Some Stuff About Open World Games

By Jim Rossignol on July 15th, 2009 at 6:32 pm.


The notion of open game worlds has always appealed to me, ever since Elite. When there’s even the faintest whiff on a free roaming environment, or virtuality that I can go off an explore, I’m interested. It’s an impulse that leads me to spend endless hours in Stalker, or to expend an entire day driving around Fuel. But whatever game I play, I end up feeling somewhat dissatisfied. It’s kind of dissatisfaction that does not seem to be so common with linear or arena games. I think it’s to do with a specific tension that open world games create: between what the game is about, and what the environment – and its openness – implies.


The most obvious example of this tension that I can think of exists in Far Cry 2. The game’s environment is a brilliant Africa-in-miniature, and everything from the flies buzzing in the air to the gleam of the swampy jungle has been conjured spectacularly. The combat too is entertaining: fire propagation, over-wrought grenade physics, ludicrous close-combat battle-horror at the end of a semi-automatic shotgun. But the two systems do not mesh comfortably.

Far Cry 2 tries to push your experience as close to that of a traditional shooter as it can manage in this open environment. Once you’re outside of the key “safe” towns, anything and everything is an enemy, or a target. It is, like any traditional shooter, a rolling battle. This surprised and exasperated many gamers, because while they were happy to suspend disbelief for a game like, say, Crysis, which could be seen as a very wide corridor, they could not make the same leap for a game that did not really funnel you continuously in a single direction. The verisimilitude of Far Cry’s world – with its network of roads, villages, rivers and army encampments – seemed at odds with our experience of it. Where everyone was an enemy, and everything would chase, shoot, and attack you, the world seemed at odds with itself.

The very notion of it being an open world seemed to suggest that the game would support more life: civilians, passive enemies, the illusion of a wider world. I think about this, and I think about Outcast, the voxel sci-fi adventure. Right there, back in 1999, was a game brave enough to say: “here’s a world, it’s full of life, politics, danger, go deal with it and save your own world in the process.” You traipsed out into its pixellated valleys and did precisely that. Thanks to the freedom of movement and general neutrality of much of the world of Outcast, when combat occurred it was an moment of high drama. Combat in Far Cry 2, meanwhile, is often reduced to a kind of road-clearance. The Outcast player’s experience of being in a particular, although virtual, place was therefore (despite its incredibly lack of visual fidelity by modern standards) incredibly potent.

The illusionism required for an open world game is different to that of a linear game. For Half-Life 2 the illusion is all about momentum. As Gillen regularly points out, such games are all about forward motion, and they break down the moment we don’t see where to go, or who to shoot. Open world games go for quite a different illusion. They might simple be a big arena for stuff to happen in, or they might try to be a little more indulgent of our imagination, and to try to create the illusion that there’s really something going on, that there’s life.

Perhaps the best illusion of a living environment is the one generated by GTA4. The city of Rockstar’s most recent game is a masterwork on its own, without any of the game elements considered. I find myself lost in it, staring out of the window of a taxi with a similar reverie to that of visiting a real foreign city. Except here I can be much braver, and explore more fearlessly into dangerous terrain. It’s the potency of GTA4’s illusion of cityness that really gets me: the chatter on the sidewalks, the slow chug of the traffic around town, the general ambient goings on that pay little attention to you unless you specifically interfere with them. The failure of Far Cry 2 (and also in a related sense Fallout 3 and Assassin’s Creed) was that the design never really made a bid for that kind of suspension of disbelief. You were the centre of what was going on in those worlds, and you always knew it.

The illusion of life outside of your own in-game activities is, perhaps, one thing open worlds need pursue and exploit, beyond even the essential mechanics of their game. Stalker, for example, was fundamentally a shooter, just like Far Cry 2, but the existence of neutral or indifferent entities, the very-slightly wider range of interactions (an inventory, non-combat items) seemed to expand the illusion into something we wanted to poke, prod, and understand the limits of. This spooky Ukrainian countryside-dungeon really could be The Zone, and I could be the rogue, hooded individual charged with exploring it. While not precisely open-world in the same way GTA4 is, the game provided a sense of life and non-linearity that allowed you to get lost in it, and invest in it, because you were always given reasons to value the idea of exploring it.

