around and being told "dropship incoming" 500 times. The lack of storytelling and motivation is why so many players feel listless playing the game. It’s why they say they’re finishing it more out of obligation than joy.
That’s the core question here. Why are you doing this, BioWare? Why are you making these open-world games? Are you, just a few years ago one of the greatest RPG developers of all time, suddenly chasing trends dominated by other companies? Is that who you want to be? Is it just an Electronic Arts mandate? Blink twice if you’re being pushed to make these against your will.
Dear BioWare, who do you want to be? Do you want to be a company that tries to cash in on other companies’ successes, or do you want to be a company that tries to create the best and most epic goddamn role-playing games in the world? Because if it’s the latter, open-world games are working against you.
Go back to what made you the best.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance video game and science fiction critic currently residing in the Bay Area. He tweets about games, politics, and cats, alot, has a much quieter Facebook page for links, and is very slowly writing a book about Mass Effect.
An interesting read via Polygon – Full