I’ve had a complicated relationship with open world games since I first stepped off the boat in Morrowind.
Standing before a town of opportunity, brimming with personality and a puzzling newness, all I could see were the open fields beyond the town limits, the vast stretches of possibility painting the horizon, handfuls of huts to ransack, characters to drill and a laundry list of choices.
In Morrowind, the world, the ‘if-you-see-it-you-can-reach-it’ structure it throws at you without warning, and every variable affixed to the core proposal of freedom represented in those opening moments, charmed me like no game before; instilling young me with an eagerness to talk to everyone and do everything before sucking the air from my chest like a cognitive dissonance Dyson.
It wasn’t Morrowind’s fault, though. It wasn’t an error in its design or story; it was a completionist nature — developed over years of rewarded exploration — that left me with as much uncertainty as it did curiosity. I simply couldn’t bring myself to ignore one chunk of content for the next, and the idea of struggling to remember a specific location or sifting through journal entries for quest updates shook my appreciation for what Bethesda had accomplished.Before Morrowind came along, I was conditioned by nearly a decade of gaming through dungeons and arenas to meticulously explore levels for hidden items or perks. Other meaty games of the time, even ones with similar scope and jam-packed quest logs, lacked Bethesda’s western ideals or their economically sensible “more is better than less” philosophy. And in a game like Morrowind, one with virtually millions of nooks and crannies, that notion felt more like a chore and less like the liberating RPG I was sold.
When games were denser and worlds limited by more than technology or raw power, stumbling on an alternate route was a treasure to cherish. Discovering anything out of the ordinary was often as beneficial as it was exciting, and with mostly predetermined outcomes and ready-made prizes, obsession was only a stepping stone.
Games like Doom, Spyro the Dragon, Resident Evil and even Mario made me rethink level design, double back to reinspect a room, headbutt a door or crouch over a green pipe. And while hidden “secrets” compelled me to happily play through my favorite games again and again, they impacted my perception of level exploration. Secret room? It’s probably a weapons cache or optional boss or wall of coins I can scramble to collect.
I started feeling like games weren’t “finished” until every tile was turned. It wasn’t enough to beat a level — I had to destroy it and everything it has ever loved. Trophies and achievements have only strengthened this concept for a dose of affordable replay value, and while not entirely a bad thing (bang for the buck, yada yada), it’s a design that can easily spoil an experience for someone unwilling to dip into the imagination reserves.With titles like Morrowind, which can stretch into hundreds of hours, it’s easy to lose sight of the picture and focus instead on the frame: one individual storyline sacrificed for another, logic defying grinds through warring factions, numerous fetch quests, an unending cast of wiki-spouting townsfolk and more hills and ponds and caves than you could possibly count in a single playthrough.
It’s special and great and rewarding, but at some point you can’t help but stop hoping to find something new around the corner, and start checking just to get it out of the way. At some point it simply stops being fun.
When we painstakingly inspect every corner of every dungeon, waste time and patience for an iron sword or sack of flour, are we dampening our overall enjoyment of a game? After all, exploration should be a conscious and thrilling experience, especially in worlds like those crafted by Bethesda, not just a prescribed habit.
I saved myself from missing out on Morrowind by taking the pen-and-paper approach years after Bethesda’s Skyrim and Fallout siphoned the puddle further, focusing entirely on my carefully selected goals and following through on distractions that felt natural for my character. Because the difference between looking for something interesting when you know it’s there, and stumbling on something interesting without having given it much thought at all, can be game changing.