Exploring. That seems to be to be the other aspect of open worlds that developers need to make the most of if they want to have their world mean something to players. Aside from the randomly distributed nonsense-money of Far Cry 2’s diamonds, it had little reason for you to poke about in particular points on the map. You could not expect to find many secrets – perhaps a hang-glider here and there. Instead, you followed the missions and did the violence where it was directed, and therefore most fruitful. I’d argue that where the open world model prospers is often when it gives you reason to explore and investigate its limits: finding the very highest jumps or the most obscure billboards in Burnout Paradise, for an example that is neither a shooter, nor trying to create the illusion of a living world.

I often feel as though open world games create fantastic places, but then fail to create a game that is appropriate to the environment we find ourselves in. Fallout 3’s mechanics, voices, and character design left me struggling to enjoy what is, clearly, an astonishing feat of world creation. I know that many people felt similarly aggrieved with Oblivion, although I actually got on with that a whole lot better. Similarly, when I played Assassin’s Creed my continuing reaction (aside from my indignation at the cutscenes) was a disbelief that the design team had done so little to exploit their astonishing medieval city. It felt, at times, that the assassination game was going on in spite of their bustling city around me – as if the team had created this beautiful world and then didn’t really know what to do with it, because they had this assassin game to be getting on with too…

So to come full circle with the sense of dissatisfaction with open world games: I think the way we experience them, by comparison with linear games, says something about how our gaming imagination functions. We seem to understand that when linear games point us in a certain direction, that’s the way to go. When an open world game appears, its very structure suggests something about how we should behave, or want to behave, and predisposes us to judge on the basis of how it entices us to go somewhere that the game itself hasn’t suggested, and on how it then deals with that action.

Further, there seems to be a need for us to feel more embedded, as if our actions matter more where we can come back to the scene of our actions. In Far Cry 2 I didn’t expect the enemies I’d killed at a checkpoint to reappear: the open world had led me to expect some level of persistence. In Fallout 3 I didn’t expect to be constrained by the ropes of the story, or the level structure, because that moment stepping outside the vault said: the horizon is the limit to this. Perhaps my own suspension of disbelief simply becomes less easy to manage, because the illusion of “worldiness” isn’t strong enough, or the game is really a linear experience in a very wide corridor, with no real reason for us to stray off the path.

One day I should like to see a game perform the incredible genre-splicing process required to marry up the elements that make various successful open worlds so strong. I should like that game to give me a direction, a purpose, without telling me exactly what I need to be doing. I should like it to ignore me, but nevertheless carry my mark when I choose make it. This imaginary game will, I hope, dump me on the midst of a strange place, perhaps with with a pyre of smoke on the horizon, and instruct me: “survive”.

I’d like that.

(Also, it would have an absolutely incredible map, but that’s another blog post.)

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189 Comments »

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  1. TCM says:

    Sounds a bit like Unreal World, if roguelikes are to your taste.

  2. Lintman says:

    I loved Oblivion’s big open world and didn’t bother with most of the main quest until I had completed/visited almost every side quest/town/village. By comparison, Fallout 3 felt small, with far less stuff to do.

    Stalker never really impressed me the way it seems to have done for a lot of people. Yeah, it’s a big, semi-open space and you could talk to people, but there wasn’t that much to do. And assorted barn, etc locations still repopulated with baddies when you left the area.

  3. the_magma says:

    pretty sure the hunter game referred to is which i remember fondly on the amiga. dunno if theres a pc port

  4. the_magma says:

    grammatical and html puke in previous post – soz. the link works though…

  5. Bozzley says:

    One problem with GTA4 I had (and probably the others too, come to think of it) is that aside from when you’re doing a mission, your character seems to be the only active participant in the world. Every NPC just walks along the pavements, or drives their cars immaculately down the roads.

    Imagine walking round a corner in GTA4 and seeing one NPC shoot another to rob their corpse. That Ferrari dealership on the middle island? Why not have an NPC go in there and drive a Ferrari right through the glass windows like I did every time? Maybe you walk past a house to see a SWAT van outside, hear police shouting at people, see them bring out the suspects and drive them away. Or to be all meta or whatever – you go down a back alley and see a guy in his car getting a blowjob off a hooker. You watch them finish, she gets out the car, and the guy drives over her to get his money back.

    GTA4 had this amazing looking space, but it filled it with the same automatons the other games had. I want to see them act like people every once in a while. OK, so seeing fourteen murders in one day might not be realistic, but that doesn’t stop Niko Bellic. Give the environment some life. Let some NPCs kill other NPCs.

    That all sounds really scary weird, but I’m sure there’s an awesome point in there somewhere.

