Open World Games: It’s All In The Details

Throughout the last decade of gaming, there has been a certain type of game that has rose to prominence more than any other. This phenomenon is the open world game. A gaming experience that provides the player with a seamless, explorable world devoid of levels or segmented missions. This is of course not a brand new concept born in the last decade of gaming. This concept was around in its most primitive form as far back as the 1990’s.

Games such as Black isle studio’s initial entries in the Fallout series, the original Shenmue or GTA 3 kick started the mass appeal for this style of game. From there the concept has only grew in scale due to technological advances of today’s gaming systems. Meaning that developers can create larger, more detailed and aesthetically pleasing environments.

The Death Of The Conventional ‘Mission’

Due to this, gaming consumers have became accustomed to an open world style. With a large chunk of the biggest releases in recent memory either borrowing large aspects of these games. Or staying true to the formula of the open world concept. As a result, the single player, level by level story mode or mission approach is seldom seen in gaming today.

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This is with the exception of a few titles that have perhaps adapted their style to create a mesh of the two concepts. Or alternatively, stayed true to their values as they have built their fan base on older styles. Games such as Call of duty reboot titled ‘Modern Warfare.‘ Which included a very competent campaign mode reminiscent of past releases. We also see level or mission based approaches regularly in indie titles as they are more limited with the resources they have at their disposal.

Inundated With Open Worlds 

Due to the massive commercial demand for more entries with this open world approach. It is hard to argue against the success of the concept. Even more so when you look at the iconic titles that have adopted the approach and thrived. What is true however, as is the case in most industries, is that with innovative and successful ideas comes copycats from different development backgrounds. Some of which are not necessarily skilled in the area.

Through this, the landscape of gaming has been inundated with a surge of open worlds that are barren, lifeless and have performed less than favorably commercially due to this. These games may have ended up bad anyway, of course that is a possibility. However, another possibility is that these games in question may have benefited from a more linear and guided approach. Games such as MGS:5, Mafia 3 or No Man’s Sky to name a few.

So, with this over saturation of open world titles in gaming today, lets take a look at what makes an open world game succeed, the pitfalls of the concept and how developers have adapted their titles to create more linear alternatives with the same immersive and grand feel.

Filling The Space

Firstly, lets address the scale of the world and by that I mean how the developer fills the space. Open worlds, if done without a great deal of care and attention, run the risk of being rather barren, plain environments that primarily waste players time walking from place to place in game. For a game of this variety to be successful, there needs to be ample content for the player. This can be addressed in four key ways.

The game can provide context for the lull in the action. Can also provide a vibrant environment full of aesthetic sounds and surroundings. Plus provide densely packed events, areas, items or NPC’s to interact with. Or lastly, the game can negate the travel process for those that aren’t willing to do so through a fast travel process. Of course these factors are not exclusive and many of the most successful open worlds will utilize all these options.

Substance Through Silence

An example of a game that effectively provides context for the slower, less content heavy moments of the game is Shadow of the Colossus. A game soon to be available for free on PS plus in the march line-up. This game is perhaps one of the most barren and desolate open environments in gaming history but that was exactly the intention. The developer wanted to evoke certain feelings for the player when travelling through the world. They wanted to instill a feeling of loneliness within the player and also wanted to give the player time to ponder what they were doing throughout the journey between battles with the giants of the realm.

In different franchises or contexts, this would not work in the slightest as the player may have got very bored and perhaps not continued. However, through a culmination the aesthetic, the grand environment, the anticipation of the next battle. The motivation of progressing the narrative and the very intentional feel of isolation being fitting to the game. This title created a classic open world environment.

Make It Pretty!

Some games also rely heavily on the production values of their aesthetic and sound to keep the player captivated and interested in continuing their exploration of the environment. A game that does this phenomenally is ‘Everyone’s Gone To The rapture.‘ This game is a well known title in the ‘walking simulator’ genre. These games don’t include a mass of mechanics or gimmicks to get their player base excited and willing to explore their world. They initially attract the player with a compelling narrative but with the time when the plot isn’t being progressed, the game relies on it’s presentation.

In this particular instance, the ultra realistic art style of an English village is genuinely beautiful and inspires the player to investigate and explore simply to see the surroundings. Not to mention that the scarce use of sound and music offers an unsettling, ominous feeling to the area which is in line with what the narrative is trying to portray. This is often an approach that is often shared with new age survival horror games. Although due to developers wanting to control the scares within the game. An open and non linear world environment within this genre is sometimes not feasible.

A Cavalcade Of Content

The direct opposite of these examples are games that give the player interaction and stimulus at every turn. All in order to keep the player engaged and immersed within the game’s world. Games can of course use this as a crutch by putting in uninspired additions. Additions such as collecting arbitrary amounts of items or discovering landmarks to make areas available on the in game map, I’m looking at you Ubisoft. However, there are a multitude of games that instead create inspired, varied and plentiful content. Which only enhance the experience of the main game and help to create a full and vibrant landscape.

