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Why Open World?

A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

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.

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

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.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

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.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

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.

Play undead. Good boy,

Play undead. Good boy,

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.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

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.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

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.

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Diaries From Drangleic- Dark Souls 2's Open World

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Diaries From Drangleic- Dark Souls 2's Open World

In Dark Souls 1, I never really felt safe in the Firelink Shrine.

What you can't see is the the skeleton army. Or the zombies on the bridge. Or the giant serpent that chills in the pool.

What you can't see is the the skeleton army. Or the zombies on the bridge. Or the giant serpent that chills in the pool.

From the moment I was dropped unceremoniously next to the bonfire by a massive crow, Firelink Shrine felt like a place I was in not because it was in the centre of the world, but because it was the only spot that was free of enemies within a 30 second walk in any direction. Firelink Shrine scared me. It was dark, there was weird snoring coming from the pool in its centre, and that weird cleric off to the side was always cackling evilly. But, it conveniently connected three totally different areas that required totally different skill levels to conquer. Of course, that meant me, a first-time player, had a ⅔ chance of walking into an army of giant skeletons, or falling into an abyss full of untouchable ghosts. Firelink wasn’t a base of operation, or a home, or even a hub world. It was the scary gate to an open world full of horrors that would chew your face off and have your hands for dessert.

The Capra Demon's diet consists of your hands, your feet, and your face. They are delicious.

The Capra Demon's diet consists of your hands, your feet, and your face. They are delicious.

Dark Souls 2, on the other hand, tries to make me feel as safe as possible at any given moment. Every bonfire is just a loading screen’s worth of fast travel away from beautiful, seaside Majula, a magical town without an enemy in sight. Majula is not only home to every NPC you “save” over the course of the game, but also a handy-dandy covenant manager, level-up mistress, and merchants and blacksmiths galore. It’s bright and gorgeous, with probably the nicest fictional sunset I’ve ever seen outside of an anime ending credits sequence. Plus, like Firelink before it, Majula also connects to at least two other locations right off the bat, and more as you explore. Of course, unlike Firelink, those two areas are actually both fairly manageable your first time through. Even though speedrunners and high-level DS1 players found more efficient paths, the Undead Burg was usually your first stop after Firelink. Majula on the other hand hooks you up with the Forest of Fallen Giants, a fairly simple beginners area, and Heide’s Tower of Flame, which is patrolled by seven-foot-tall Knights who wield greatswords twice their size and make you turn around screaming “nope” all the way back to the bonfire.

A view to die for! Repeatedly, and painfully.

A view to die for! Repeatedly, and painfully.

But Heide’s is manageable for a player who’s quick enough on their feet to dance around the lumbering knights. As a bonus, it's also home to some items that could make the early game much friendlier for a first-time player. Emphasizing that, both Heide’s and the easier forest loop around to the same end location after a while, merely approaching it from different ends.

But the way from Majula to Heide’s doesn’t feel terribly organic. The path is through a tunnel that goes through some sewers before spilling out to a beautiful ruin floating in the ocean. You can’t see Majula past the high cliffs, and you definitely can’t see the underground catacombs that Heide’s will lead you to by the end. It’s a distinct shift from DS1, which delighted in showing you what was coming, only to pull the rug out from underneath just before you got there. You see the foot of the Undead Burg’s drake long before you see the drake itself, and the first bell is visible from the moment you walk into the city. The world doesn’t only let you go anywhere, but it’s willing to show you everything, almost as if to say “you see that belltower? It’s not just scenery, you can climb it.”

My god, it's full of shortcuts.

My god, it's full of shortcuts.

That’s part of what made DS1’s open world so enticing. Everything was not only interconnected, but also visible from anywhere else. Everything fit together and became accessible in logical ways. The Valley of Drakes opens up to the Darkroot Garden, which leads to a backdoor into the Undead Parish, giving a smart player a quick shortcut up to the first bell. Learning the world and its labyrinthine connections was as much of a strategy as learning how to fight.

