Open World Game Design: Thinking Beyond the (Sand)Box

“Open World” is a term that publishers and game creators have been pushing recently, next to other tags like “Crafting” and “Survival” (where “crafting” is the game mechanic focusing on creating various items, and often coincides with “survival” where a player’s main objective is to secure shelter, stamina, and have defenses against hostile entities). Yet, is the concept of open world design just another corporate gimmick to impress players with loads of space to do whatever they want, or is it something that extends beyond the regular conventions of levels in video games? Two of some of the best examples of open world level design: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain from Konami and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild from Nintendo.

The Metal Gear series didn’t use expansive, wide open levels in its early days. The developers ensured that the tight hallways and cramped corridors would get every inch used and explored by players, especially considering the Metal Gear series is primarily in the stealth-action genre. The start of opening up opportunities for non-linear play began unofficially with the fourth installment Guns of the Patriots, but it wasn’t until the demo Ground Zeroes and the later Phantom Pain (both encompassing Metal Gear Solid V) that Konami was touting this as an open world title. Much of the game’s content is through missions where the player can utilize the world design to their advantage to complete the objectives in whatever way they chose. In certain outposts and bases where the real action happens, numerous pathways and strategies can be utilized to outwit the enemy guards. In freeplay, however, there are no objectives and the incentive is to explore the open world as the players saw fit. This is where the open world starts to come apart for Phantom Pain.

There are two “levels” where the player is free to mess around in: Soviet occupied Afghanistan and mid-Africa. The issue starts to become more obvious when the only thing separating the various outposts and bases in the game were long stretches of dirt road and not much else. Phantom Pain’s charming point is in the tight yet non-linear structure of its bases, however outside there isn’t much to do other than to run to the next base. For a game touted as open world, it seems more appropriate to call it a few noteworthy areas sequestered in a great void. The issue starts to get even more apparent when seemingly half of the roads across each main level are surrounded on both sides by sheer cliffs that the main character Venom Snake is unable to climb.

Compared to Phantom Pain’s broken promises, there is one recent game that holds its head up high. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild takes a much further departure than previous installments in the franchise. Each Zelda game had its own overworld with some fluidity in player choice, along with focusing on a linear game progression scale with some illusion of player choice (one can complete the various dungeons out of order, but you still have the beginning prologue and the final boss). Breath of the Wild takes a radical move by giving the player some hints of what to do and then says, “Now you’re on your own.” This is reinforced early in the game’s story, where the player can skip most of the main objectives and go straight to the final boss on foot, although it is fairly difficult to navigate to him so early on in the game. The player is encouraged to figure out how to navigate the world on their own, and the player-controlled character, known as Link, has a lot of versatility. Link can climb almost any surface, glide through the air, and can ride a horse across vast distances. There aren’t many inhibiting factors discouraging players from free exploration or what order objectives can be completed, and that is what’s special about Breath of the Wild’s non-linear open world design.

One constant throughout the game that urges players even further to the edges of the game world are the shrines. The shrines are similar to dungeons of previous Zelda games (expansive levels that focus on a combination of puzzle-solving, enemy encounters, and wrapped up by a dungeon boss), only this time they are scattered in every nook and cranny in the game world. The player can have a little beacon that makes noises when they are in proximity of a shrine, but otherwise the game teaches quickly that if you want something you’ll have to actively look for it. Besides the shrines, there are also other various collectibles and quests for the player to get distracted by and further entrenched in the expansive and complex world of Breath of the Wild. For quests: there are multiple categories of quests to complete, like shrine quests that unlock more shrines, side quests for the various NPCs (non-player characters) in the game world, and of course the main story quests that focus on defeating the final boss. There are numerous collectible items that can be gathered from foraging, defeating enemies, and mixing together with other items to create new ones altogether.

Open world video game design ultimately proves that there are merits in creating an expansive world that pushes the player’s incentive to roam and explore a massive fantasy world. There are certainly complications that can inhibit the immersion that players feel, like lazy design choices that don’t make exploring seem compelling or makes the players think that their actions have no real consequence in the game world. However, open world game design feels like the next logical step in improving player immersion and in-game time, and companies are improving technology to enough of a degree that both high-fidelity quality and developer hand-polish are finding their way into the finished product of open world games. In more than one way, open and expansive video game worlds are the next iteration of the classic level in video game history.

#reflections #games #popculture

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