Last time, I discussed what I perceive as a problem in the way that most open world games (specifically, sandbox games) design their maps and use the space that the maps offer - or fail to use that space, to be more specific. So many open world maps end up feeling less like actually playing the game, and more like a convoluted mission-select and collectible checklist screens. This problem is especially bad in the Ubisoft model of design, and is also a problem (to a lesser extent) in Bethesda's open worlds. Due to the popularity of these developers' franchises, many other developers have been cloning these styles of games to one extent or the other, to the point at which Ubisoft's open world model seems to be the go-to template for any developer trying to make an open world game. These games aren't necessarily bad. They just aren't very good at making the space of their maps feel meaningful in its own right.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate - zipline
Many open world games have large, expansive maps that mostly feel empty and pointless,
as the player rushes through them simply to get to the next map marker or checklist item.

But now that I've established what I see as a problem, I want to focus on positive feedback. In this discussion, I'm going to look at a handful of games that should serve as inspirations for would-be open world developers. Ironically, some of these games aren't even open world games, but they still pose valuable lessons for how games that are open world could better use their game spaces. That isn't to say that the games discussed here are perfect. In fact, many of them have their own major flaws. But each of them has some element of design that utilizes the actual game map as a component of active play, rather than just a space in which game sequences exist. First, let's take a look at a game that was re-made recently, and use it as a "before and after" case study of map design...

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I wrote a lengthy blog late last year about the stagnant, "limbo"-like feel of most open world games' narratives. I had written that blog mostly before I played Metal Gear Solid V, and so I wasn't able to incorporate my thoughts regarding that game into the blog. But I did come to a new realization about open world gaming while I was playing MGSV. In my review of that game, I noted that:

"Even the open world itself feels constrained, as sheer cliffs prevent you from travelling too far off of the roads and serve to functionally railroad the player towards the small set-piece outposts and villages."
    - from my Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain review

I realized while playing MGSV that the game had built this large, open world (well, two large, open worlds really, but I hadn't gotten that far yet), but it didn't really care to let the player actually traverse that space or use it in any meaningful way other than scavenger hunting for collectibles. At least those collectibles felt relevant to gameplay though! Roughly half the map is dead space that the player can't even access. There was also this strange focus on using the helicopter to drop in and drop out of missions, rather than actually living in the game world, as the character had to do in Snake Eater. The map started to feel less and less like a place, and more like a convoluted mission-select screen. At first, this seemed like a strange, isolated example of an open world game that really doesn't want the player actually exploring its world. But as I thought about it, I realized that this isn't really a new phenomenon; it's actually just a very extreme example of what has become a sort of defacto state in most open world games.

Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain - restricted world map
The Afghanistan map of Metal Gear Solid V feels heavily constrained by sheer cliffs.

Think about it this way: in a linear game with rooms and corridors, every hallway and room should serve some purpose or function. In most games, this function will be some kind of skill or system mastery test. An action game like Devil May Cry will throw enemies at you to fight; a puzzle game like Portal will have a puzzle (or a piece of a puzzle) in the room to solve; a stealth game like Metal Gear Solid 3 will have a sneaking challenge or obstacle to pass; and so on. In the best games, each of these challenges will also provide a unique or novel test of skill or system mastery: unique combinations of enemies, unique puzzles, or novel arrangements of enemies and obstacles. Other games can use those rooms for thematic or narrative purposes. A survival horror game like Resident Evil or Silent Hill will usually put enemies, puzzle items, or supplies in a room, but some rooms might instead contain a scripted scare. In some cases, a room might even be left completely empty in order to build some kind of tension or anticipation, or to delay the release of already-built tension or anticipation.

So what is the gameplay purpose of an open world map? ...