But I still haven’t gotten that feeling from DS2 yet. Sure, it took a few months and constant speedrunning to find out how to best use DS1’s dense, tightly wound world to avoid challenges and run through the world without a care, but the evidence was there from the beginning. Everything up until Anor Londo was deeply and intricately connected in a way that made sense- in a way that made Lordran feel like a real world. DS2’s Drangleic feels more like Peach’s Castle from Mario 64 than anything else.

Basically Dark Souls.

Basically Dark Souls.

It’s classic hub and spokes design. Majula branches into three or four areas as the game goes on, each in turn then branches out again. Some of these branches intersect, but nothing ever winds back into Majula. Peach’s Castle opened up into dozens of areas, including new floors of the castle when it came time to open up a few more levels. Of course, Drangleic is a little bit more open and intricate than that, but it’s the same basic design philosophy. Lordran was tightly wound to the point where some levels suffered from having to fit back together into a greater whole, but it led to a dense, cohesive world. Each of Drangleic’s areas are vast in scope and feel like fantastically designed individual challenges, but never quite come together as a single unit. I know that Majula and Heide’s are both by the sea, but I honestly couldn’t place them on a map for you.

No, that tower ISN'T Heide's, nice guess though.

No, that tower ISN'T Heide's, nice guess though.

The problem is only exacerbated by fast travel, which DS2 gives you from the word go. You’ll need it, because areas are much bigger and getting between them would be a pain without it, but I get the sense that the chicken came before the egg here. DS1 gave you fast travel as a reward for finishing half the main game and making it to Anor Londo, the bottleneck-y, hyper-linear, vipers nest of an endgame. Fast travel was meant to be freeing and empowering, giving you control over this world that you’d been struggling to navigate for the last thirty hours. The designers may have reacted so positively to it, they gave it to you at the beginning this time, which made them able to make much more compartmentalized levels. It all smacks a little bit of Demon’s Souls, the predecessor to the Dark Souls series, but since I haven’t played a lot of Demon’s I can’t really speak to that.

Majula is beautiful, ruined, and toothless.

Majula is beautiful, ruined, and toothless.

I’m not sure if that really matters in terms of designing an open world though. It’s nice that DS1 is a tightly wound coil of a world, endlessly circling back into itself again and again, but DS2 features such incredibly different areas, all with fantastic, individual designs. At the end of the Heide’s/Forest loop, you’ll find an area called the Lost Bastille, which can be approached from whichever entrance you happen to find first. It’s a beautifully designed level that is challenging both forwards and back, and has a sort of high road/low road balance that makes it super fascinating to explore over and over. But, you get there through what basically amounts to warping. The Lost Bastille doesn’t really feel like it’s part of the same world as Heide’s and Majula, but if it had to open to those, I can’t imagine it would have the same scope or style. It looks nothing like the rest of Dragnleic, which is great and refreshing, but stops it from feeling like it’s as real a world as Lordran.

Then again, DS1 started extremely open before completely bottlenecking you towards the middle chunk of the game, and DS2 shows no signs of slowing down the rate it gives me new areas to explore. A big part of what made DS1 so open was also the master key, which opened almost every door in the game, and was available on the character creation screen. There’s no item like that anywhere in DS2, as if to say off the bat that you aren’t going to get to dictate your movements through the world as easily this time around. It leads to DS2 being a much more directed game, with more set pieces and planned ambushes. It’s a great game, but I’m not sure if it really uses the open world concept quite as effectively.

Press X to Enter the Mis-wait wrong game.

Press X to Enter the Mis-wait wrong game.

It’s interesting, however, to see DS2 take a much more classic stance on open world design, drawing directly from Super Mario 64, the granddaddy of 3D sandbox games. The world is huge, but it is it really a world? Or just a collection of levels hidden behind paintings?