  6. DaJobat says:

    http://www.greatgamesexperiment.com/game/Schiffbruch
    this is a good one too. hard sometimes, easy sometimes, always fun though.

  7. john t says:

    I find it fascinating that almost everybody agrees that Far Cry 2 was ultimately a failed game, and yet no one can stop talking about it. I gave up on it when I hit map 2, but I’m still glad I played it.

    I think creating an interesting failure like Far Cry 2 is a much better achievement than an overly polished turd like God of War part whatever.

  8. Magnus says:

    Ultima VII: The Black Gate.

    You could explore almost all of Britannia once you’d left the first city.

    People in towns had their own routines, you could bring companions with you or travel alone, there were loads of little secret places you could discover.

    All this from a game released in 1992.

  9. Dolphan says:

    Isn’t that premise (here’s a world, survive, possibly escape) used for oldie Robinson’s Requiem? I think that’s the name, never played it, but it’s on GoG and is famous for being obscenely hard (you can die of all sorts of things, including illness).

  10. 27kjmm says:

    i think the game you might be looking for is called I Am Alive by Ubisoft or at least that’s how I’ve hoped for it to turn out since its announcement at last year’s E3 but haven’t heard much since.

  11. Spectre-7 says:

    Hmmm… the description of hunter reminded me of Midwinter. Anyone else remember that game?

  12. Clovis says:

    And everybody shots me. Why? WTF?

    I can haz RPS meme, plz?

    Seriously, I love everything Tei writes, and not just because of the language barrier.

  13. Premium User Badge

    skalpadda says:

    I’d just love a big free open game which didn’t revolve around shooting/stabbing people in the face.

    I would adore something like a non-linear Dear Esther, set in a huge and diverse world, perhaps with a little problem solving, and a lot of interesting sights to see along the way. Being able to freely explore a narrative as you explore the world seems like an amazing thing, but I haven’t found anything that lets me do that.

    That’s not saying I disapprove of games that have you shoot things in the face, I’m currently clocking up an alarming amount of hours in Fallout 3 just going on daily exploration trips and I used to do the same in STALKER (although it was too small to remain interesting for very long).

  14. Sam C. says:

    @john t: I think it’s just that there’s so much potential there. It had beautiful scenery, some very solid combat, the interface was non-obtrusive and added to the immersion (I love the map that you hold in your hands).

    It’s like a sandbox where your only tool is a gun, and there’s so much more you could do with it. Virtual safaris, actual subterfuge and politics between the factions, being able to change the balance of power between the factions.

    If they would release a single player editor that’s even half as easy to use as their multiplayer editor, that would be amazing.

  15. Sam C. says:

    @tei: I think it’s interesting that you mention Mercs 2. I think that’s another game where they failed to take advantage of it being an open world environment. You still have to trek back to your mansion for most of the mission, and the world isn’t dynamic enough. There need to be more battles, more conflict between NPCs, while still giving the player the chance to influence the outcomes of those battles. I think the first Mercs did a better job there, there were a lot more areas where you could always find a battle between two different sides.

    It sounds like a lack of time or money for development is stopping a lot of these games from being fully fleshed out. I understand why, that there’s a limited return on adding more and it probably won’t translate into more sales, but still, it would be nice if developers had more money and time to raise the bar a little.

  16. luminosity says:

    Interesting that a lot of people are talking about quitting FC2 when they hit the second map. I’m just playing it through now, having needed to wait for a patch to stop it crashing, and I think the second map is way more interesting than the first one, filled with a lot more unique, fun locations.

    I can sympathise with wanting your impact on the world to be felt, and stay, and everything respawning annoys me too, but.. the game would also be bad I feel if everything stayed cleaned out after you’d visited. It’d lack tension which would lead to boredom. It seems to me like they just needed a better balance, like at certain points new enemies would appear, maybe a new mercenary troop hired to enter the country for instance. Maybe patrols would be mounted from the ceasefire zones and investigate camps that have stopped responding after a while, and reinforce them. You could track these, and destroy them on the way out even if you knew about it.

    And yeah, some interaction with people other than soldiers and mission npcs would be nice now and again. It’d be a lot more poignant to me if say you came across families working farms, and then along came a patrol of enemy troops and in the resulting firefight the farm was wasted, or some of the family killed. Or hell, if you could come across soldiers abusing npcs sometimes and you had the choice to rescue them or go on past.

