I think the last few years have brought us to a bit of an inflection point for open world video games -- which I feel have been in kind of a rut for the better part of the last decade. Long-time readers of my personal blog will probably be very familiar with my complaints. The two core complaints that I've had with this particular game design paradigm are:

  1. That the map itself rarely feels meaningful as a game space, and instead serves primarily as a convoluted mission-select screen full of time-wasting filler content.
  2. That the sandboxy nature of the game design means that the world and narrative often feel stagnant (as if in a kind of "limbo").
This blog is mostly a transcript of a YouTube video that I posted.

These problems can be traced back at least to 2001's Grand Theft Auto III, which set many of the conventions of open world games for the next two decades. Companies from Ubisoft to Bethesda, and many others, would copy GTAIII's structure of going to a location on the map to trigger a mission in an aggressively linear, cinematic story, while spending free time on time-wasting filler content that did nothing to move the story forward.

Grand Theft Auto III set many of the standards
for open world games over the past 20 years.

Aside from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Far Cry series, these problems have been present to varying degrees in everything from Skyrim to The Saboteur to Mad Max to Just Cause to The Amazing Spider-Man to Fallout 4 to Metal Gear Solid V, and many more. It started getting to the point that when I would see a game advertise the size of its map, I'd roll my eyes and lose interest. "Great, that's just more wasting my time walking from place to place with nothing meaningful or interesting or challenging to do."

Where you are on the map, where you're going, and how you get there was almost completely irrelevant in these games, which made the map itself (no matter how big and scenic it might be) feel mostly irrelevant. In fact, some games started introducing mechanics that let you bypass the map entirely by letting you fly, glide, or zipline to points of interest without having to engage with the space in between. In the case of Metal Gear Solid V's Afghanistan map, the roads are lined with sheer cliffs, funneling the player along linear paths from enemy outpost to enemy outpost, with practically nothing for you to do in the space between outposts. Even though the stealth action at those outposts was some of the best in the series, I couldn't help but think that Snake Eater provided a much more fulfilling experience of living within an open-ended game world.

I would roll my eyes whenever a game advertised the size of its map or hours of content.

The maps themselves weren't playspaces anymore; they were just the spaces in between towns, dungeons, and set pieces where the actual gameplay would take place. Just point in the direction of a waypoint and walk in a straight line, stopping every minute or so to pick up an umpteenth collectible, or climb an umpteenth tower, or sneak into an umpteenth enemy base and kill the umpteenth recycled mini-boss. Stop me if you've done all this before... A majority of the time with the game was just travelling around the map without any engagement in any gameplay systems or mechanics or strategies, and then playing some rote, recycled filler content to pass the time. And as the maps got bigger and bigger, the filler content just kept multiplying.

...

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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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Miasmata

Although not a terrific game, the indie survival adventure game Miasmata (developed by Bob and Joe Johnson of IonFX) is an interesting title that does deserve to be played by its target audience. It's not a particularly challenging game, but players can back themselves up into seemingly insurmountable holes. Knowing the game's mechanics and rules - and knowing them early - is important to ensuring that you aren't forced to restart from the beginning or give up entirely.

Like with my previous strategy post for Alien Isolation, I am not going to provide specific walkthroughs for the game or any of its specific set piece challenges. In fact, doing so would be even harder than in Alien because Miasmata is a completely open-ended sandbox game. Instead, I will be offering some general-purpose tips that should be relevant for the entire game. This will include some techniques for working around the game's bugs and odd design flaws.

Miasmata - holding objective plant Miasmata - storage bin
Owl statues point towards a cache of medicinal plants, but they do not count as landmarks or show up on the map.

This should be a pretty obvious tip. If you find the plants that are used for the 3 parts of the cure, or the three emphasis drugs, you should immediately pick them and ...

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Miasmata

While looking for new survival horror games on Steam, I stumbled onto a very intriguing title: Miasmata. During my holiday break from work, I decided to boot up the game and see if it scratched my survival horror itch.

It didn't, on account of not actually being a survival horror game. But what I found instead was an equally interesting premise that immediately caught my attention and piqued my curiosity.

The Johnson brothers kept this game about as simple as it could possibly be (perhaps to its detriment). They had a core concept, and they stuck to it. As such, Miasmata is a very novel game. It is probably the only game that I've ever played that is solely about scientific research.

The end goal is to cure a disease that the character has contracted and then escape the island. This disease acts as the central challenge to the game: you have to periodically medicate yourself in order to control the symptoms, but all medications must be derived from the local flora. Failure to do so can slow you down, blur your vision, and eventually kill you. A sheer majority of the game, thus, consists of wandering around the island collecting samples of plants, and then returning them to the nearest laboratory to examine them and use them to concoct various potions. In addition to medicines, you can also create potions to enhance your physical strength and perception. Doing so will allow you to run and swim further, and allow you to always know your location on the map (respectively).

Miasmata - doing science
Stand back! I'm about to do SCIENCE!

Unfortunately, the process of analyzing the specimens is automated (via a skip-able cutscene). You don't actually have to do anything in order to figure out what the plant's effects are going to be, and no actual scientific knowledge is required by the player. Each plant also only has one effect, so the potion-making mechanic (which is the core of the game) is pretty shallow.

The effects of each plant will be noted in your journal, which is one of the best journal features of any game that I've ever played. It has a handy status page that includes pockets for storing your medicines, as well as holding your water flask. It also shows your objectives and has tabs to collected notes, your research results, and the map. The journal is also populated with hyperlinks that take you to the journal page with the relevant information. For example, if you find a note with ingredients for an objective drug, the status page will add a hyperlink to that note underneath the objective. It's every bit the journal that Silent Hill: Downpour wanted to have!

As you explore, you'll also find camps left behind by the deceased research team. These camps can contain notes that can reveal bits of backstory, provide recipes for various potions, or point you in the direction of key plant specimens. The camps also act as safe places for you to restock your supplies (including water), rest, and save your progress.

Keeping yourself hydrated and rested is important, as failure to do so can aggravate the symptoms of your illness and potentially kill you. Unfortunately, the feedback for this isn't terribly great. You'll get a notification when you're thirsty, but the game doesn't bother to tell you that you're tired. Instead, your health just starts rapidly deteriorating for no apparent reason. It took me a while to figure out that it was due to a lack of sleep.

Miasmata - pointless weapons
Combat mechanics are present,
but they don't have any affect.

A curious omission is that you don't have to eat. The game even includes various weapons scattered around the island, and there is an attack and throw command. But you can't attack the hostile panther-like creature that occasionally appears to hunt you, nor can you hunt and kill any of the game's various wildlife (beetles, squirrels, birds, and so forth). So you can only run and hide from the creature, and you only collect plants, which don't need to be attacked in order for specimens to be collected. So why are the weapons and attack mechanic even in the game?

Probably the second most significant mechanic is the map triangulation feature. Instead of revealing the map passively as you walk through it, the player must actively identify the location of landmarks ...

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A gamer's thoughts

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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