Actually, DS1 had a world hidden in a painting as well, so it tried that too. Nevermind, Dark Souls 2 sucks, everyone go home and play Mario.


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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

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Walking the Straight and Narrow- Linearity isn't a Bad Word

Linearity is a bad word.

When it comes to games, linearity is one of those dreaded concepts no one dares say aloud, for fear of angering the internet. It's not the worst concept though. That terrible title probably belongs to "free-to-play", or maybe "full reactive eyes entertainment”. In fact, if you just go back a few years, linearity wasn't the hot buzzword everyone loved to hate, it wasn't even talked about. Certain games were set aside as being open world games, because linearity was the standard. Now, the script's been flipped. The last major AAA release I can think of that didn't feature an open world was Call of Duty: Ghosts, and its single-player campaign is by no means the "point" of that game.

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Assassin's Creed IV would be improved by a real-time Scurvy system, don't you think?

Meanwhile, every multi-million dollar series worth its salt features an open world, each one claiming to be bigger, open-er, and world-ier than the last. Assassin's Creed IV, Batman: Arkham Knight, and of course Grand Theft Auto V lead the charge, coming from a relatively long line of open world predecessors, but even brand new IPs, like Watch Dogs and Sunset Overdrive are launching as big, open world games. Not that we're seeing much in the way of new IPs these days. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is taking the Metal Gear series into an open world for the first time, and the recent Tomb Raider reboot combined its spectacular Uncharted impression with its best shot at placing Lara in an open world that didn't really matter.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Still crossing my fingers for the ability to hack vending machines and get all the nestea I can handle.

Open worlds are basically the MSG of game mechanics. You just add a little, and it makes everything seem to taste better. Or, the way publishers see it, adding an open world is a guarantee that your game will sell better than if it didn't. Because open worlds sell, you see.

And why wouldn't they? Video games are, at their core, about interacting with a world and having agency over it. A big open world that doesn't lead your anywhere by the nose is pretty close to the ultimate expression of that concept. Some people see video games' endpoint as the holodeck from Star Trek, a fully immersive, totally realistic simulation of whatever you want to experience. They aren't terribly far off, at least if the progression of open world games is anything to work off of. Add a health bar and a wanted meter, and Picard is basically playing Grand Theft Auto: XXVII.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Excuse the terrible Photoshop job, we're still in Alpha.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

Straight up? That isn't a dragon. Try harder, ATARI.

But there's another school of thought here, the idea that games are a focused exploration of a specific set of concepts and mechanics, that they shouldn't try to be everything, because you'll never perfect that. Games didn't start as trying to replicate the holodeck experience. At first they were trying to replicate ping-pong, to be fair, but then we got into focused looks at more fantastical mechanics. Mario let you jump twice your own height, and asked you to figure out how to best control that. Mega Man put you through a gauntlet of mazes and traps, then asked you to learn from the environment and figure out how to best use the tools you'd acquired from bosses. Even Adventure wasn't trying to simulate something so much as it was trying to help you learn that dragons could look like ducks too.

BARF

BARF

But, in order to properly explore those mechanics, those games had to be linear. Directed. Focused. It wasn't a technical limitation either, considering that River City Ransom came out in 1989. To be fair, RCR was a pretty small, simple take on the open world concept, but it does show that the idea not only existed, but was possible, even in the early days of game design. But, RCR was big and spread thin. There wasn't a ton of complexity to it, most of the fun was had in seeing how the open world and mechanics could be abused. It introduced the world, or at least the few people who had played it at the time, to emergent gameplay, which would go on to become one of open world design's strongest selling points.

The point is, games were linear for a long time for a reason, and it wasn't technology. A linear, heavily directed experience is the best way to show players how to best take advantage of deeper mechanics, the easiest way to adjust the difficulty curve, and the easiest way to tell a story. Look at Ocarina of Time's Shadow Link battle. Link enters an empty room with an island in the middle. You walk over to the island, nothing's there, but you see a door on the other side of the room. You check out the door and it's locked, so you turn back the way you came and suddenly Shadow Link is waiting on the island. It's a simple experience, but distinctly affecting, and one of the most memorable parts of that game. Obviously it's just a tiny moment in one room, but it works as a microcosm of Ocarina of Time's design philosophy as a whole:

Make the player think they have agency.