  17. Premium User Badge

    solipsistnation says:

    @Ayekay said: It reminds me of a Greg Egan novel (Permutation City, I think)

    Yup, I believe that’s the one. He riffs on that theme in a few books.

    /me points at username.

  18. Kester says:

    @solipsistnation: I can see where you’re coming from there, but they were really adventure games at heart, more about solving daft puzzles than exploring. I was thinking more about the amount of time some people spend in MMOs just wandering about and admiring the scenery. I certainly used to do it a fair bit in Guild Wars, discovering ruined temples and whatnot at the edges of the map. Often I wished all the monsters would just piss off and leave me to it. It certainly ruins the atmosphere of a beautiful waterfall when a flying jellyfish is trying to curse you to death.

  19. Corey says:

    I couldn’t have explained Far Cry 2 any better. I reinstalled it recently because of all this “perma-death” blogging that’s been going on. I couldn’t remember why I stopped playing the game. Then I played it again and it all came back, those god damned guard posts are the deal-breaker for me. It really does just make it feel like absolutely everyone in this country is out to get you. Half the time jeeps come flying out of nowhere at me. It kind of ruins that open world by constantly forcing you to remember that because its a game, the enemies instantly know you’re the player.

    It’s a real shame because I really enjoy most of the game, but feeling like absolutely EVERYONE is out to kill me just isn’t fun. I felt similarly about fallout 3 as well, judging by the comments I think most gamers feel it.

    I do generally like open world games, GTA 4 was amazing, I spent time just walking the streets to see what would happen to me. That game really got the world right, it didn’t feel like the world was constantly trying to strangle you, and the bonus was just in having so much there to see, you could spend a day just people watching in the game.

  20. LionsPhil says:

    Damn, Spectre-7 beat me to it. Midwinter, woo! Bastard-hard thing, which I lamentably never grokked at the time. And I always crashed the bloody snowcat. :/

  21. Justin says:

    The whole “here’s some coordinates for a package” think in STALKER was a great mechanic for getting the player to explore the world and get rewards for doing so.

    Plus, it tied into the “must acquire EVERYTHING” reflex common to gamers. Well, at least me.

  22. Spectre-7 says:

    LionsPhil: Ha! Glad I wasn’t the only one who found it stupid-difficult. After all these years, the only thing I clearly remember is dying on every bleeding inch of that frozen island.

    Suddenly, the original DOS Terminator game comes to mind, too. I might have to hunt down a copy of each for open-world nostalgia’s sake.

  23. john t says:

    I’ve been playing Fallout 3 recently and have been thinking along these lines a great deal.

    Let me start about talking about identity.

    Who are you?

    You are what you do, essentially. And more than that, you are what you do repeatedly. If you go swimming once a year, you’re not really a swimmer. But someone who goes to competitions, sure is a swimmer. Most of us just don’t do one thing, we do many things, but we do have a limited number of things that we do, and we do them over and over again.

    We’ve also got a limited amount of attention that we can pay to activities. Generally, most of us can only be actually actively conscious of a few things at a time — as in actively occupied by an activity, fully, thinkingly aware of it.

    So, we spend our lives both doing the same things over over over again (work, drive, eat, go out clubbing/drinking, do our hobbies (wood working or what have you), and we focus our attention on the same things over and over again.

    The more often you pay attention to or do the same things over and over again, the better you get at it and, somewhat paradoxically, the less you think about it. Doing something well without thinking about it is one of the most enjoyable experiences a human being can have — that’s all dancing to good music really is, after all. It’s can be a trance-like, ecstatic state for some people, almost like a drug.

    This is one the key pathways to enjoying gameplay. Constant repetition, constant improvement, less thinking, until you’re in kind of a zen mind/no-mind state — flow. The most ‘pure’ games — Tetris, Tempest 2000, etc, are almost magical in the way they induce it. Notice, none of those games have a story, and that’s important.

    Real life is a series of cyclical behaviors and activities for most people, it’s largely static.

    A traditional narrative (at least a good one) begins when a cycle is broken — “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” The protagonist begins in a static, cyclical loop — for example, Luke moping around on a moisture farm on Tatooine. A pair of droids land on the desert — his entire life gets turned upside down, and now you have a story — a beginning, middle and end– not a straight line.

    The key thing about narrative is that the protagonist DOESN’T have a choice. The protagonist almost always wants things to just be the way they were. This is like real life. Most of us establish a groove and want to stay in it, and won’t change unless we’re forced to.

