So I’ve got two games lined up here, and I want you to think about which one is more like Assassin’s Creed: Origins. You don’t need to have played it – everything you need is in here. Come on, come and have a look.
So the first game is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. If you’ve never played it, the only thing you need to know is how the levels are organised. They’re sequential, one after the other, with cutscenes that run between levels to disguise the load times (which is brilliant, by the way). If we were to plot the layout of the story, it would look something like this:
Each mission is sealed off from every other, and there’s a fixed sequential order. Easy enough, right?
The second game is Overcooked 2. You could use either of the Overcooked games – you could use any of the Modern Warfare games – but I’ve got screenshots from 2, so that’s what we’re using. Overcooked 2 is a little bit more complicated than Modern Warfare. It has the levels that you actually play, and an overworld, where you drive a cute little bus between levels.
If we were to map out Overcooked 2, it might look something more like this:
Let me tell you, I have missed my shitty images. I should do this more. Anyway: the top layer obviously represents the overworld, and the proper levels are down below. You don’t move from one level into the next – you move back into the overworld, where you navigate to the next level. So which is more like Assassin’s Creed: Origins?
If you’ve not played it, AC: Origins has you moving through an open world, completing missions that you can receive from different characters. There is something of an order to those missions: there’s a core set of story missions, and generally speaking they have a pretty set order. It’s not entirely as sequential as either of the examples above, but it’ll be the sort of thing where you have to do Mission 1 first, and then you can do Missions 2-4 in any order, but you have to do all three before you’re allowed to proceed to Mission 5. In that sense, there’s still a sort of sequencing, even if it’s not as strict as the others. If I was asked to map AC: Origins, I’d lay it out like this:
The darker blue represents the story missions, and the light blue is the continuous open world environment that they’re embedded in. You can just goof around in the open world forever, but if you want the story, you’re eventually going to have to go and find the person who initiates the story mission. In that analysis, AC: Origins seems much closer to Overcooked than Call of Duty. That might seem like an odd argument, but I think there’s more similarity between Overcooked’s overworld and the open world of Origins than might be immediately apparent. Both serve as the large-scale context for story missions, which take place in relatively constrained areas. That context creates a sense of spatial continuity in a way that’s not available to the siloed levels of Call of Duty.
The key difference between the two is that in Overcooked, the levels and the overworld are presented as being on different scales. The levels are small restaurants, while the overworld is a larger-scale map of the entire region. In the levels, you move your characters around, while in the overworld you drive a food truck. Origins has one scale, all the time. You control your character in both open-world and story missions. You can assassinate guards, you can run and climb things – to speak crudely, when you’re playing the open world of AC: Origins, it feels like you’re playing the same game as when you’re in the story missions. In Overcooked, the overworld is pretty clearly not the same game. You aren’t cooking things on a timer, you’re moving between locations.
Okay, fair enough – but is that more down to the specific examples that I’ve chosen? For instance, what about games with hub areas? In Mass Effect, for instance, you have a ship, the Normandy, which serves as the game’s central hub. You take your ship to different planets, which serve as the levels, and they’re all connected by the one core hub of the Normandy. When you’re on the ship, you’re still controlling Shepard, the main character. You’re still operating on the same scale. But structurally, the mission layout for Mass Effect would look much more like that of Overcooked than that of Modern Warfare. So if Mass Effect can have the same consistent scale as Origins while maintaining a near-identical level structure to Overcooked, then arguably scale isn’t really the distinguishing feature between Origins and Overcooked.
Another argument might be that you can explore places in Origins whether or not you’re in a story mission. For instance, in this screenshot below, I’m headed to a villa for a mission. If I didn’t have access to that mission, I would still be able to go to the villa and walk around it. That’s not something you could do in Overcooked.
And again, fair enough. That example actually illustrates what I’m trying to drive at. In AC: Origins, we have this weird situation where two types of space are collapsed into each other. We have the open world environment, which we can explore, and which, at different times and in different places, will have a story superimposed on the top of it. It’s kinda comparable to something like Minecraft, or even Don’t Starve. Both have stories in them, but they’re primarily simulated spaces with a story that’s much more kinda superimposed as a secondary quality. Really this is all just another way of making the same argument from last week: sometimes, I suggested, playing through open-world games can feel kinda hollow. It can feel like your actions don’t have strict narrative import, because they’re often not directly integrated into the story. In AC: Origins, you can murder a billion guards, but they’ll never stop spawning, and your behaviour won’t change the state of the fictional world in any way. You’re only able to change things once you’re doing a mission that’s somehow looped into the narrative – which implicitly suggests that there are, in fact, times where you’re almost outside the narrative while still being inside the game. That’s a weird place to be, and it’s something really specific to open-world video games. More on this topic soon, probably.