Nothing to see here...

Nothing to see here...

The best linear design is all about illusion- tricking the player into assuming they have choices over how events transpire. In the locked room, Link can go anywhere, but reaching the other door will trigger the encounter. So the developers put the island in the middle of the room, giving the player an extra stop on their journey, a point of interest that delays the inevitable. You have a choice of stopping at the island, but you have to go to the locked door, no choices there. Of course, you don't really choose to go to the island either, since it was put there specifically so you'd notice it and go there first. It's a magic trick of game design, perfect direction that wouldn't be possible in a nonlinear experience. Ocarina of Time does it the whole way through. Hyrule Field opens up to four or five areas, but you can only get so far into each before having to turn around due to missing equipment. You can choose to hit up the Zora river before Death Mountain, you just won't get very far. In the end, Death Mountain has to come first.

It's a great way to tell a story, and a great way to prey on player expectations and surprise them. Of course, open world mechanics do worm themselves in everywhere, because more choice is actually a pretty good selling point. If games really are power fantasies, then choice is what makes us feel powerful. The more choices, the more power, and the more those choices affect the world  the better they become.

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Say you're sorry, Kenny. [Get Punched.]

Of course, when you get to a situation like Telltale's The Walking Dead games, which feature choices with real consequences to them, most of the power is stripped away. Power doesn't react well to real consequences, it just wants immediate gratification. If I choose to ramp this car over a bridge, I want to see a sweet jump and maybe an explosion at the end, not get a ticket and file paperwork for the damages I caused.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Krogan breath smells like turtle soup and vomit.

Which is why everything is open world now. Power fantasies are not only in right now, they've defined games for a very long time. It may suck for some, but it is true. All those big, AAA open world titles I mentioned up top are all power fantasies. The bigger a world is, the more thinly spread it is as well. Choices don't really have consequences in an open world because they can't. The whole world can't shift so easily, that would require a massive amount of assets that most developers just don't have. It's why Mass Effect's and Infamous's moral choice choice systems are all smoke, mirrors and fluff, and why Telltale's the Walking Dead is such a small, linear experience. An open world is better suited to power fantasy, because it inspires choice without consequence, while a linear experience is better used when trying to tell a cohesive story.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

Skyrim! Or: A Finnish child's backyard.

It's why linear shouldn't be a bad word either. Linearity lets you focus on mechanics and refine them to perfection, lets you get players caught up in a focused narrative, lets you construct a difficulty curve that makes sense. Opening up the world and letting the player mess around as they choose throws those things out of balance. Which isn't to say open worlds are bad. They aren't just mindless power fantasies, they can only be huge worlds to explore, or have rich histories to discover, like Skyrim, Shadow of the Colossus, or Wind Waker.

So, no, linearity isn't a bad word. Neither is open world. Instead of thinking of them as positive and negative concepts, maybe we should start thinking of the two like we do writing perspectives. A novel can be written in first person or third person, with an omniscient narrator, or an unreliable one. They're different tools, with different uses, and each one is best suited to a different kind of job.

Except for the free to play tool, that tool broke years ago, no way we're going to fix it now.

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....

Nothing but open sea for miles! Nothing. Nothing...at all....


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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

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Op-Ed: Bigger isn't Better

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

I am the night, I am looking for a good parking space.

The other day, Warner Brothers announced that the next Batman game, Arkham Knight, was not going to be handled internally, like the tepidly received Arkham Origins, but instead returned the reins to the developers that made the series famous, Rocksteady.

