Middle-Earth: Shadow of War [official site] expands on its predecessor's innovative Nemesis System and its believable NPCs take us one step further away from the static worlds of most open world games. I've been thinking about how that works, and why so many games make me think of The Truman Show.
In most open world action games, there are a few moving parts. I don't mean the soldiers and the missiles and the vehicles, I mean the actual systems in play. Start a mission and the game might spawn some of those soldiers, missiles and vehicles to obstruct your path, or to give you something to do while you head toward your objective. Complete the mission and you might end up unlocking new abilities or weapons or areas. There's a process to follow and different elements of the game shift into play as you move through that process.
Shadow of War has objectives and sidequests and baddies. It has collectibles and loot, and on the surface its icon-littered map doesn't look very different to any of the ones you'd see in a Far Cry or even a Witcher. As in those games, Mordor's icons are not necessarily moving parts. They're static objects to collect, dollops of experience to scoop up and apply to your character. Mordor creates movement through its characters though – instead of quest-givers and enemies, waiting to be activated, it has the disruptive entities enabled by the nemesis system.
In the sequel, these creatures can be recruited and led into battle against strongholds. They can act as bodyguards as well as being thorns in your side. However, more important than anything they do while by your side or in your face is what they do when you're not observing them; they continue to exist, to fight, to squabble and to gain new skills.
Most games treat the player as both the star and the audience. You're the lead actor, and the most important person in the world, but you're also the most important person outside the world. NPCs lock their gaze onto you as you appear, either gesticulating in your direction or rotating to face you at all times. They have conversations as you pass by, ensuring you can eavesdrop on even the most incidental dialogue if you so wish. Pull up at an intersection in GTA and traffic will spawn around you, ensuring that you're rarely alone and that the streets in your vicinity are populated and busy.
I refer to this as the Truman Show Effect. Like Jim Carrey's character in the 1998 film, you're the only 'real' person in the world and everything around you is fabricated to create drama and incident. No matter how dynamic and alive the world might seem, it often ceases to function the moment you turn your back, and as with the localised weather and cyclical passers-by of Truman's fake neighbourhood, there's a set radius within which change can occur.
It's a useful illusion because it allows us to take on that leading role and to witness all manner of emergent behaviour within eyesight and arm's reach, without requiring the kind of full simulation that would put needless strain on even the mightiest PC.
The major difference between Truman and the rest of us is that when we play a game, we're signing up for the illusion. We know the world isn't real and doesn't actually have life-like NPCs, no matter how much the marketing might try to convince us that's not the case, and we often spend our time poking at the edges of believability, trying to find the invisible walls and the broken behaviours. Sometimes that's a way of gaming the system to make things easier, sometimes it's just experimentation and exploration for its own sake.
Mordor doesn't escape the Truman Show Effect entirely but by giving NPCs agency, and simulating their rise and fall as they war with one another as well as the player, it allows for unscripted storylines that don't involve human input at all. You might learn about a peculiar orc with an axe embedded in his skull and even if you never meet him, he'll carve his way through his peers, either rising to lead a warband or falling somewhere along the way.
If an orc falls in an axefight and there is no player character to hear its death rattle, does it still make a sound? Yes.
The strength of the Nemesis System isn't just in the stories it actually creates, it's in the expansion of the typical open world illusion. When gangsters destroy your apartment in GTA IV, you know that they destroy every other players apartment as well, just as you know that those cars that are suddenly queueing up at a previously empty intersection were created just for you. You are both actor and audience, and the game is determined to occupy your attention at all times, even if it has to resort to using crude finger puppets when it hasn't got a spectacular setpiece lined up for you.
I spent forty minutes with Shadow of War at E3 and it impressed me more than any other game I played at the show. As with the first game, I'm not wholly convinced by the minute-by-minute movement and combat, but the Nemesis System has been expanded superbly. It's a game that genuinely makes me feel like a character in a world that hasn't been constructed as a set for my performance. The orcs have enough personality, and the writing is witty enough, that I believe in them as independent entities.
They rely on the player to give them true purpose, but they're more like peers than the empty vessels that inhabit most open world games. Maybe I am still Truman as I walk through Mordor, but this is definitely an upgraded version of the show, and I look forward to testing the limits of the simulation. After all, finding the edge of the world is how you discover the real magic.