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Fallout 4

"Pirate Lord Captain Gregle, Slayer of Ancients and World-Renowned Trapeeze Artist" sounds like a pretty legendary character, right? Well, he wasn't. In fact, he was a very lucky, over-achieving halfling rogue in a short-lived campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. I rolled for the character's initial stats, got fairly low constitution, and then rolled the minimum value for hit dice for the first few levels. The result was a sixth-level character with a pathetic sixteen max hit points! A single lucky shot from virtually any enemy could be an instant KO for that character, and getting engaged in melee would practically be a death sentence. While some power gamers may scoff at the idea, rage against their dice, and then remake their character with a standard array and average HP, I decided to run with it and role play the hell out of little Gregle.

Dungeons & Dragons - Halfling Gregle
Character sheet for "Pirate Lord Captain Gregle, Slayer of Ancients and World-Renowned Trapeeze Artist"

With the low initial constitution, I focused my character around stealth abilities, disengagement and evasion tactics, and ranged attacks, and continued to improve those skills as I leveled. Knowing that he's a pathetic weakling, Gregle overcompensated by being a very flamboyant braggart and narcissist (I took inspiration from Stephen Colbert), and thought that he was more charming than he actually was. He routinely hid in the shadows, taking pot shots at vulnerable enemies and racking up kill steals from afar while his two warrior companions did most of the heavy-lifting. He would occasionally disarm a trap or unlock a door, and once used a clever trick to pacify (and subjugate) an entire band of pirates. He then took credit for much of the party's achievements.

Despite having only slightly above average charisma, he leaned on his halfling luck to succeed on some charisma checks and make himself a bit of a celebrity with the local townies for his exaggerated heroics. He reveled in the unprecedented access to their community that the locals provided, and he reveled in the adulant gifts that they showered upon him, happily hoarding it all in his bag of holding. The other party members never called him out on it in public, since they were just happy to have the cooperation of the locals.

While the other players and DM enjoyed Gregle's antics, their characters only barely tolerated his presence. During the actual adventuring, he was constantly getting into trouble and needing to be bailed out by his fellow adventurers. He once falsely awakened the party during his night watch after mistaking a wyvern for a dragon. In another instance, he was KO'd while using spider-boots to walk up a ceiling to pursue an enemy that had climbed a rope to escape the conflict, and he became stuck on the ceiling, forcing the party to figure out a way to get him down. They reluctantly obliged to help him, since Gregle was the possessor of the party's bag of holding, and was actually good at sneaking around to perform recon, unlocking doors, disarming traps, coming up with clever plans to avoid direct conflict, and other appropriately roguish things.

Gregle was one of the most fun characters that I've ever played, and he provided me with one of my most entertaining gaming experiences. This is the power of role playing to a character's strengths and weaknesses. It's a power that Bethesda shows no interest in utilizing for Fallout 4.

Out of the vault and into the wastes

I have to give credit to Bethesda for making one really interesting decision with Fallout 4: the game starts in a time period prior to the Great War that triggered the nuclear holocaust, and so it explores as yet unseen elements of the series' backstory. Or at least, it does for all of fifteen minutes. Much like Fallout 3, the pre-war gameplay and time that you spend in the vault is really just an extended tutorial and character-creation process. But unlike Fallout 3, it doesn't give enough time and depth to those settings to make the player legitimately care about them or the characters in them.

Fallout 4 - pre-war home
You don't spend enough time in your pre-war home or vault to develop any attachment to the place or people.

After creating your character and setting your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, you and your spouse immediately flee with your infant child to the neighborhood vault. Once inside, you're handed the trademark silly superhero pajama jumpsuit and then promptly cryogenically frozen. You awake to witness your spouse get murdered and child kidnapped by apparent raiders, but then get frozen again. Then you awake again to do the combat tutorial against radroaches before leaving the vault and starting the game proper.

You spend virtually no time in the pre-war time period; you don't bond at all with your spouse or child; you don't establish any connections with your home or neighbors. There is absolutely no emotional bond between the player and what is lost in the war. So when the game drops you in the wasteland with a dead spouse, a missing child, and a quest to track down the kidnapper/killer, it does so without creating any emotional connection or investment for the player. I could go to Concord and then to Diamond City and search for my son, or I could just wander off in any random direction fighting raiders and painstakingly building my own little settlement out in the middle of nowhere using salvaged car tires and scrapped raider armor. Fallout 4 doesn't waste any time taking a nose-dive into the open world limbo.

