The last time I got fundamentally lost in a video game, like, I-have-no-idea-where-I’m-going-I’m-pretty-sure-we’ve-circled-this-one-tree-five-times-already lost, was in Shadow of the Colossus. I was following the light beam from my magical sword to the next Colossus when I hit a wall. More literally, it was the side of a mountain. Then, I turned to try and find a path around the mountain, got distracted by a lizard scampering across a plain, and by the time I caught the lizard, I had no goddamn clue where I was.
The mountain wasn’t rendering anymore, so there went my landmark. SOTC has a map, but I wouldn’t call it detailed, so using that was out the window. My mad dash for sweet lizard meat found me standing on the edge of the world, looking over at some seagulls flying over the ocean. I didn’t catch the lizard, and for a few minutes, I was pretty sure I wasn’t even going to find a Colossus out there. The edge of the world is a lonely place, after all. Of course, I quickly remembered I could pull out my magical sword again and follow its light back to the mountain, but for a brief, shining moment, I was totally lost. And no matter how big open worlds get, it’s never happened since.
I don’t actually play a ton of open world games. I often find the lack of direction frustrating, and I’m more likely to finish something that gives me motivation on a regular basis, not just whenever I happen to be in the right mood to push myself along the critical path. That’s mostly just a symptom of the kinds of games that use open world design though. Traditionally, open world design meets sandbox-style gameplay and they go hand-in-hand forever into the night, but that’s not necessarily a given. You can have a sandbox without an open world, just take a look at Animal Crossing or SimCity’s sandbox mode, and you can have an open world without a sandbox, like in Shadow of the Colossus or Dark Souls. The latter is uncommon, the former barely exists, and the combination of the two is pretty much every game in existence right now. Grand Theft Auto is the progenitor of the open world sandbox genre, sure, but Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Sleeping Dogs, and all manner of dog-and-non-dog-related games occupy that same ever growing category.
But clever open-world design can actually add a lot to more traditional, directed genres. Recently, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds applied the open world concept to the entrenched and unchanging Zelda formula to pretty interesting results. By giving players access to every tool in Link’s arsenal from the beginning of the game, the traditional dungeon design had to be rethought and refocused on the player’s potentially wider tool belt. Additionally, being able to leave a tricky dungeon to go try another was a welcome change from having to bash my head against the impenetrable wall known as “Zelda logic”. Dark Souls takes a step further, giving players a huge open world and absolutely no tools with which to work off of, but works in that same action-RPG context.
Dark Souls as the glowing exception to the rule though, these worlds tend to be sterile. Link Between Worlds uses the same overworld map from Link to the Past, a 23 year old game. Wind Waker, another Zelda game with a relatively open world, is content to situate its Great Sea on a grid, only letting each square contain one island. The recent Tomb Raider reboot lets you travel around an open world, but then railroads you down action set-pieces that block off exploration. Maybe you’ll go back to an earlier area later to pick up a few trinkets and collectibles. You probably won’t though.
You definitely won’t get lost.
Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls are, in some small sense, bastions of an older kind of game design. Of building a huge world and refusing give players direction in exploring it. SOTC leads you to the next colossus fight with its magic glowing sword, but you’re sure to miss the helpful stat-boosting lizards and birds along the way. Of course, they aren’t necessary, and most people’s major complaint about SOTC is the lack of things to do in its huge world. It’s a fair one too, considering that the enormous map is entirely empty outside of the next colossus you have to fight. But that’s what makes the world so appealing to me. It’s not a terribly well designed world in the gameplay sense, there’s nothing really funnelling you towards the colossi or any interesting challenges outside of them, and the arenas where you fight the colossi are pretty barren for the most part. But aesthetically and atmospherically, it’s second pretty much only to Dark Souls in setting a mood for a living, breathing world. Though, in SOTC’s case, it’s much more of a dead, barren world.
Huge expanses of nothing, ruins that serve no purpose, every little bit of SOTC’s map tells a little story about the world, or is at the very least fascinating to look at. That doesn’t make it a super fun game for everyone by any means, but the world enamours me. It makes me want to get lost. Dark Souls’ Lordran hits me in a similar way. It’s much tighter and livelier than SOTC’s barren wasteland, but it has the same sort of lore-revealing efficiency in its world design, with the added bonus of constantly teaching you how to play while forcing you into battle. Fighting the dogs in the tight corridors of the thieves’ down beneath the Undead Burg teaches you about how easy it is to stab them as they leap at you, which is a skill you’ll find comes in very handy during the Capra Demon boss fight, where two attack dogs stunlock you before the demon slams his axe down on your head.
To go back to Zelda for a second, the worlds remind me a lot of Zelda 1. Of course, Zelda 1 suffers from a lot of the same problems that SOTC and Dark Souls do. The open world often lacks direction, you’ll sometimes find yourself with a lack of things to do, and you cane stumble into areas far beyond what you can handle. But they’re also scary, lonely worlds at times, without much in the way of a home base or safe zone. Mind you, SOTC doesn’t have any enemies anywhere, but the world is enormous and labyrinthine for non-gameplay reasons. It feels threatening in a way that a world designed around constant combat just can’t. It feels dead, and that’s not “right”. You never feel at home. Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls may be the centre of the world, but it’s definitely not safe, and Zelda 1 starts on a non-descript square at the bottom of the map with no location-significance whatsoever.
There’s a sort of focus to building a world like that. An open world that isn’t meant to lead you down one path or let you do anything you want. Go anywhere, but do only a few things. It doesn’t sound like a very good selling point, and that’s probably why we don’t see too many games like that, but in my experience, it lets the world speak for itself, with atmosphere and character all its own.It makes for something very different from having the world be defined by dozens of minigames and pointless encounters created to pad the experience.
Big worlds are so often full of junk that isn’t, well, interesting. I enjoy Saint’s Row IV, but its rows of cloned skyscrapers are punctuated with, for the most part, variations on minigames I got bored of halfway through my first time playing them. And the bigger a world is, the less likely it is to have constant unique elements. Everything has to serve some player purpose, and the purpose is usually to keep them engaged and entertained from a gameplay perspective. At least SOTC’s emptiness serves the purpose of being negative space for the colossus fights, that’s something unique.
I don’t want to get lost in Liberty City, I don’t want to get lost in Skyrim. In fact, there’s no way I can get lost in them. There’s something around every corner, every nook and cranny has purpose. That outcropping with the seagulls doesn’t really serve a purpose, and there’s something realer about that. Or at the very least, something a little more magical.