    So, let’s look at Fallout 3. Now, without the story, there’s no real ‘pure’ action gameplay at any point in fallout that’s going to trigger the ecstatic trance state. The game play is NOT really running and shooting, the game play is basically ProgressQuest — watch the numbers go up, watch the levels ding, collect loot. That’s the loop that people will get into on their own, without the story. They’ll attack monsters and collect loot and go up in level and then go kill bigger monsters to get bigger loot, etc. It has very little to do with the story for most people and everything to do with ‘progression’.

    Cyclical, repetitive, real life — most distinctly NOT a story.

    Fallout 3 gives the appearance, at the beginning of the game of breaking a cycle (the opening of the vault), but it IMMEDIATELY puts you into another cycle. It’s not a narrative, you just wander around, more or less at random, kill monsters and collect loot. You’re essentially a walking gun with a big suitcase. There may be some variety here and there in the missions, but it’s still, fundamentally a repetitive game.

    There’s absolutely no urgency to actually complete the quest, and in fact, many people only do it when they have absolutely nothing else to do. They don’t WANT to break the cycle of kill/loot gameplay, ever. They enjoy the game, as a game, and the story is an obstacle.

    Compare to Half LIfe– it begins with you doing the most routine, cyclical thing imaginable– taking the train to work. You even start the game doing stuff that’s implied you do all the time, everybody knows who you are, you’ve got a locker with your name on it. But as soon as the experiment happens — there’s a break, and from then on, at least the appearance is that you always MUST move forward. There’s no routine to get into (despite the fact that all you’re doing is running and shooting stuff– but the running and shooting stuff is exactly the kind of pure, fast action game play that actually can induce a trance state.) The story is ‘you must run and shoot stuff’, the game play is ‘you must run and shoot stuff’. They mesh perfectly.

    In Fallout 3, the core gameplay says wander aimlessly, kill stuff, loot corpses, go in circles. The story says — care about these people, find your father and so on, go in a straight line. The gameplay says — play me forever, the narrative says play me until you ‘save the world’ then it’s over.

    I think, you need to decide what kind of game you’re going to make. If you want to make a grindy RPG, forget a straight line narrative. Create some hubs, Create an economy and ecology, and set people free to make their own stories. Do randomly generated dungeons, have little one off stories here and there, but forget having an over-arching narrative. I think fallout + broken steel was kind of a step in that direction.

    If you’re going to do an epic storyline, put the game on rails, and make the game play match the story. Always put stuff in front of the player and destroy everything behind him.

    Though, you can create the illusion of an open world game in a world that’s really on rails — I think Final Fantasy games do this a lot. They gradually open up more and more of the world map, and then start restricting what you can do until you’re forced to the a climax.

    They could have done something like that with a game fallout — At some point, when you hit a certain level or visit a certain area, the ‘big bad’ enters and starts threatening to destroy everything on the map. More and more of the map becomes inaccessible until you confront him — you’re forced to go to the climax of the game. Even better if you’re the reason that the world is being threatened in the first place.

    For example (ignoring add on packs) — imagine that after you hit level 13 or something — the Enclave starts looking for you. All the towns you visit start saying they can’t all you in because they were told they’d be burned down if you entered, or they actually physically massacre a town or something like that. At some point, you either stop playing the game or you run out of equipment and food or you actually go do something about it. That would feel much more natural than just ‘oh hai, i’m bored let’s go back to the main quest now’.

    I still don’t know if that is better than not having a main quest at all and just letting people do what they actually really want to do, which is just to min-max, level up and kill stuff.

    Okay, I wrote way more than i intended to…

  24. Serenegoose says:

    Hmm. Far cry 2 I actually enjoy quite a bit as a stress reliever, but that’s the thing, really. I don’t play it as a game with a plot, I play it as a series of encounters that I try to do more cleanly than before, and when I’m bored of that, I uninstall it and move to something else. But it’s so CLOSE to being something more. Some characters to interact with that don’t just give you missions. More ‘active’ weather as opposed to just the very ocassional rain. RADIO STATIONS, because you spend most of your time driving, to be honest, and the atmosphere of the world in general is so perfect. the way your dashboard lights up at night so you can see the dials, all that stuff. But yeah, even just a little bit more of a taster of an RPG would have made FC2 one of the best games ever. As it is, it’s just fun, and symptomatic of most open world games. it lacks a compelling direction.

  25. DSX says:

    Mafia II promises to deliver some decent open world wow factor based on their developer commentaries *tosses salt* – they discuss how civilians react to you and your actions, how they’re going about their lives etc as you make your way through the city, how they’re more then just cars and people going in patrol patterns.

