Last week I wrote about how the open world of Red Dead Redemption is constrained by its focus on story. Soon after, a friend started playing Mass Effect 2 and I realized that New Austin is practically a sandbox of imagination compared to the world that BioWare created, but both games still fall way short of the freedom offered in Fallout 3. These three games represent the full spectrum of open worlds, and each developer is a master of their respective type.
The worlds of BioWare are “open” only in the barest sense of the word. We’re given a group of missions and we can choose what order to do them in, but the missions themselves are very directed. The Mass Effect and Dragon Age games are structured like an old school JRPG. There are towns, maps filled with shops that resupply us, and people that need our help. There are also dungeons, maps filled with enemies to fight, and there’s a stylized overworld that connects them all together.
There’s nothing persistent about this overworld. It is just a means of separating the towns, and it’s never built to scale. We’re either running around the world with an avatar as big as a skyscraper or selecting the towns from a menu. BioWare uses the menu option here to great effect in both Mass Effect games. The menu is actually a holographic map of the galaxy that we can see hovering in the air even while we run around the Normandy. Since we can see the map even when we’re not using it, when we actually do use it we still have a sense of physical space around us. The menu doesn’t feel detached from the world. Dragon Age accomplishes this to a lesser degree by making the overworld a blood stained cloth map of Ferelden.
Since there’s no single huge piece of land to explore in these BioWare games, we don’t often see others living their own lives within the environment. One would think this naturally makes these worlds feel less persistent than a place like New Austin or the Capital Wasteland, but BioWare creates the same feelings of persistence through other means. Mass Effect 2 uses the Cerberus News Network (“Building Worlds With Words in Mass Effect 2“, PopMatters, 12 March 2010), and Dragon Age uses random encounters (“Turning Frustration into Excitement: Random Battles in Dragon Age“, PopMatters, 15 January 2010).
These menu-driven overworlds still offer some minor exploration. In Mass Effect, the only side missions come from distress signals found on unexplored planets, and Dragon Age has multiple “guilds” offering jobs. To make up for this predictable process of exploration, the side missions themselves are more varied than in most other games. In Mass Effect 2 some missions link together as you hunt down a mercenary group, and the loyalty missions offer more character development as a reward. Dragon Age pulls some similar tricks by giving you character specific quests and one character who has a less then stellar history with one of the “guilds” offering jobs.
It’s important to note that these side missions have a heavy emphasis on character. This is the central benefit of creating such an expansive, but not open, world. It allows tighter control over the pace of the story, and story is what BioWare does best. Their control of the branching narratives allows us to feel like we’re creating our own story rather than following someone else’s. BioWare knows where to focus its attention, while also providing enough gameplay variety so that we don’t even realize how directed the whole experience really is.
Rockstar excels at creating open worlds, huge maps that include those “towns” and “dungeons” built to scale compared with our avatar, so there’s no need for an overworld connecting these areas of interest. This scale is what separates a true open world from one of BioWare’s expansive worlds.
Since the world is so much larger, there’s a lot of empty space that the player has to pass through when moving from one important area to the next. If there’s nothing interesting filling this space then traversing the world becomes boring. Red Faction: Guerilla fell prey to this flaw. There’s so much space between objectives in that game with nothing to keep players entertained during the drive. The mere act of traveling becomes a chore, and the player stops playing. Rockstar’s games are filled with side missions and mini games. The police, fire truck, and ambulance mission in GTA, the classes in Bully, or the ambient challenges in Red Dead Redemption. These side activities make the world itself an interesting place to exist within.
Non-player characters are very important when creating this kind of world. BioWare can get away with having everyone stand around forever, but in an open world, the people must be moving and acting. It’s surprising how many games fail at this. Assassin’s Creed, The Saboteur, and Red Faction: Guerilla are all high-profile open worlds filled with people that do nothing but wander aimlessly. They feel like artificial obstacles in our path. Rockstar is great at creating emergent moments of NPC interaction, moments that occur regardless of our presence. From the spontaneous gang wars in GTA to another gang dragging some poor sap through a town in Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar uses these NPC interactions to make their worlds feel persistent.
Yet Rockstar’s worlds are not the main draw of their games, the stories are, and the developer carefully treads that line between linear story and open world. Story missions unlock side missions, so at first, the game is linear but expands as we get further along. A lot of other games follow this formula and make things harder on themselves in doing so because they must create an interesting world and an interesting story. If one is boring, then most players won’t stick around for the other. I think that this kind of open world is the hardest to create, but since the success of GTA III, it’s also the most common.
To simply call Morrowind, Oblivion, or Fallout 3 open worlds would do them an injustice. These are pure sandbox games in that everything that you can do in the world you can do from the beginning. You don’t have to progress through the story to unlock any side content. In fact, while there is a story told in each game, it’s not forced onto the player. The story is treated as something optional, and by taking the focus off that linear story, the world seems to open up even more. This complete lack of direction can be intimidating, but it’s also the main draw of Bethesda’s games.
These sandbox games are defined by undirected play. Players are encouraged to explore the world at their own pace, but since story is mostly optional, we need something else to motivate us. Thus, these worlds must be filled with side quests and random places to discover, or we’ll quickly get bored. While the overarching narrative is usually thin, the games are packed with short stories told through the environment, little mysteries that keep us moving and exploring and invested in the world.
Far Cry 2 is an interesting exception. It’s an effective sandbox world even though it takes the opposite approach to story than Bethesda usually does. The overarching narrative is a central part of the game while the environment doesn’t have many stories to tell. However, what the environment lacks in story, it makes up for in visual variety. Travel in these games is usually very slow. None of Bethesda’s games have vehicles, and in Far Cry 2, progress along the roads is constantly interrupted by enemies. For the world to remain interesting, it has to change in significant ways over a fairly short amount of space. For example, you can move from desert to lush forest in Far Cry 2 while the maze of streets and sewers in Fallout 3 is very distinct from the expanse of the open wasteland.
An interesting concession for these sandbox worlds is that they lack the same sense of persistence as other open worlds. But this is a good thing because we don’t really want the world to change too much. Since exploration plays such an important role, it would be detrimental to the experience if we felt that major events were happening without us.
As worlds become more open, they demand more attention, and there’s a clear trade off between story and environmental details. Open worlds are so popular now, but only a few developers know how to make them truly work.