Open World Anxiety

The moment I booted up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I fell in love. The opening sequence where Link walks out of the Resurrection Shrine was truly breathtaking – the whole world was literally at my fingertips. However, as I gazed over that first ledge, my wide-eyed wonder suddenly turned to fright; I thought to myself: how am I going to finish this game?!

LoZ

It’s ironic how recently I’ve felt that the more open a game is, the more paralyzed I feel playing it. When I was younger, an open world game was a treat: not only were they few and far between, but I had the time to sink countless hours into them. I haven’t truly sank my teeth into an open world game since The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and at that point in my life I was: single, living in an apartment with no rent, and a 3rd year undergrad with loads of free time. I remember spending my entire winter break playing Skyrim. I’d wake up, turn it on, play until my brother got home from work, let him play, and then play again until the early hours of the morning. From there it was: wash, rinse and repeat for about a month straight. I couldn’t get enough of the world; I needed to explore every cave, speak with every person, hell, I didn’t even mind doing stupid fetch quests – everything was an adventure. Fast forward to today, where I’m a homeowner, with a full-time job and a girlfriend; I wouldn’t trade these things for the world, but I just don’t have the time for an open world game like I use to.

It’s not hyperbole when I tell you I almost turned off Breath of the Wild as Link peered over that beginning ledge. My anxiety slowly rose and set in as I looked at the vastness of Hyrule, realizing this game might take me all year to beat. I froze, until I took a moment to say to myself, “just go speak with the old man, everything will be fine”. From there I began to experiment by throwing apples in a fire and seeing if they would cook (they do) and if I could climb to the top of the Temple of Time (I could). I explored every part of the opening area, gathering chests and all the runes you need to leave. After I received the paraglider, I valiantly soared down to the Hyrule below where I saved two adventurers from some Bokoblins. From there I found the highest point I could climb and made my way up. I needed to see it all again, but once I did, my anxiety returned.

Zelda

Breath of the Wild has one of the biggest worlds I’ve seen, or at least it feels that way. So much of the world is untamed and waiting to be explored, but I just don’t know if that’s what I want to do. Every time I finish playing I feel panicked that I didn’t do enough. I find myself thinking I could’ve looked for more shrines or maybe I shouldn’t have spent 40 minutes trying to mount a bear. I think about the game at work and wish I just had more time to sink into it; I’m honestly afraid I won’t beat it for a long time.

My unconditional panic stems from the sheer amount of open-world games already released this year: Horizon Zero Dawn, Mass Effect: Andromeda and Nier Automata. While people can debate the quality of all those games, the fact is they are all games I personally want to play, if I can find the time. As it stands right now, on a given workday I have about two to three hours a night to play games, which isn’t too shabby. For most games, that gives me just enough time to clear a few quests or complete an act, giving me the artificial sense the game has moved forward.

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To Nintendo’s credit, they built a seamless world where none of that really exists. After plugging 25 hours of my life into Zelda, all I have to show for it is a fair bit of stamina and a bunch of Korok seeds. While I was playing I felt enveloped by the world, nothing bothered me, but the next day when I look at my progress, I didn’t do much of anything. While I genuinely believe this is how Nintendo intended for the game to be played, I find myself giving pause every night when I go to turn on my Switch. I am paralyzed by the sheer possibilities the game presents. I’m afraid that if I sit down to play for a few hours I’ll end up wasting more time that might be better spent on another game. Now this isn’t to say I don’t love Breath of the Wild, because I do, but the more open an experience, the tougher a game becomes to play with my limited time. Nonetheless, Breath of the Wild is not the only game in recent months to make me feel this way.

Games like Mass Effect Andromeda and Nier: Automata scare me just as much. Mass Effect takes place in a brand new galaxy that begs to be explored and colonized. There are new worlds with new civilizations, ancient ruins are littered about uninhabited planets. There is so much to do and see that I’m not sure I’m ready to be a Pathfinder. Then there is Nier- which I was hoping was going to be a fun 30 hour experience, apparently not. I have come to find out that after you first beat Nier you’re asked to play through again to see different aspects of the storyline. I usually don’t care much for new game plus modes, mostly ignoring them in games like Dark Souls, but with Nier it seems to be an integral part of its storytelling. Both of these are games I own, in addition to Breath of the Wild, and they sit neatly in my queue waiting to be played, waiting for me to give them the proper time I don’t have anymore.

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This doesn’t even even mention large games still pending release, like Persona 5 or Super Mario Odyssey; Or how Overwatch just received a new character, so maybe I should go play that. Every game wants to be the only one you play. It wants you to: explore, interact, become one with the world and lose yourself for a while, but instead I’ve never been more focused on reality. I’ve never been more aware of the time that I don’t have, or the games that I can’t play.

The past few months has been insane for gamers. There have been great surprises like Nioh, and games like Zelda delivering on promises of huge open worlds filled with adventure. It’s not a negative that there has been a plethora of good to great games to play, but with my limited time I still value games with shorter, tighter experiences-and I don’t want to see those disappear from Triple-A publishers. I still love Zelda and games with huge expansive worlds, but maybe fewer of them would be nice for my mental health. Or maybe I’ll just have to learn to live vicariously through others.

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