  26. Dracko says:

    What of games like ArmA 2?

  27. John says:

    I always thought Starflight (1/2/Star Control 2) did a great job balancing opennes and mission. Sure, have your fun wandering around. But the stars will disappear pretty damn soon.

  28. MC says:

    Open worlds are best when exploring the world uncovers little stories and places that tell stories.

    For example, while clearing out a fortress of Mauraders in Oblivion I defeat a Maurader leader and discover letters he’s been exchanging with his sister that tell of how they are searching nearby fortresses for an artifact at the urging of their mentor and former master, which leads me to hunt them down in turn and claim the artifact for myself. (BTW I think this is custom content introduced by Obscuro’s overhaul mod).

    Or when exploring Morrowind, you occasionally come across paralysed naked Nords in need of help who’ve all been victimised by what must be one very strange witch.

  29. futage says:

    Thank you for this piece, Mr rossyknoll. I agree with the first reply.

  30. Grey_Ghost says:

    Sadly Far Cry 2 seems to be full of Anti-Modding badness. I don’t think it’s possible to do anything for that game other then make Multi-player Maps. I believe they built it this way on purpose, would have probably sold better overall with Modding support. Not sure what they were thinking.

  31. kyyninen says:

    This imaginary game will, I hope, dump me on the midst of a strange place, perhaps with with a pyre of smoke on the horizon, and instruct me: “survive”.

    Like TCM said, you should really try Unreal World, that sounds exactly like it’s starting scenario.

  32. MultiVaC says:

    “Sadly Far Cry 2 seems to be full of Anti-Modding badness. I don’t think it’s possible to do anything for that game other then make Multi-player Maps. I believe they built it this way on purpose, would have probably sold better overall with Modding support. Not sure what they were thinking.”

    They were thinking they could make people pay for horse armor DLC, which they did. If the game was moddable, players would download tons of user made content for free, and would never pay Ubisoft $5 for a couple new weapons.

  33. SuperNashwan says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever agreed more with something you’ve written Jim, excellently put. In the past I’ve said I wonder if we’re expecting too much of these games, that creating the open world is difficult enough without also creating the open world experience. But then you rightly point out, something like Outcast has already shown it done, and so long ago. There’s a fundamental disconnect in games like Assassin’s Creed where you happen to the world, rather than exist in it, it’s the uncanny valley of game experience design; the more detailed the world around you, the more jarring your inability to interact with it is. I dont know about anyone else but I have real difficulty in enjoying AC or FC2 for what they are when I’m imagining what they could (or should?) be.

  34. Richard Clayton says:

    I’d pay $10 for a dynamic faction DLC that realistically stocked the checkpoints. 3$ for a DLC to fire from the vehicle. 5$ for story items (notes, diaries, manuals, photos) to be dotted around the landscape, 5$ to allow buddies to drive / mount the jeep mounted machine gun… etc.

    But I guess I’m going to have to be satisfied to save my cash until Far Cry 3 is released. You know, the much stronger story-based/adventure one where I play Reuben’s colleague who travels to Africa to find him after he goes missing… Mr. Hocking, are you reading this!?!?

  35. Ian says:

    We’ve got a big thread in the forum talking about Far Cry 2 and its corridor-shooter-in-an-open-world mentality.

  36. Ayekay says:

    @john t: good points.

    ‘The story is ‘you must run and shoot stuff’, the game play is ‘you must run and shoot stuff’. They mesh perfectly.’

    I think you’re on to something here. In non-openworld games if our role doesn’t fit the gameplay, we don’t notice or worry. We may be a world-class secret agent who spends all his time in a sewer shooting cannibal pig monsters, but presumably we do all the rest of our glamorous life in between missions. As soon as we’re in an open world, the gaps between our role and our actual actions start to show. So I’m a mercenary in Africa but literally all I do is drive around shooting people? I don’t sleep, eat, get drunk, argue over pay? If FC2 were all missions this wouldn’t be a problem because missions would be, by definition, the bits where I drive around shooting people.

    I guess it’s a special case of a more general problem with games: the more sophisticated the simulation, the more you notice the gaps in it. No-one ever criticises a roguelike’s graphics.

