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Repetitive tasks in big open worlds are all I want right now

A huge map smothered by question marks has become comforting, not exhausting

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

I've played Assassin's Creed Odyssey for far too long. I've not yet reached a hundred hours in Ubisoft's entrancing recreation of the Aegean archipelago—hardly a drop in the ocean for seasoned Creed completionists—but I've been sneaking, riding, and slicing my sword through Ancient Greece for way too many hours to have so little of the game's gargantuan map incomplete. Entire regions are still shrouded by a looming, intimidating, fog of war. 

Now don't get me wrong, I don't dislike Odyssey. I love it. It's a gorgeous historical playground with a colourful cast of characters and fun takes on Ancient Greek mythology. Even better, the more recent Creed's are progressively turning into The Witcher 3, one of my other favourite games right now—the 30 minutes of leaked Assassin's Creed Valhalla gameplay footage shows this trend continuing, and I'm fully on board.

That said, it's a truism to say that there's a lot to do in the game, and not much of it involves you doing something especially new. Once you've done things like undermine the leadership of an area, fight in a conquest, and liberate an outpost, the activities remain fairly similar for the rest of the game, just in new areas with fresh narratives and characters. Much of my time has been spent booting baddies out of fortresses and enemy hideouts, each of which give you a repetitive laundry list of extra things to do, like opening special chests or burning war supplies, tasks I've already done countless times before. That should be tiresome after several days of game time, but it's all I want at the moment.

Seeking out the more monotonous side of PC gaming feels like an indulgence, as if I'm gorging myself on the same takeaway night after night. Instead of getting my 5 a day of puzzle, strategy, and racing games—genres I rarely give a chance—and benefiting from a well-rounded gaming diet, I'm choosing to stay in my open-word rut. I should be checking out more inventive indies, but my attachment to triple-A remains. 

Repetitive tasks in large open-world games like this are now something I'm actively looking for, rather than enduring. As I've written before, I can never seem to stop playing Skyrim, or Fallout, but I've recently headed back into Far Cry: New Dawn, having barely touched it on release. That's technically a new game for me, but given that little has changed in the series since 3, and that the fact that it's post-apocalyptic Montana is a modified version of the one I already know well, it's really new in name only. I'll at least encounter something unique when I pick up Death Stranding next week, but I'm already looking forward to knowing the game and trudging through Kojima's rugged world and ticking off every delivery long after it's lost its novelty.

(Image credit: Kojima Productions)

The satisfaction derived from performing mundane tasks has been explored by psychologists. It explains why Stardew Valley players weed their gardens long into the night. "There's a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect, where incomplete tasks create a mental tension that is released when we finish,” Jamie Madigan, who holds a Ph.D in psychology, told Tyler in 2016

Like many others, I suspect, wiping a map clean of tantalising question marks feels like cleaning—not just of a virtual space, but of the mind. "You get concise, specific feedback about what you do in games and you can usually see progress towards a goal and get larger tasks broken out into quickly achievable sub-goals," Madigan explained. Let's just say if I took to real-life cleaning as I did wiping my enemies from my virtual playgrounds, my fiancée would be a good deal happier.

There's always been a part of me attracted to longer games—which was likely down to me not being able to afford many earlier in my life—but I can trace an intensification in these feelings during the Covid-19-enforced lockdown. Not only am I drawn to escape to open worlds beyond the claustrophobic confines of my flat, it's nice to be able to control events within them; While I'm helpless in influencing events in the real world, I can resolve question marks, dissipate the fog of war, and drive out endless enemies from their various boltholes. For a couple of hours every night I'm stuck inside I have agency, and at the very least, there are plenty more question marks on the horizon.

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