Rocksteady, now the prodigal son of the Batman: Arkham Noun games, worked on Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was hailed as the best licensed game ever, and the the inventor of the coolest new genre: Batman Simulator. Their follow up, Batman: Arkham City was similarly well-received, though some fans found the new open world mechanics to miss the point of the fantastically well-directed, almost metroidvania style approach that Asylum took.

Origins, of course, upped the ante with a bigger world, but it was also a buggy mess, and now that there's a proper heir to the throne, people are beginning to toss out the now-evident pretender. So, what do Rocksteady and WB choose to highlight with their announcement? What does the prodigal son's return bring to the fans?

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Asylum featured groundbreaking for the time advanced locker technology.

Well, a pretty slickly produced CG-trailer, which had to cost at least a million dollars, two and a half million, tops. They aren't messing around with this, Batman is their money maker. Which means they also have their pre-order DLC lined up in a row. "Buy early and you can play as Harley Quinn," they yell, like some sort of demented carny barker trying to fleece you out of your hard-earned dimes. "You've gotta pay extra if you buy the game used!"

Other than the fact that the game's budget is likely pretty high, when you factor in that trailer as indicative of their marketing budget, and the cost of the Batman license (if WB has to pay it at all). The game is expensive, is what I'm saying, to the point where they have to sell you a feature-missing version of the game if you buy it used. The only other thing we know about the game is that it will feature the "entirety of Gotham City."

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Batman's looking for a good room for a good price.

Expanding the world is a logical choice, all things considered. Arkham Asylum featured a small island to explore, which was ramped up to a slice of walled-off Gotham in Arkham City, and now, finally, we get the full Batman experience, swinging across the rooftops of Gotham and driving down the streets in the Batmobile. The problem is that Arkham City was already sort of empty and boring at times, what happens if we make it even bigger?

You could almost think of "bigger is better" as the adage that drives AAA gaming these days. Assassin's Creed started with separate levels, then moved to an open world, each one having to be exponentially larger than the last in order to justify its existence. At a preview event, I played Assassin's Creed IV on a ludicrously sized television, and the map was still so huge it boggled my mind. Of course, it was mostly water, but that's still size. When you have an open world, the easiest way to tell consumers that your sequel is going to be better is to tell them the world is going to be bigger, and that's exactly what WB and Rocksteady are doing.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Arkham Originsfeatures some of Batman's most famous rogues! Like Black Mask, and uh...Copperhead! And....this guy in a hood.

Far be it from me to throw them any shade on this though. I loved both of Rocksteady's Batman games, and even though I preferred Asylum, City's open world was a pretty cool idea to toss in. And, of course, "bigger" is what moves copies. I will throw shade on ALREADY having pre-order DLC, but that's an entirely different article. But, the bigger-is-better mentality behind Arkham Knight is not only worrying, but indicative of a larger problem in modern, AAA game making.

Every game features an open world these days, mostly because Grand Theft Auto sells well. Assassin's Creed went open world, Tomb Raider went open world, Saint's Row's entire existence is proof that "crime focused open world game" is a genre distinction now that GTA is the most popular thing going. In fact, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grand Theft Auto sells well, thus more games feature open worlds, thus more open world games sell well, which makes publishers think that open world means good sales, thus more sequels with open worlds are developed and so on and so forth until the heat death of the universe.

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

A huge world of water. And more water. Didn't people hate this in Wind Waker like a decade ago? 

Of course, that's not only true of open worlds, but when you make a game in the other most popular game genre going right now, first person shooters, you can't really rely on having "more guns" as your big sequel sales hook. A bigger world is a tangible thing people always want, without necessarily worrying about the consequences. If open worlds are your jam, then of course you want a bigger one. More places to explore, more ways to get around, more NPCs to brutalize in new, unexpected ways, it's pretty much everything you want from an open world sequel.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

Look, if you just read that paragraph over there, this would make a lot more sense.

