Now that I’ve finished most of Cyberpunk 2077’s main story content, I’ve been spending my time in Night City a little differently: namely, by roaming its streets as a sort of deranged, cybernetically-enhanced kleptomaniacal Batman.
I check my in-game map for the next set of side mission coordinates. Arrive on the scene and murder some roving pack of criminals. Feverishly scrounge up their armour, weapons, and literal garbage (the game world is littered with useless and near-valueless junk items). Then, having dispensed justice, I make my exit in a dazzling futuristic sports car that would make even Bruce Wayne jealous.
Roleplaying as Batman isn’t quite what I had in mind when I bought Cyberpunk 2077. But this kind of shallow, virtual crime-fighting makes up a large portion of the game’s open-world content. And while it’s not terrible — thanks in part to serviceable combat — it does make me wonder why we need open-world filler in RPG games at all.
Where it All Began
The trend of developers inflating open worlds with filler content seemingly began with the eighth video game generation. Before that, open-world games had smaller maps and an even sparser sprinkling of content throughout. Popular open-world titles like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas shipped with dozens of fastidiously designed and scripted missions, but little else. However, these were curated open-world experiences, and they were arguably stronger titles for it. They didn’t litter their minimaps with mundane and unrewarding side activities. For the most part, it was quality over quantity.
But then something happened. At the tail-end of the seventh generation of games, Ubisoft created a new open-world formula with 2012’s first-person action title Far Cry 3. It was an open-world game like Oblivion or Fallout but featured a much stronger dichotomy between its main missions and side content. The main missions were fastidiously scripted, voiced, and animated, and played like action sequences stripped from big-budget movies. In contrast, Far Cry 3’s side missions were more akin to island insurgency simulations. Lacking narrative context, most were sandbox affairs that tasked the player with expunging a fixed group of enemies from a specific area called an “outpost.” While these missions might feel shallow in RPG games with richly-realized worlds, they felt right at home in an action-first title like Far Cry 3.
Each outpost provided variations in terrain, elevation, and enemy placement. And due to those variations, there was a thrill in deciding how to efficiently dispatch each outpost’s enemies. Would you drive a two-ton vehicle rigged with explosives into the outpost’s sleeping quarters as a hearty “good morning?” Play a delightful game of knife-toss, wherein the optimal targets were the throats of your enemies? Or perhaps let a caged wild animal free to wreak havoc on the outpost’s residents? Oh lord almighty, what holiest of fun!
A Far Cry from Quality
At some point, open-world RPG developers must’ve started playing Far Cry 3 or games like it. Because Bethesda’s next big RPG titles, Skyrim (2012) and Fallout 4 (2015), featured a conspicuous increase in side missions that merely tasked the player with travelling to a fixed area and evicting some group of enemies’ souls from their bodies.
But while these sandbox “kill quests” work in Far Cry 3 because of the game’s diverse arsenal and action-focus, they feel redundant in RPG titles like Skyrim and Fallout 4. Historically, both series have been about immersing players in a convincing and rich world, not stacking up a body count. And most of the time, violence is one of many tools players can use to solve problems, but hardly the focus.
To Bethesda, that didn’t matter. They doubled-down on open-world filler and spent precious development time creating a new mission generation system called Radiant that would spew out as many of these missions as players cared to complete. But quantity is no replacement for quality. Soon, the mirage was shattered, and players began to distinguish the compelling, hand-crafted missions from the Radiant AI-generated filler. And with such a prevalent disparity in quality, some began to ignore Skyrim’s and Fallout 4’s Radiant missions or sought a way to disable them completely.
Unfortunately, CD Projekt Red seems to have fallen prey to the same desire for open-world filler, because Cyberpunk 2077 is full of it. And aside from being an opportunity to channel Batman, every side mission icon on my in-game map is also a reminder of how my time in Night City could’ve been better spent.
Also… lol (source):