Creating a bewitching universe...

With CD Projekt Red’s behemoth, The Witcher 3 making quite the splash, it looks like the industry trend for open world adventures shows no sign of declining any time soon. The game provides one of the most immersive (an often used, but not necessarily justified adjective) gaming experiences thus far, with romantic sub-plots, wildly varying environments and even warring political factions.

Players certainly favour these types of games, as ultimately, they offer much more in the way of value for money (just look at The Order: 1886), but how do developers go about creating such convincing universes? Moreover, why is it that some games create worlds that are so immersive, but others just feel more like huge arenas for the player to complete quests in? It’s also important to consider that more and more games ask players to become morally invested in them, but how can developers expect us to care about worlds that we have little emotional connection with?

[yt_video id=”ZUamHfdoSyc”][/yt_video]

For me, it seems like a distinction must be made between open world games, and titles that actually create a believable universe. A little confused? Stick with me, I’ll explain myself a little better…

A World of Difference

One of the most basic tenets of game development (throughout the RPG genre and beyond) is variety, the cornerstone of the open world game. In order to build the very core of a believable universe, the level design must inherently offer players a varied, yet deep experience. Consider some of the most convincing worlds developers have built; think about the aesthetic differences in both character models and environments between the affluent and impoverished areas of Paris in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

It’s integral that the player believes the world existed long before they did, and will go onto exist long after the credits roll.

Remember the sheer wealth of difference between the pristine, regal halls of Anor Londo, and the dank, suffocating caverns of Blighttown in Dark Souls. It’s this very variety that feeds into our belief and investment in the idea that these worlds are real. In comparison, consider Pala or Rooke Island from the Far Cry franchise; although rich and visually impressive, these environments aren’t necessarily that diverse, and thus make it hard for us to buy into their realism.

ACU paris

The broad theme of class inequality in AC Unity condensed into a single image.

History: It’s The Lore

Another aspect that demarcates truly immersive open world experiences from (for want of a better phrase) sandbox titles is the notion of time; in order to create a convincing world, it seems integral that the player believes the world existed long before they did, and will go onto exist long after the credits roll. Understandably, this style of open world development naturally lends itself much more to fantasy titles like The Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age franchises; not all games make appropriate use of it, however.

skyrim bookshelf

Come on now, don’t tell me you didn’t have a cheeky glance at ‘The Lusty Argonian Maid’.

Scattered throughout each of Bethesda’s classic open world titles, from Fallout to Skyrim, are constant reminders of and allusions to a rich past that has come to define these universes as we know them. Whether it’s something as seemingly irrelevant as a Back to the Future-esque, bombed out 1950s car, or one of the many works of literature that permeate Cyrodiil, each and every one of these props connotes to the player that this world is more than just an area, it has a past, and will probably have a future. Even if they don’t realise it, these remnants of the past go some way to developing the illusion of time within the open world. This then lends more weight to the player’s actions, and gives a real moral edge to their judgements; let’s face it, who didn’t feel bad about blowing up Megaton?

Let’s Get Real Now

Above all, however, in order for a player to be convinced of a gaming universe’s realism, they have to buy into the idea that it exists outside of them. Developers have to strive to convince the player that their world, be it Fallout’s Washington, or even Dragon Age: Origins’ Ferelden, carries on shifting and progressing even when they’re not a part of it. Veteran RPG developers Bethesda seem to have mastered this; the thriving hubs that litter both the desolate tundra of Skyrim and the lush plains of Cyrodiil feel as though they’re truly alive thanks to some dynamic game mechanics.

skyrim economy

“For the last time, we DO NOT accept credit cards – hard gold only!”

Traders congregate in markets, and there’s a tangible scale in economy, both in apparel and weaponry, between the elaborate stores of the Imperial City, for example, and rogue traders found in inns. Players in Skyrim happen upon random Dragon encounters, or even troops of parading giants, which again lends a sense of unpredictability and dynamism to the open world environment.

You Think That’s Air You’re Breathing?

But what happens when a developer fails to do this? In the large part it makes it difficult for players to truly care about the world, and thus the people that populate it. Think, for example about the Chicago of Watch Dogs; it loosely appears to be a thriving city, but I personally never really felt very convinced by it. Thus, the game’s shallow vigilante system was almost lost on me as I ploughed through anonymous civilians with little regard for their safety or my reputation. It seems like an obvious point to conclude on, but the realism of a game’s universe perhaps has the biggest impact on a player’s emotional investment.

watchdogs crash

“That’s what I think to your speed awareness course!”

So there we have it, creating a convincing universe is about so much more than level design; it’s about creating a sense that this world we perform quests or missions in has existed long before us, and will continue to do so long after our credits roll. Given the crowded AAA scene, and the tendency of every developer to try and shoe-in some sort of open world/RPG elements, it’s more important, now more than ever, that studios understand this. Looking at the slew of open world releases we have to come, however, (Arkham Knight, The Phantom Pain, etc.) I’m fairly confident that this shouldn’t be an issue, and gamers are going to benefit from a variety of rich, imaginative and most importantly convincing open world universes in the future.