The problem is that most of the time, they just end up diluting the formula. If the core gameplay, the moment-to-moment things you're doing in a game is like chocolate syrup, you want a glass of chocolate milk. There needs to be some milk in there, so you aren't just pouring syrup into your mouth. Think of the milk as the world, the details that embellish a game. The game does need to be a little deeper than just a core idea, after all. But when you start adding too much milk, you start to lose the flavour. You can barely taste the chocolate syrup anymore, and all you really have is vaguely brown milk. Then you add even more milk and the cup overflows and you've just made a whole mess of the kitchen. Clean this up, right now.

I may have lost the thread at the end there, but the idea is, the bigger your world gets, the less likely it is to properly highlight the core gameplay of the world, and the more likely it is to feel bland and empty. When there’s so much negative space between missions and side quests, you find yourself just running between things, doing a whole lot of nothing for minutes at a time. The Batman games have a pretty neat grappling and gliding mechanic, but even that gets old. Saint’s Row IV let me leap over buildings, run faster than any car, and BASE jump to my targets from the top of the world, and I still got bored of getting from point A to point B. I suppose that it makes me appreciate it more when I’m actually playing the game, but that’s like saying it would be harder if you chopped off my thumbs, it’s illogical. The best excuse for an open world, in my mind, is atmosphere. I love Shadow of the Colossus’ big empty world because it’s so eerie and beautifully designed, not because I have to spend 10 minutes running from the central temple to the Colossus each time I’m itching for a fight. But, the bigger your world is, the less time and money you have for details. Saint’s Row IVs city is huge, but it’s also sterile. The same billboards show up again and again, building interiors, for the ones that even have such a thing, are bland and boring. Most of the skyscrapers and houses are the same stock model with slight alterations. You don’t notice it, because you don’t really slow down to look at the world at all, but take a look. It’s not because the developers are lazy, it’s just a symptom of having such a huge world to develop. They can’t make a million unique houses, they don’t have that kind of time or money. No one does.

It's a big city...

It's a big city...

...and a bigger world.

...and a bigger world.

Well, Rockstar does, considering GTA V took five years to make and cost more than $150 million after you deduct advertising costs from the budget. But they’re the glorious exception. They can have huge detailed worlds because they have both the time and the money that no one else could even dream of. Look at Shenmue. That game cost $47 million in 1999, making it the most expensive game ever developed at the time, and ninth on Wikipedia’s list of the most expensive games ever developed. Shenmue’s open world was tiny, but incredibly detailed, with little things like drawers you could open, and other tiny, almost unnoticeable background features. Of course, GTA III came out just a short while later and blew it out of the water with it’s comparatively massive world. It was cheaper, bigger, wasn’t delayed nearly as many times as Shenmue, and far more successful. Bigger is better. Detail is the enemy of budgets and release schedules.

But bigger isn’t better, is it? The world is big but empty and lifeless. The world takes hours to trek across, but those are hours you aren’t actually playing the game. The world is bigger than ever before, but every building looks the same, and the NPCs mull about pointlessly like they always have. A bigger world isn’t a bad idea per se, but if it’s your priority over actually making the gameplay more interesting, or the existing world more detailed and interesting to explore, you’re just feeding the problem. There’s no innovation in getting bigger, you’re just diluting the chocolate milk. And eventually, it’ll get to be so bland that no one’s going to want to drink it.


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The Primer- Open Worlds

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The Primer- Open Worlds

This month, we're all about open worlds, so we decided to take a look back at some games that tried to do something new and interesting with the open world concept at the time they came out. Assuming you've already played Grand Theft Auto and its ilk, you're probably pretty well acquainted with the standard concept of an open world sandbox, so how about something a little more offbeat?

Super Metroid:

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So, Super Metroid isn't quite an open world game in the way we traditionally think of one. It doesn't have a wide open sandbox, the limits of the world are pretty clearly set out, and there's a very clear linear path you're meant to follow to the end of the game. But, the thing about Super Metroid is that it was one of the earliest games to successfully implement an open world structure into a traditional action game framework.

