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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Mad Max game

Normally, I try not to get excited about movie-tie in games. They have a very bad track record - with only a handful of exceptions. But this Mad Max game wasn't a direct movie adaptation, and it didn't release simultaneously with the movie, implying that it hopefully wasn't being rushed out the door to meet the movie's release. Warner Brothers Interactive had previously released Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, which was also sort of a tie-in to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, and that game was actually very exceptional! It had a novel and innovative concept around which the entire game revolved (making it very focused), and it was a very well-polished game that was immensely comfortable to control. So Warner Bros had earned some benefit of the doubt for its next game. I wasn't expecting Mad Max to match (let alone exceed) Shadow of Mordor, but I still had hopes that this one would turn out to be a well-realized game that could stand tall and proud as one of those rare, good movie tie-in games. After all, the concept of an open-world, post-apocalyptic action game about smashing spiky, nitrous-fueled cars into each certainly sounds like a solid premise for a game!

Well, not quite...

Wasteland chaos

Mad Max - conflicting button prompts
Many actions are overloaded to the X button - the game even displays conflicting prompts at times!

Virtually every interaction that I had with the game was either naggingly uncomfortable in some way or was prone to glitches. Even the basics of moving around and interacting with objects in the game world was a constant chore. When one button does everything; it does nothing (see my Assassin's Creed III review). Fortunately, a couple really important functions (like getting in and out of cars) were mapped to different buttons, but virtually everything else uses the X button. So if you're standing in front of a ladder and holding a weapon, it's a crapshoot whether the game will decide to let you climb the ladder or make you drop the weapon, and then it'll be a crap shoot whether the game lets you pick up the weapon again. Oh there's button-prompts to tell you what you can and can't do, but sometimes they outright conflict with one another. Besides, when you're running or fighting, then you're reacting on impulse and muscle memory rather than reading screen prompts. It doesn't help that the character's movement is very fidgety, so it's hard to position yourself properly when trying to interact with objects. I think the developers recognized this, which is probably why they make you have to hold the button for a second in order to perform most actions - to give you time to ask yourself "are you sure this is the action you want to do?".

Not enough space for vehicular combat

Clunky movement isn't limited to walking on foot. Steering vehicles is also very fidgety and floaty, and I found it very difficult to perform any precision maneuvering in the cars. The cars all tend to understeer at high speeds, but then strangely oversteer or fish-tail whenever you let off the gas. Trying to hit a ramp or knock down an enemy scarecrow or ram a sniper tower would often require multiple passes in order to succeed, and doing slaloms through the canyons resulted in a lot of cheap impacts. The rough terrain also leads to a lot of spin-outs. The vehicles feel so weightless and floaty that they can park on nearly vertical slopes, and running over a pebble can send the car hurtling and flipping 20 feet in the air. On a more personal note, I prefer my driving games to have cameras very close to the action, and so Mad Max's driving camera feels like it's a mile away from the action, which makes it harder for me to get a feel for precisely where the car is in relation to the environment. Virtually none of the game's vehicular set pieces really worked all that well for me due to these nagging control and scaling issues. If the map were bigger to accommodate multiple vehicles running side-by-side on a road, then dealing with the low-traction sand or the unlevel rocks wouldn't be so much of a consistent problem. Even having the option to zoom in the camera (an option that I couldn't find) would go along way towards helping me make more precise maneuvers.

Mad Max - vehicular combat
The primary gimmick of vehicular combat works fairly well in spite of the map not feeling big enough to support it.

This game really lives or dies based on how well the cars perform. The bulk of the game is played from within your car. You use the car to travel the world, and it's actually your primary weapon thanks to the game's novel vehicular combat. This vehicular combat would actually be really fun if the cars handled a bit better and were durable enough to actually take the beating that the combat entails...

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Mad Max: Fury Road - review

For years, I've been complaining about the dumbing-down of movies and the lack of subtlety, complexity, nuance, and meaning in the stories that Hollywood has been willing to tell. Apologists keep telling me that the modern movie-goer doesn't have the patience for deeper, more philosophical narratives. Filling the screen with explosions as audiences shove popcorn down their gullets is the only way to fill the theater seats, they say.

I don't think this is true. After all, many of these movie-goers are the same people who watched (and revere) movies like Alien, The Terminator, The Empire Strikes Back, and the other classic action and science fiction films of yesteryear. These movies were more than just dumb action movies. They had depth. They told well thought-out narratives that took place in believable, lived-in worlds that used subtle details to tell the untold stories behind the scenes with their sets, costumes, props, and other visual elements.

Why can't modern audiences accept movies like that anymore? Why do we have to buy into this idea that an action movie can't have a complex plot with real characters, and action that actually serves a plot while the plot also serves the action? If Mad Max: Fury Road proves financially successful (it's already proven critically successful), then it will prove that modern audiences can accept such a movie.

If you do want to shut off your brain and watch explosions for two hours, then Fury Road has you covered. It is an over-the-top, non-stop orgy of car chases, shoot-outs, and guitars that shoot fire! But it's also so much more.

Mad Max: Fury Road - Furiosa
The action serves a purpose by helping to develop the characters without wasting time with exposition.

The action scenes are very well constructed, and used a lot of practical effects and stunts. The sequences were appropriately chaotic and furious, and didn't suffer from the appearance of being tightly choreographed (even though it certainly was). And every bit of action moved the plot along and provided depth and characterization for the characters.

The movie doesn't waste time with much character exposition. But there is still plenty of development and depth to the characters. The film uses its action to inform the characters' personalities ...

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Grand Theft Auto V - title

Grand Theft Auto V is a game that does not get off on the right foot at all. The intro tutorial is a complete mess.

Remember how in Grand Theft Auto IV, the protagonist was introduced in a cutscene during the opening credits? We learn about his personality and motivations, and why he is coming to America. Then you get off the boat, gameplay begins, and you are immediately given a simple driving tutorial in which you taxi your drunk cousin two blocks to his shithole apartment, all the while learning more about the characters and the game world itself. Then you do some simple taxi missions that let you practice driving while simultaneously letting you learn the layout of the city and soak in the environment. Then you start getting asked to beat people up and throw bricks through store windows and get tutorialized on how to fight, shoot, and do other advanced mechanics. And during all this time, the game slowly builds up a hatred and distrust for the criminals that you are working for while simultaneously laying the foundations of the game's depressing-but-exceptionally-introspective plot.

Remember all that? Remember how well that game was paced? Remember how the tutorials always showed up at appropriate times, explained a mechanic during non-interactive cutscenes so that you can pay attention to the instructions, then lets you practice the mechanic while it's fresh in your memory? Remember how well it slowly built up the important mechanics one at a time - as they became relevant - while also immersing you in the game world and building up its story to a climactic closing of the first act? Yeah, that was great game design, wasn't it?

Well, GTA V has none of that.

Grand Theft Auto V - intro bank robbery
An almost unbearable tutorial.

The intro tutorial literally throws the player into the middle of a bank robbery in progress. You have no idea who your character is, why he's robbing a bank, who your companions are, or what the "plan" that everybody keeps telling you to "stick to" is. Then it puts an assault rifle in your hands, and a tiny little box pops up in the corner of the screen with 6-point font telling you what to do while you're trying to do the thing that it's telling you to do - and hopefully not doing the wrong thing. And then they stick you in the middle of a gunfight with an entire small army of police, and these barely-visible text popups try to tell you how to use the cover mechanics, switch weapons, and trigger super powers - all while you're being shot at. Then you go for hours before using many of these mechanics again, so you forget them all because you had zero time to practice and remember them, and they were all thrown at you at once.

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A gamer's life...

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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