There’s a bit near the beginning of Uncharted 3 where protagonist Nathan Drake evades a police entourage by clambering up a drainpipe and onto a roof. The building overlooks the city’s skyline and, while it’s dark, the mass of light that radiates from the metropolis sprawled out in front of him lets him see for miles. It’s a wonderful moment, but, while impressive, quickly feels bogus.
You see, in games like these you often can’t actually reach the panoramic vistas, the gorgeous rolling hills, or the far-off knife-edge cliff faces, but are instead too quickly funnelled off down the next linear pathway towards the next foregone conclusion. You hardly have a chance to properly enjoy each moment of reflection before the story is moved on, and this makes me sad.
Conversely, having spent the past week ebony armour-deep in SureAI’s Enderal—a Skyrim total conversion mod whose scale almost matches that of its source material—I was reminded of what draws me to games like these in the first place. Against games like Uncharted, it’s not their open-ended quests, nor is it their divergent missions; their multitude of weapons and characters, or even their sprawling maps—what I love about open-world games is simply knowing it’s possible to explore their arenas from corner-to-corner, to pore over every inch of their sandboxes, or to delve into each one of their nooks and crannies.
Finding the highest accessible point in the map is the first thing I do when dropped into an open-world environment, before I pick a certain spot out in the distance and try my damnedest to make it there alive—or, more times than I care to admit, die trying—and revel in whichever wildlife/scenery/baddies I encounter along the way.
From a practical perspective, besides facilitating these hands-on moments, trekking to and from these vantage points allows for a better understanding of the map itself. Truth be told, though, there's something I find wonderful about knowing that particular small patch of land, that dilapidated farmhouse, that seemingly abandoned island that I can spot from aloft my perch can be reached and explored, just because. There might be nothing real merit there on arrival—and there's often not—but I delight in the fact that in these games it can be done.
In Skyrim, I first discovered the Oghma Infinium book by stumbling upon Septimus Signus’ outpost after spying it from atop the College of Winterhold’s roof; in New Vegas I meticulously planned an ambush on Caesar's Legion from the mountains located to east of their camp; in The Witcher 3 I climbed the Kear Trolde bridge in Skellige just so I could jump off into the water below because, well, why the hell not? There is, after all, no wrong way to play games (opens in new tab).
I’ve played and enjoyed the entire Uncharted series, and many games like it, but I’ve found my fondest moments in games over the years have stemmed from the ones I’ve created myself; the off-script set pieces and the moments of sheer randomness. Perhaps you could call it a problem with authority, but I like being able to roam where I want, when I want and spotting such places from the peak of a mountain, bridge or magic school is the best means for it.