Even from the beginning, Super Metroid never tells you where you need to go. Hints are dropped frequently, and places too far along the critical path are locked until you find a specific power up that will let you through the gates, but you're never given specific directions. From the moment the game gives you free reign over the environment (pretty much when you enter Brinstar), the linearity takes a backseat to teaching you how to play with carefully constructed, subtle challenges, as well as always giving you enough rope to hang yourself with. You'll never get stuck, but you'll always know you're just tantalizingly out of range of one more secret.

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Super Metroid's constantly expanding map told you where you were and where you'd been, but when you zoomed it out, you could start seeing where secret passages might be hidden, items might be tucked away, and shortcuts might be explored. You would start to find hooks, places you could explore off of the directed path that led towards Mother Brain and the end of the game, and find non-essential power ups and items there. The X-Ray beam and Spring Ball come to mind, but so do dozens of missile expansions and energy tanks.

So no, Super Metroid isn't quite an open world game, but if you want to see a masterclass in how to make a game more interesting by properly implementing open world design, it's one of the first, and still easily the best.

Dark Souls:

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Dark Souls takes what Super Metroid started, and pumps it full of open world steroids. After the tutorial area, you can start poking around the Firelink Shrine and end up in the nearby graveyard, which is meant to cream any player not already a decent chunk of their way into the game.  If you're quick on your feet and figure out the lay of the land though, you can run by tricky challenges and use the doors between areas to get around anything in your way.

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But, unlike Super Metroid, the doors aren't gated according to what gear you've found. It's hard to get around Super Metroid's Marida until you've found the Gravity Suit, which will let you move freely in water. In Dark Souls, however, there's nothing stopping you from running right through late game areas at level one. The only real gate is Sen's Fortress, which doesn't open up until you ring the two bells, which you can of course ring in any order you like.

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Dark Souls is so open to varying playstyles that you can go through the entire game with nothing but a shield. Dark Souls emphasis on atmosphere and careful, measured combat makes that sort of big open world fun rather than frustrating. It's always easy to tell when you're biting off more than you can chew, and retreating isn't terribly hard. Dying only costs you souls, your global currency, and those can be recovered from a bloodstain left when you die. The real measure of your progress, your personal experience as a player, goes nowhere. You're encouraged to fail and try again, and maybe take one of the dozens of different paths to your goal, or even just take up a new goal entirely.  It's a fantastic expression of what the open world concept can do when applied to a genre that isn't "generic third person action game".

Shenmue:

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Shenmue came out in North America on November 8th, 2000, just a month before Grand Theft Auto III set the world's love for open-world sandboxes aflame. Shenmue came out for the commercially unsuccessful Dreamcast, while Grand Theft Auto III was a fairly early game for the PS2, which I don't know if you've heard of, but it was the most successful console in history. Shenmue was so expensive to make that it's often cited as one of the reasons Sega got out of the hardware game, while Grand Theft Auto III was so successful they can still afford to blow a quarter of a billion dollars on the latest entry in the series, GTA V.

What I'm saying is that no one really remembers Shenmue, which is a shame, because it is in almost every way the anti-GTA sandbox game. Instead of a huge city to explore, protagonist Ryo Hazuki explores a comparatively tiny town, with just a few locals hanging around. But, instead of Liberty City's sterile, interior-less environment, Shenmue took incredible care in detailing every single aspect of the world. You could open up cupboards and closets, gardens were fully featured, right down to that bamboo thing that fills up with water and then makes a *donk* noise when it falls down to empty out.  You could even swap out the randomly generated weather effects for the historical weather records of that part of Japan in 1986, when the game is set.

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You can eat off of GTA III. There's very little detail to its world, to the point where it's almost not even a world at all. It's a playground, where you can jack cars and shoot blocky polygons with awful controls. Of course, it has the upper hand on Shenmue is about a dozen other ways, but imagine a world where Shenmue became the open world game every developer wanted to copy instead of GTA. All martial arts, no guns, driving forklifts all day through a hyper-detailed, if sort of tiny, town.

