Given their increasing popularity in the market throughout the last decade, an article dedicated to taking down wildly successful, open-world video games like Grand Theft Auto or Minecraft probably seems a little geriatric, or counter-intuitive. Unfortunately, I can’t exactly disagree. Full disclosure: I am the guy who wrote about the 25 Ways That Retro Gamers Can Still Have Fun in the Eighth Generation of Consoles, as well as the best from another dead breed, LucasArts. As grossly out of step as I am with the current gaming universe, I’m nothing if not self-aware about it.
However, my recent nostalgia trips have been inspired by the fact that, for whatever reason, I’ve found myself less and less satisfied with certain big-name titles over the years, 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V not the least among them. Especially in the case of Rockstar’s latest smash hit, as games have become increasingly unrestrained and DIY, I’ve come to realize that for as much critical acclaim and fanfare that they receive, my boredom with them is just as pronounced. Minecraft—for all of the supposedly rich pleasures you can derive from spawning entire universes—has never left me particularly fulfilled. More often than not, in games like these, I wonder where the actual game is. What am I supposed to be doing? What are the goals? What are the rules?
Conversely, with side-scrollers and platformers, the game that you’re playing and its directions for completion are more readily available to you. In titles like Super Mario Sunshine or Banjo-Kazooie, there are set criteria for your quest, whether it’s to gather Shine Sprites, Jiggys, or whatever token or talisman the developers assign. You advance from one level to the next, dying and restarting time after time until you finally get it right. It sounds a lot like some bullshit advice your grandpa would give you about “building character,” doesn’t it?
But maybe the repetitive aspects of gaming are what allows it to foster a connection with the user. For example, take Donkey Kong Country, the debut Super Nintendo title for gaming’s most famous ape that captured all the virtual joys of grabbing bananas, hopping jungles, and pouncing on your enemies like a game of Board The Platforms. The gameplay is strictly linear, forcing you to complete the levels in sequential order, and enabling some serious frustration in the process. One of biggest obstructions that this style presented was “Mine Cart Carnage,” a mine cart-guided level in the Monkey Mines world that called for your fullest and most focused engagement.
It may look easy enough on the video, but anyone who has played this level knows that they didn’t get through it without stacking monkey corpses ten-high at the bottom of that mineshaft. The timing, muscle memory, and precision that you had to build up with the stage in order to finally beat it were superhuman. The eponymous carnage was too real. But that's the ultimate difference that side-scrollers and platformers have with open-world formats: the inability to escape your fate. Certainly, Grand Theft Auto has presented more than its fair share of challenging missions throughout its various titles. Indeed, many of the conditions that I’ve described about side-scrollers and platformers are present in any GTA game. But at least when your frustrations reach their absolute peak, you can cool off within the game via random, cathartic acts of violence. The open-world aspects of the game reveal themselves as a safety net of sorts. With Donkey Kong, or Super Mario Bros., you just took your abuse, over and over and over again because you have no other choice; there’s a strange, masochistic addiction built up; the game is beating you up with a burlap sack filled with oranges, and you don’t even care. You don't really have a choice.
Many have speculated if video games have gotten easier over the years, with Nintendo even admitting this past summer that they've softened their difficulty levels since the first Super Mario Bros. Their admission doesn’t inspire some sort of abstract, neo-conservative rage within me about having to maintain “purity” or “toughness” with our games, but I will say that I’m more acutely aware of the feedback systems that each format nurtures. I admit, my inability to find enjoyment in big, sprawling sandbox-style games like GTA V could be chalked up to a lack of imagination. Maybe I'm not living vicariously enough through Franklin and Michael and Trevor. Maybe I should just sit back and enjoy the creativity that these alternate realities afford. But there’s also something to be said for being handed a contingent, finely-tuned universe—a little box, if you will—and finding your way through it, no matter how many deaths and repeated failures you have to endure in order to do so. In games like these, there really is no easy way out. Side-quests and other escapes are kept to a minimum. Essentially, you're just handed a task, and you do it. But once you do, the satisfaction you find is derived from the most basic and primitive reason that anyone starts a game: so that you can finish it.