As a gamer with what is likely undiagnosed ADHD, and who has too many titles to tackle on an annual basis, part of me dreads the latest announcements of massive open world games. Sure, they have hundreds of hours’ worth of exploring, side-questing, crafting, or any of the other plethora of ways to get lost in a digital world, but it’s easy for someone like me to get lost in the wrong ways. The last game where I felt that sense of exploration truly paying off was the obvious Breath of the Wild, but since, it’s been hard to feel as immersed in something with as poor a story as Days Gone, something as initially broken as Cyberpunk 2077, or something as played out as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla or Ghosts of Tsushima.
Cue 2022, with scheduled releases of the long awaited Horizon sequel from Guerrilla Games, as well as From Software’s Elden Ring, two of the most anticipated open world games in gaming history, publishing within a week of one another. I knew I wanted to play both and get back into the open world genre. I just wasn’t sure how their sizes would sustain my attention, especially one after the other.
In the end I’m relieved that Horizon Forbidden West came out first, because approaching it with the need to rush it ended up helping me focus on only the best parts of a pretty oversaturated game.
In this entry, series heroine Alloy seeks to save the earth from destruction, all while battling robotic fauna and finding allies from new tribes. The set pieces are gorgeous and realistic, the fights against Jurassic metallic lifeforms are pulse pounding, the lore is intriguing, and it was the first game in a long line of triple A studio open world titles that felt worth dipping my feet into.
But I never could sustain that desire to keep exploring. Despite how big and impressive an overgrown San Francisco looked, or even if it was thrilling and fun to pilot Alloy around screeching techno-plesiosaurs in an underwater Las Vegas, that excitement would screech to a halt whenever I was met with stiff characters spewing unrealistic dialogue, or an upgrade system requiring me to drop everything to go find a random item. A particularly infuriating moment was when I found myself diverting from carving my own path because I needed to hunt for a bluejay only found in one region (the game’s map is the size of most of the Western US), just so I could build a quiver that would hold 5 more arrows. And these silly derailing requirements kept coming up with each new weapon improvement.
Similarly, I’d pursue an exciting side quest rescuing miners in a collapsed Gold Rush-era cave, only to be asked by those same miners to go collect a bunch of robotic animal parts so they could give me my reward. Sure, some of these filler side quests were easy to ignore, but later in the game the XP payout became not only helpful but necessary if I was going to survive against tougher boss battles. My breaking point came when I caught myself running through these stunning renderings of a post-apocalyptic California forest, looking for a rare enemy who just happened to have a part my kit needed, thinking to myself, “How much longer do I have to be here?”
Horizon Forbidden West has so many amazing moments to offer. But like so many other open world games before it, it’s bogged down by its size. The game is already teeming with content the player actually wants to experience; it doesn’t need to be padded out with unnecessary filler. For as much polish and depth that’s put into the locations and combat systems, HFW is desperately lacking some much needed cuts to keep the player actively engaged.
So one week later, I started my Elden Ring playthrough already burned out from hopelessly wandering wildernesses searching for ways to get back to the fun. But within the first hour of gameplay, I found myself fully engulfed in every new encounter I was experiencing in the Lands Between.
As someone who’s really only played From Software games from the passenger seat, Elden Ring’s open world had the opposite effect on me as Horizon’s. My first character was a classic barbarian-with-a-big-axe build, and after she got thrashed by the Golden Knight at the game’s opening, I started actually doing a little exploring. This quickly paid off as I discovered a cave system where I took out a pack of hungry wolves, and then vanquished a were-creature for a new item. This gave the instant (albeit hard fought) gratification I needed to keep looking around.
Next I uncovered a crypt filled with puzzles, traps, and gargoyles, and, through several rough deaths, found new weapons and XP, and another exciting small boss fight against an automaton king cat guardian. I found victory a second time and was again flushed with that same gratification.
Next I discovered a dragon. And then a whole hidden valley. And then traveled south to discover a castle. And then further east to another castle. And then north to an entire lake region. And then found an elevator to an entire new world underground. Each new discovery, as difficult as its enemies could be, worked hard to captivate my imagination and reward my sense of discovery, only fueling my thirst to discover more. The more I played, the more I felt totally engrossed in what was around the next corner, and no matter what it was, I was enthralled.
Elden Ring certainly isn’t devoid of things to criticize. It has a late game difficulty spike that is pathetically unbalanced. Its overpowered enemies make certain character builds obsolete (RIP to my barbarian). Its multiplayer system is one of its crowning achievements, yet From Software has done everything in their power to make questing with friends as difficult as possible. But one place it never falters is how it handles its gargantuan size.
The Lands Between is titanically big, but Elden Ring’s focus on discovering secrets and finding new paths to adventure isn’t bogged down by any filler. Sure there’s quite a few repeat boss encounters, and there’s plenty of paths you can struggle down only to be rewarded with an item your character won’t even be able to even use. But the sense of accomplishment that comes from clearing a castle or finding a path forward to an entirely new province is why its size works.
Elden Ring is also so big that it’s easy to miss small mysteries or catacombs, but still feel completely satisfied with your journey even if you don’t see it all. I’ve played through this game twice and missed out on several major story quest lines that I’ve only just heard about. Yet I’m not rushing back to replay those sections, because the adventure I chose felt just as complete.
So when is a game too big? Maybe this isn’t the right question to be asking. Larger studios will keep pumping out larger and more bloated worlds so they can claim the titles of game with the most content, game with the most side quests, or game with the biggest story scope. But in the end, the games we keep falling in love with will have worlds that are able to immerse players with design and exploration that’s gratifying, no matter the game’s size.