We'd live in a very different kind of open world.

Far Cry 2:

The famous story about Far Cry 2 goes that while testing the in-game fire effects, they blew up an explosive barrel, which set fire to the surrounding grass. Then the nearby hut. Then the trees. Then a propane tank, which exploded in a dozen directions, lighting up everything in its path, including an enemy guard who ran into a friend of his, lighting him on fire too. Within two minutes, the entire world was on fire. Obviously, they had to tone it down pretty quickly, but the core idea was now permanently in the game. Everything burns, and if you want to, you can set fire to the world to see what happens.

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Far Cry 2 is a fascinating expression of the sandbox concept, because it never puts any restrictions on players. Want to kill your story-relevant partner characters? Go ahead, they stay dead. Want to play as a suicidal madman who doesn't take his malaria pills until the last second? It's an option. Gearbox's Anthony Burch once held a GDC lecture on how playing the game with permadeath turns into a powerful, meaningful experience on the nature and pragmatism of evil. Any way you want to play Far Cry 2, it's there, and it's probably super cool. The possibilities for emergent gameplay are endless.

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I doubt we'll ever see a game as open and willing to let the player muck around as Far Cry 2 again. Even Far Cry 3 was a much more prescribed, directed experience. That sort of openness and freedom invites dozens of flaws, most of which Far Cry 2 suffers from on a regular basis. Clint Hocking, the game's designer, left Ubisoft a few years ago, and is now working on mystery projects of his own. But Far Cry 2 came at this fascinating delta when open world games were the single most popular game in existence, and first person shooters were just coming off of the high from the initial Modern Warfare. A first person open world game was both innovative enough to draw top talent looking to do something new, and could also get the kind of budget to not be a horrible disaster. We might not live in those times anymore, but Far Cry 2 is like $5 at this point, so you have no reason to give it a shot and party like it's 2008 and we still had hope for the industry.


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Open Worlds- An Introduction

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Open Worlds- An Introduction

We play games in an ever growing world. I mean that literally, in the sense that there are more people playing video games now than ever before, but also in the sense that worlds we play games in are growing. Expanding to ever greater horizons. 

Sometimes, it's because they do incredible new things, shattering our perceptions of what games can be and how they can play. Those are the special games, the one's we'll remember in years, even decades. Often times though, games will go for a more obvious solution to the innovation problem- they get bigger.

Last year, Metal Gear Solid was announced as going open world, so were Mirror's Edge, The Witcher, even Zelda went open world with Link Between Worlds. Every new AAA game announced that isn't a first person shooter is probably either an open world game, or features some open world mechanics. Open worlds are pretty much where it's at these days. Yet, we don't often see a ton of innovation on that concept. Grand Theft Auto is the same core game that it's been since GTA III, Assasin's Creed's solution to improving its open world was to make it bigger and pull a Wind Waker by taking you to the seas. Our worlds are getting bigger, but not necessarily better in any tangible way. 

Meanwhile, games in the indie space don't tackle the open world nearly as much as their AAA counterparts. Is it a resource thing? Do they not want to follow the trends set forth by the mainstream industry? Retro City Rampage, an NES-styled take on Grand Theft Auto gameplay took years to make, and didn't really set the world on fire. Even Minecraft, which is technically open world, isn't really played for that aspect. The upcoming No Man's Sky looks absolutely fascinating, but, like Minecraft, it's open world is procedurally generated, making it a pretty different take on the norm. Is that the future of open worlds? Co-opting rogue-like tropes and appealing them to a wider audience?

In a nutshell, what is the future of open worlds? Are they the most stagnant genre in our medium of murder simulators? Or are they, like their name implies, open to changes that we can't even imagine yet? 

Let's get lost. 

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