Fallout 3 - birthday in vault 101
Fallout 3 simulated an entire childhood in the
vault, with friends, family, and even bullies.

Compare this against Fallout 3's prologue. It spent a considerably longer time developing your character and immersing you in the vault. Your dad (voiced by Liam Neeson) plays with you as a baby to teach movement and camera controls, he teaches you how to shoot, and throws a surprise birthday party for you. You interact with a childhood friend, other vault dwellers, and even a bully in order to tutorialize persuasion and speech checks and learn how to solve conflicts without violence. You even go to school and take a test to determine your default skills. In the short amount of time in the vault, you've lived a montage of an entire life.

With only a little bit of buy-in from the player, Fallout 3's Vault 101 becomes a living, breathing place populated with people who you can relate to and care about. You, as a player, have an investment in it and the characters that inhabit it. So when shit happens and you have to leave the vault, it's a monumental moment, and the events of your life, and the decisions that you've made, will shape your character's development over the rest of the game.

Even Skyrim gave the player interesting role-play decisions in its tutorial by required your character to make an immediate decision to follow the imperials or the Stormcloaks (though the scenario makes that decision a pretty one-sided one). And your initial choices of weapons and battle tactics would level up those specific skills; thus, starting the character down a path towards specializing in those skills as the game progressed (though you were completely free to change all that if you want).

And Fallout 4 has a perfect opportunity to take that father / son dynamic from Fallout 3, and invert it! The game could have opened with the birth of the baby. Since Bethesda had to record dialogue for multiple names for the player character, they could just as easily have done the same with the child's name. The doctor could hand you a paper with "This Year's Popular Baby Names", and you could chose one of those names that were explicitly recorded in dialogue. You could even be given the option to type your own name and replace the child's name with "my son" in dialogue. You could fill out the child's name and your own character's name on the birth certificate. Naming the baby would create a sense of ownership and connection to the child that might help encourage the player to pursue the main quest.

Fallout 4 - leaving the vault
Fallout 4's vault serves only as a combat tutorial with no depth, emotional resonance, or meaningful decisions.

But it doesn't have to stop there...

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Playing games like Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, The Witcher 3, Mad Max, Metal Gear Solid V, and other open-world games has made me increasingly weary of open-world gaming. Narrative-based, open world games like these suffer from a problem that I have started calling "open world limbo" (or "open world purgatory"). This is a sort of paradoxical offshoot of the concept of ludonarrative dissonance. The game's open world "sandbox" design seems to directly conflict with the narrative that the game is trying to tell. It specifically refers to the conflict between the story and the game's open world, rather than a conflict between the game's story and any particular game system(s). Generally, this manifests as the game designers setting the stakes so high that the player should feel pressured to progress the narrative, but the game's open world design never follows through with any real consequences for not progressing.

Metal Gear Solid V - open desert
More and more big-budget games are going open world. is this a good thing?

This leads to problems in which the player can spend hours, weeks, or months doing tangential, or completely unrelated, tasks and pushing the game's story objectives down to the bottom of their priority list. For people who just like to play the game, this may not be much of a problem. They get a massive sandbox in which to do anything they want. That is actually one of the back-of-the-box selling point for most of these games.

But as one of those "games as art" kind of snobs, I also really like to have an engaging narrative that flows seamlessly with the gameplay. So if a game offers a narrative of any kind, you bet I'm going to judge the game based (at least in part) by how well that narrative works and how fully it is integrated into the core gameplay experience. And when a game tries to convince the player that they are destined to save the world from impending doom (as is often the case with big-budget, open world games), then I get really peeved when I find myself able to completely eschew that destiny in favor of picking flowers and peddling salvaged bandit armor for the next 100 hours.