The best recent example being The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. This game offers a riveting main game, multiple side quests, collecting opportunities that benefit the player rather than being for collections sake and even inspired a spin off with the card game included within the world. Which if you haven’t heard, is coming to android very soon.  It can almost feel overwhelming with the sheer volume of things put before you in this title but in terms of complaints. Too much to do is a pretty favorable one.

Fast Travel

Then finally, there is the option to include fast travel. This option is much less complex for developers and will either benefit the game or won’t. There isn’t any in between or nuance. It usually proves beneficial to large landscapes that have quests and missions or an overarching main story.

Players will benefit from the ability to streamline their experience based on what they want to encounter. In general, having this process is usually not criticized as those who don’t want to use it still have that choice. What really hurts an open world is when it is desperately needed and is not available. Take GTA San Andreas for example.

Within my recent article providing a retrospective on the Iconic open world of San Andreas. By the way if you haven’t checked that out feel free to do so. I voiced my gripe with the inability to fast travel to the mission start point after a failure of said mission. It really made me resent the travel between these areas as it began to feel repetitive. This is forgivable as at the time it wasn’t a concept seen often in gaming, however, with that concept now prominent in most examples of open world development. The choice to not include fast travel can be catastrophic to player immersion and enjoyment.

Mixing Linear With Exploration

There are also games that have looked at their content carefully. Coming to the decision that a fully fledged open world may not be the best way to tell their story. However, they were still aiming to portray a grand and immersive environment. Which was still rewarding of those who wanted to explore beyond the guided path. One game that managed to do this was the current generations ‘God of War.’ This game has a clear start to finish with a main objective placed front and center. However, the player is still able to go off the beaten track to explore new areas, collecting power ups and collectibles.

This all helps with their progression to aid players in their main quest. Due to the cinematic vibe that the game wants to keep, similar to that of The Last Of Us for example. The game cannot be labelled a true open world adventure as areas must be unlocked through story progression. Through within this, you are never forced to follow a linear path and the game is able to produce an emergent style of play because of this.

What Defines An Open World

Moving away from the idea of filling the space and onto the legitimacy of what is deemed an open world. Many games are labelled an open world adventure and this will, in the most conventional sense, be true. However, how the game divides it’s content can negatively affect the player’s freedom. Having them feel disconnected from the games intended immersive feel. Examples of how the game might do this is through splitting large areas of the map through long loading screens.

An example of a game that does this is the most recent Final fantasy title. This game divides its expansive map into sub-sections and in order to get to the next you will have to fast travel or enter this next area. This then triggers a loading screen and within the time the player is forced to wait. The connection that the player felt wavers. This is also an issue that was present in PS4 exclusive, Bloodborne

The Art Of Funneling 

Another common issue in limiting player’s open world experience is by funneling players towards certain locations or decisions. In relation to location, this may be done through invisible barriers that prevent the player from accessing a certain visible part of the world. Sometimes these are necessary as if a player enters a new area too soon, they may skip large parts of the game or force the game to crash. However, some games do this due to time restraints in development or through simply poor design decisions.

This then makes the player have to enter areas through limited accessible entry ways and kills the emergent gameplay choices they want to make. An example of when this was done well was in Fallout 3. The game, obviously due to it’s release date and dated engine, had its limitations. However, to get around this the made invisible walls contextual by using rubble and debris. Plus requiring players to access the tunnel system to traverse the more built up areas. This negated the issue of the game having to load in such vast environments in one go whilst keeping players oblivious.

In contrast, a more on the nose example would be the original Bioshock. Players would be instructed to go to an area. Only for that area to be closed off and they would have to spend a few hours traversing another area to get there. Although this was to add content and enhance the story, the irritating thing that arose from handling it this way. By teasing players with the quicker route to completion. Is that with the telekinesis powers, speed runners found ways to traverse past invisible barriers by chucking themselves over walls on suitcases. Morale of the story is don’t tease the gamer. They’ll find a way.

Decisions, Decisions…

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Then with reference to Limiting players decision making process to progress the game and move forward, this again kills the ability to provide fully realized emergent gameplay. An antithesis of the funneling of decisions again came from the Fallout franchise, this time with the New Vegas entry. Within this game, when you exit the house you wake up in, there is little restriction on the player. From there they can head in any direction and access any area they choose.

However, with quicker progression choices comes a harder difficulty. In this instance you can make a beeline for the new Vegas strip from the word go. Instead of making the various advised pit stops along the way. If you do though, you’ll immediately encounter Cazadors and then Deathclaws along the back path which are dangerous high level enemies. The game therefore advises the player what is best for them but doesn’t make the choice for them.

