Open-world video games — those go-anywhere, kill-anything exploration adventures like Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto — have perhaps become the biggest blockbuster game genre. But somewhere along the line, discovery turned into drudgery.
I blame the minimap. These games have a little circle in the corner, a tiny blinking GPS device, that quickly becomes crammed with tiny icons, all telling players exactly where to go and what to do: Solve the Riddler's puzzles. Collect the Codex pages. Unlock Shelob's memories. Go bowling with your cousin.
The swarm of activities is meant to delight players with the sheer number of things to do. But they quickly turn into something more like a janitorial worklog: Here, spend 40-plus hours dutifully sweeping icons on a map, as if you're accomplishing something. Run up, press "A" to pick up an artifact and the icon disappears. This, apparently, is gameplay.
But, thankfully, developers are figuring out how to restore the thrill of discovery: The Witcher 3 imbues each icon on the minimap with a full-scale story. Even something as simple as a hidden treasure chest can come with a story attached: Maybe it's pirate treasure that washed ashore, or it's the stash of a warrior murdered by his brother.
It's Nintendo Switch's flagship games that have really fixed the minimap problem. In Super Mario Odyssey, "Power Moons" are often discovered purely by chance. You're rampaging around as a Tyrannosaurus rex, tear through a stone wall and, suddenly, boom, you win a Power Star. That's just fun.
And Zelda: Breath of the Wild found the best solution yet. You may climb to the top of a skyscraper tower and scour the skyline for the crucial orange "shrines" that make up the bulk of the game's puzzles. And then, gazing through your scope, you mark them yourself on the map.
Sure, being a warrior is cool. But being a cartographer is even cooler. That's because the thrill of these kinds of games isn't trudging out to a blinking dot. It's trekking across a vast world and stumbling across amazing discoveries on your own.
The same principles are at play in your own personal open-world journeys, of course. You can dutifully follow the guidebook, scour Yelp reviews and check off the events on your travel itinerary. Or you can throw out the minimap, wander down the streets of a foreign city toward whatever looks interesting, and choose your own adventure. ♦