    @solipsistnation: you’ve got a serendipitous poster name just above yours too, I think :)

    @stromko:

    A lot of folks here are wanting that, to have really great content that’s worthy of exploring without being key to gameplay. Just interesting places and things and interactions…
    I think though, that this doesn’t happen often because it’s a lot more difficult to make a compelling experience that doesn’t implicitly reward you

    I remember in the Hong Kong Deus Ex section a pair of triad bosses invite you to meet them in a bar, as a thankyou for various successes, and vie with each other in giving you bottles of increasingly fabulous wine. I mean the actual game items are the same wine items that you find sitting in a subway in New York, but they tell you things about the vineyard and the vintage and the history as they hand it over. I spent a little while puzzling over whether the wine was supposed to have any special properties, whether I could sell it or anything, until I realised – it’s just content and a prop. I’d been so conditioned to thinking interesting stuff must have an in-game effect – even in a game like Deus Ex which is stuffed with atmospheric context – that I couldn’t imagine it was just about the writing.

  37. Ayekay says:

    Partly by way of penance I guess, I took the best bottle back to California with me and drank it sitting on the top of the ruins of a petrol station watching the sunrise. I mean ‘drank’, I right-clicked and experienced a 2-health-point boost and forty seconds of blurred vision, but it meant something to me. :)

  38. pignoli says:

    Thinking about STALKER, I seem to remember one review (I think it was Eurogamer) actually complaining that objectives would spring up (I think this refers to the calls for for help you’d get over the radio) and resolve themselves without you actually doing anything at all. I just don’t buy that as a complaint. It’s part of the beauty of the game that events unfold regardless of your intervention – the atmosphere of the game is built on this kind thing, it enhances the feeling of insignificance and vulnerability that makes the game what it is. Nothing makes you feel less involved in a world than receiving an Urgent Call For Help! which then just waits for you to do something. Forever. I thought it was urgent?

  39. Jim Rossignol says:

    Pignoli: my complaint wasn’t that they’d resolve themselves, but that the event would either not happen, or you’d have no signpost to where the flagged event was taking place.

  40. Dante says:

    The original Fallout (and the second one) might be a better match for your sensibilities Jim. You’re simply turfed out of your vault and told they need a water chip before the timer runs out, you get pointed to the nearest settlement, but that’s about it.

    There are a train of clues to follow, but you could equally just blunder into the appropriate location early on, you can even take the alternative short term solution of having water shipped to for a while.

  41. Ninja Dodo says:

    To me the most successful living worlds have been Outcast, Gothic (1 & 2) and Little Big Adventure (Odyssey more so than Relentless)… characters that react believably and a world that progresses with you.

    Aspects of others have succeeded in new ways – Assassin’s Creed (freedom of navigation), GTAIV (general atmosphere) – but few, if any, seem to recapture that sense of cohesion and unconditional immersion that this article so elegantly describes.

  42. Chaz says:

    The most important aspect of open worlds for me is to have a reason to explore. Whether that be interesting places to go look at or people to meet and things to find. Whilst GTA4’s was undeniably a beautifully crafted world, outside of the main missions I found very little reason to wander around it. Ultimatly for me, it’s failure to draw me in made it feel as realistic as if it had been made out of cardboard.

    Saints Row 2 on the other hand, despite it being a much more of cartoon caricature of a city, I found a much more engrossing world to explore and look around. It is chock to the brim full of interesting places to explore, and not just the odd building with a few flights of stairs to walk up. There were huge shopping malls, a large underground cave network, dozens and dozens of unique buildings to enter and look around ranging from shops, night clubs, homes, hotels and much more. It even had it’s own Alcatraz style island prison island. Not only was there more to see but there was also much more interaction with the world too, you could buy shops and appartments, mod your own vehicles, and even put on a flasher coat and run round exposing yourself to people. There always seemed to be something happening too, such as watching your gang members get into fights with the police or rival gangs.

    So whilst GTA4’s world presented a much more believable and realistic facade, I found the world of Saints Row 2 much more engrossing and far more “alive” than the sterile world of GTA4. I hope it’s somthing they rectify for Red Dead Redemption.

    My favourite open world thus far though still has to be Morrowind’s.

  43. Dante says:

    I’m surprised you’re so enamoured with GTA actually. The ways in which you can intereract with the world are barely more than those of Far Cry 2. Outside of the (woeful) missions all you can really do is wander into the handful of shops and change your clothes, or start attacking passers by.

    You don’t have to fight of course, which sets it apart from FC2 (although to an extent you do, because it’s nearly impossible to drive from a to b without running someone over, so dodgy are the driving controls).