There are a plethora of excellent examples of varied and nuanced choice options and play styles presented to the player in New Vegas. This is perhaps best exemplified through Game Maker’s Toolkit’s coverage of the quest line Beyond the beef. 

The linear gaming alternative in which players are not funneled into single choice scenarios. Yet playing the exact same narrative as anyone else. Is through multiple ending that are affected by choice. This is a method that goes way back in gaming but still provides emergent experiences to games that are ultimately as linear as possible. Good examples of games that execute this feel would be Heavy Rain, Oxenfree or the Telltale series of games.

Focus On The Finer Details

The final hurdle that we will focus on which a developer must clear to create a fully realized open world. Is making the world make sense, or more simply, the finer details. These are the factors that tie the world together and make it believable. One way that open worlds provide the player with detail is with lore. This may come from introductory cut scenes, in game dialogue, accessible texts in games. Or glossaries provided in game menus to name a few examples.

A basic attempt at an open world will provide this through the narrative and cut scenes. However, games that really want to do this well will include this wherever possible. Examples of this would be the Elder scrolls series providing in game books that provide no purpose other than a resource to learn more about the world. Or The Witcher that provides an in depth glossary that explains all aspects of the game that the player encounters in great detail.

Make It Believable

Another way that an open world is created to provide a believable experience is through interactions that are beyond the player’s control. This can take the form of random interactions and events, dialogue between NPCS or effects caused to the environment by the players actions in game. An example of a game franchise that does this both poorly and effectively is the Elder Scrolls series. Within these games, the player completes amazing feats of brilliance, skill and bravery. So due to this, the NPC’s are known to make comments.

I mean how many times have Oblivion players been hailed as the Hero of Kvatch. Yet in this game and perhaps more noticeably in Skyrim. These same characters that are supposedly mindful of your accomplishments are also quick to throw logic aside. For example, in Skyrim, it will be common practice for your character to kill a dragon and then absorb it’s soul. Yet, even if this occurs in direct sight of a low level bandit. They will attack with confidence that they will best you. A small detail but one that can remind the player that they are just a character in a game, taking them out of the overall experience.

Don’t Overpower The Wildlife

Next, we have level scaling. This can cause a problem in games if not done correctly and ruin a player’s experience. This may be through a player that is discouraged from exploring and playing differently due to unfair scaling of enemies. Or it could be that players are left feeling bewildered as a creature that was once fodder such as a rabbit or deer. Is given a massive health bar due to the creatures scaling to meet the players level.

An example of the former comes again from Final Fantasy XV which uses a completely random generation of enemies. Meaning that players can very quickly be punished by superior enemies, simply for trying to see the world and explore. Then the Elder Scrolls Oblivion is an example of the latter. As it does scale animals to be overpowered beings capable of tanking hit after hit. Perhaps the mud crabs that the guards fought were genuinely more fearsome than you. Food for thought.

Hive Mentality

Then lastly,  in terms of adding detail we have to attack the issue of hive mentality in enemies. Players who are perhaps playing the stealthy option and wish to avoid detection. Enjoy getting through sections with as little fuss made as possible. So if they are spotted, they appreciate the opportunity to use damage control. To take out the enemies that spotted them and then continue their sneaky assault. However, lazy AI can often lead to one enemy using telekinesis. Alerting the whole map to your location and converge on your whereabouts.

It’s completely unrealistic, especially if there is no verbal communication. Or some sort of in game alarm sounded to alert them to danger. An open world game that deals with this issue well and gives players a fair opportunity to regain a stealthy approach after a mistake is Metal Gear Solid 5.  It allows the player to deal with all assets of stealth in real time with believable and realistic consequences.

There’s No Set Formula

In closing, this is merely a drop in the ocean as to what makes a open world game successful. It’s clear that we, as collective of gamers. Are constantly being presented with New open worlds of varying degrees of success in their delivery. The reason is simple and that is because we buy them and therefore, we want them. When they are done well, they are truly one of the most complete and unrivaled gaming experiences that one can have.

So due to that consensus, it isn’t all that surprising that we see so many attempts by developers to create the next big hitter of this variety. It’s like any trend, it will have those that jump on the bandwagon. Creating shoddy representations of the finished article. Although, when all is said and done, it is unlikely that the open world genre is going away any time soon. So just read some reviews before you go sinking hundreds of hours into a world that isn’t willing to invest in you.

What is your favorite open world game? Is there anything that you think makes a open world game special? What’s the worst thing an open world game has done to take you out of the experience? Leave a comment below. As always, thanks for reading COG!

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Callum Marshall

Just a dude that loves games. Platinum trophy enthusiast, Sony fanboy and gaming journalist. Feel free to contact me at [email protected]

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