A world in stasis

The source of most of the "limbo" comes down to the fact that these games' worlds (despite being big and detailed) often feel static and devoid of life. They don't change on their own. No one seems to have any sense of agency, and nothing ever happens unless the player is there to make it happen. Quest-givers sit around outside their house forever waiting for the player to come along and help them kill the wolves that are attacking their livestock, or find their missing heirloom, or deliver their special package to someone in the next town over, or whatever else they want done. The situation never resolves itself, the quest-giver never gets tired of waiting for you and hires another adventurer, those wolves never manage to eat all the remaining livestock, the heirloom never shows up in lost-and-found, and the statute of limitations on that package never expires. Emergencies can always wait [indefinitely] for the player to resolve them.

Witcher 3 - idle quest-giver
Quest-givers will wait forever for the player character to show up and solve their problems.

But worst of all is that the big, bad villain (if there is one) just doesn't feel very threatening or intimidating if he (or she, or it) isn't actually doing anything to actively antagonize the player or the world...

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Fallout Shelter

My recent forays into mobile and casual games has been pretty disappointing. I'm becoming pretty pessimistic about these games, and hoped that Bethesda's Fallout Shelter might have the production quality and complexity of design to keep my attention. After all, Bethesda doesn't seem to be using this game as a simple delivery service for micro-transactions and actually seemed to be taking it seriously as a video game.

Fallout Shelter does, indeed feel like a more honest attempt to make a true video game for mobile devices. Some of the telltale features of casual games are present, such as rewards for daily play and some micro-transactions. But the game isn't constantly badgering you to buy micro-transactions, and the player can't spend money to accelerate the basic production cycles of the game (as is the case in most other casual, resource-production games of this type). In fact, there are plenty of high-level items that can be unlocked fairly early via in-game rewards without having to spend any money at all.

Fallout from a different perspective

The player assumes the role of a vault overseer in the Fallout universe and must build your vault and manage the dwellers that live inside. Each dweller is assigned to a specific room in order to produce resources. There are three resources: power, water, and food, that are each produced in various rooms that you can build in the vault. Each resource has its own unique utility. Power allows rooms to keep functioning. Food keeps the dwellers from losing HP. Water keeps the dwellers from suffering radiation poisoning. And bottle caps are used as the primary currency for building rooms and buying or selling equipment. I don't get the sense that the different resources are just a way of forcing the player to grind more to pad out the length of the game, and the costs of new items stay fairly low and reasonable. There is still grinding, but it's nowhere near as painful or tedious as in Trexels, which has a very similar basic gameplay mechanic. Management is also more complicated than in Trexels, since each dweller has specific S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats that affect how quickly the room will produce resources. So it matters which room a dweller is assigned to.

Fallout Shelter - low food
The different resources have different utility, which makes the game feel less like a grind.

Worked rooms will produce resources every so often, but they can also be rushed if you're desperate. Or if you want extra money, or if you want experience for your dwellers, or if you just want surplus resources, or if you're just bored. Rushing production seems to be highly encouraged by the game mechanics, since it is the fastest path to bottle caps, experience, and resources! The tradeoff is that you risk triggering an "incident" whenever you rush production. Incidents can include the room breaking out in fire, or radroaches or mole rats infesting the room. Both will do gradual damage to any dwellers in the room while the dwellers try to fight them off. Incidents are easy enough to deal with, especially if you have a hefty stockpile of stimpacks, and if all your dwellers are equipped with weapons. The risk of incidents will increase each time you attempt to rush, and so everytime I load up a vault, I usually collect all the resources already accumulated, then I repeatedly rush all the production rooms until the risk of incidents goes up to 60% or more. And once you get a medbay and laboratory, you can produce (and rush) stimpacks and rad-aways to heal your dwellers from incidents, which makes this cycle almost trivially easy to maintain.

Incidents can also occur randomly, and you'll even see the occasional random raider attack...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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