    And if you do do the missions, which rapidly become the only thing you can do (besides fly to the Statue of Liberty for the ninth time) you are forced down an incredibly narrow, choiceless path in which you’re forced to be a terrible human being even if you don’t want to be. Which seems to me to be the antithesis of the open world idea.

  44. Jim Rossignol says:

    The thing about GTA4 is the that *the illusion of the world* is very good – which is all I talk about here. The other game systems are another matter. That said, the basic law-breaking mechanics mean you can get into crazy scrapes no matter where you go in the city. It responds consistently, and the city illusion is consistent where-ever you go: exactly how it isn’t in FC2.

    It’s pretty clear that I *could* mention several dozen games, and write tens of thousands of words on this subject – but a 1500 word post, I’m keeping the examples tight.

  45. Dante says:

    I should probably talk about Shenmue here, because for me that’s the definative example of open world/closed mind games.

    In Shenmue there’s a fully realised, living Village (a city in the sequel, which I haven’t tried) each person has a full daily routine, the locale even changes over time (decorations at christmas). It’s got a full day/night cycle and you have to be in bed at night, there’s a whole host of varied stuff there.

    And the only way you can interact with any one of the hundreds of NPCs is to walk up to them and press A. At which point the main character will either ask them about his current clue (and only that) or say “Um” and then let them dictate the course of the conversation. Seriously, some conversations have little more than you saying “Um” four times while they talk about whatever they feel like.

    It’s a great early example of a living world, but there’s naff all to do in it, and half the time it seems like they’re giving you the brush off for trying to do anything but follow the main story.

  46. Dante says:

    Maybe it’s just a difference between you and me then, because to me there’s not a lot of point having an open world unless you can interact with it in an open way.

    That’s why Fallout 3 is more open to me than GTA; because when I trek across the map there’s something for me to do when I get there. Rather than just look at something and leave.

    Exploration’s great and all, but eventually you’ll have seen everything. Then what?

  47. Dante says:

    @ John T

    Er… I didn’t spend Fallout wandering around shooting things and leveling up. I spent it wandering around talking to people, I imagine quite a lot of others did too.

    Now Oblivion, there’s a ‘progress quest’ for you.

  48. Kefren says:

    Sid Meier’s Pirates on the Amiga – I remember playing that for a whole summer when doing my A-levels.

    One game that hasn’t been mentioned is Starglider 2 on the Amiga. It was the first game I got with my Amiga many years ago, and what a game to start with! Elite had disappointed me, because the planets sounded interesting but you couldn’t land on them. Starglider 2 may only have had a single solar system, but the feeling of freedom was fantastic.

    It was possible to fly up from a planet’s surface after recharching your ship’s energy on a power line, leave the atmosphere, and be seamlessly in space speeding away from the planet with no loss of control. Warp for a while then fly down onto one of the moons looking for a scientist in a land speeder.

    You weren’t restricted to exploring planet surfaces – many planets had tunnel systems to explore.

    Fly into a gas giant? Check. The screen would get redder and redder until the gravity eventually crushed you.

    It was possible to fly away from the solar system for an hour, turn round and see it as small dots against the black loneliness of space. The feeling of insignificance was amazing.

    In terms of exploration, I would explore the outer areas of the huge gas giant, and oocasionally find robot ducks and whales. The whalesong was haunting as you tractor beamed them to pull them close, then let them go and followed them slowly, just watching them float in the dense atmosphere.

    Since then I have played many space ‘simulations’ like Freelancer, and been disappointed that you just seemed to be moving along a flat plane in space; you couldn’t fly down onto a planet, only choose to land in a way that gives a cutscene then has a static screen of the planet’s surface. Somehow the standard set by Starglider 2 on a 16 bit system doesn’t seem to have been recaptured despite all the power of a modern PC.

    Maybe developers are afraid that if they let a player actually fly down to a planet surface, the graphics might not be as good as they expect. However why not just say that the ship has to land via a computer interpretation since the main windows are locked down with shields for re-entry – then people could land a la Captain Blood (Amiga again), with some updated computer representation; on landing the shields open revealing the scene before you. That would be better than the current systems, if not as good as Starglider 2.

  49. Jim Rossignol says:

    Dante: you seem to be missing the point here. I’m not doing a “game x vs game y” comparison, but pointing to the elements of games which I think worked in various open world games. I don’t think any of them are perfect.

    “there’s not a lot of point having an open world unless you can interact with it in an open way.”

    Yes, I haven’t said any different.