Words: 2077 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes
Continuing with discussion of Elden Ring, but also panning out to games more broadly, I wanted to talk about world design. There is a very particular phenomenon that feels underappreciated, and yet is really important.
World design is understood to be really important from a game design standpoint. The way you construct your world to feel real, to reflect narrative themes, and to help direct the player are all well-grasped concepts in game design. Games can do better or worse in these various aspects, but designers understand the various mechanisms that are needed to construct a good world.
But one aspect of world design that is less often discussed is the visceral reaction to a player’s ability to point to a spot in the world and be able to say “you can go there.” There was a controversy surrounding the release of the original Destiny because a lot of hype had been built by Bungie surrounding the idea that the playable space – that the space would allow players to visit just about any spot they could physically see. This, of course, was a promise that couldn’t be seriously kept, nor would it be kept.
But the sentiment is something that we want to look into. Because there’s a reason Bungie – or any developer – would want to make that promise. Crafting a world that looks nice when viewed from a distance is good, but if the world is just supposed to look pretty, then it removes us fundamentally from the game. We are being reminded that we are not playing in a world, but just observing a world.
So I wanted to examine world construction through this lens. While we tend to think about the idea of “you can go there” as a component of open world games, I want to highlight how that aspect can be captured even in more constrained or linear games, as long as the pieces are all aligned properly.
Exploring a Real World
I want to share a couple of experiences first.
I remember first playing Final Fantasy XV, which is a pretty expansive world. In entering the second area of the game, you notice this volcano off in the distance. The volcano has an interesting design to it and certainly sticks out pretty easily in the distance. While the game had certainly been pretty big so far, the volcano was pretty far away, and my initial thought had been “oh, that looks nice…guess it’s just a pretty thing they put in the distance.”
So imagine my surprise when as I started getting closer and closer it dawned on me that this volcano wasn’t just some part of the scenery, but was going to actually be a place for me to explore. As a dungeon area it would be limited: I wouldn’t be allowed to just climb all over it to my heart’s content. But even just the recognition that it was an actual place gave me a sense of joy that is hard to accurately describe.
I talk about Dark Souls a lot, and one thing I’ve always greatly appreciated about the series in general – something that was never really captured in Demon’s Souls or Bloodborne – was the way that so much of the world was explicitly interlinked and laid out so that you could see important areas from different vantage points. From the Firelink Shrine area you can look down and see into the swampy portion of Blighttown, or even see Blighttown itself from the right vantage point. From Sen’s Fortress you can look back to see the church where you fight the Bell Gargoyles. Of course, various enemies and items don’t show up – the game couldn’t render things that perfectly – but being able to point to those areas and say “I will go there” or “I was just there” is a fascinating aspect of the game’s world construction.
Of course, since the Dark Souls games aren’t actually open world, you can’t literally go anywhere. But one thing that always felt interesting, especially with the first game, is how the world felt set up to make sense. That is, the interconnection of the various parts of the world would all overlap in ways that they should if you tried to map it out. When going from one place to another, if you tried to trace out the distances you traverse and the turns you make, it all generally works out. It’s not perfect – the distances can be a bit fudged here and there – but it gives this amazing sense that you really are there. That this is a world your character is literally exploring.
I bring up these two examples to help illustrate the underlying experience, but also to help show how the process of creating this experience need not be limited to open world games. Dark Souls certainly can’t be called an open world game, and yet it too can reach this goal.
So what are some aspects of world design that help facilitate this sense of not merely exploration, but the idea that the player really is “in a world”?
A key thing is visibility. Common between the two experiences I shared is that you have to be able to see the places you can go and the places you came from. Sure, a bunch of fantastic areas or levels can look nice, but if they’re locked off literally (i.e. they’re isolated zones that you have to load into), or effectively (i.e. blocked from view by mountains or forests or anything else), then you’ve cut the player off from this particular experience.
So making sure that a player can see these interesting landmarks is important. They don’t necessarily have to see these landmarks at every point, but giving the player the ability to look into the horizon, notice something interesting, and go explore it is valuable. Of course, this also aligns with a component of game design in player direction – being able to guide your player towards content you want them to engage with.
Another important element is uniqueness. In order for a player to care about this experience, the world needs to be set up in a way that the places they explore feel important. What I mean here can be better seen by its opposite. Imagine standing on a mountain in a game, and then looking out over a gigantic plain with some hills. In seeing this expanse, you can strictly speaking point to the idea of “you can go there” or “I just came from there.” But saying that holds little meaning – it’s just a big plain.
Keep in mind that it’s not necessary for every part of the game world to spark this “you can go there” experience. Instead, you just need to keep the idea in the player’s mind long enough that they don’t forget it. But that means you want landmarks that stick out to the player – things they can mentally latch onto as something that is worth exploring.
This is a problem I think the most recent Assassin’s Creed game (Valhalla) ran into. The early medieval English countryside is…pretty bland. This is admittedly a constraint of trying to work within a genuine historical setting – you can’t add a lot of fancy towers and interesting buildings that catch your eye. But the consequence is a world that isn’t terribly interesting to explore.
The last element I want to invoke is player constraint. That is, the more you remind the player that they can’t explore, the harder it is for them to feel any sense of satisfaction when they go somewhere. This idea is a bit more ephemeral. It’s probably easier to grasp with a couple brief examples.
In Ghost of Tsushima, the game is literally set on a recreation of Tsushima island. The player has a great deal of freedom in where they explore on the island, but there is a very obvious constraint placed on them: the sea. However, this constraint makes intuitive sense – even though you can see another island in the distance, the idea of swimming to that island is kind of ridiculous. It’s enough that the player isn’t going to feel like they are being denied access to something.
In Breath of the Wild, the game’s world is located somewhat on an enormous plateau. To the East and South is an ocean that obviously the player cannot cross. To the West and North, though, are these deep valleys connected to another plateau on the other side. If you were to try and explore West or North – most likely by trying to glide over and climb – you’d find that those plateaus don’t even have collision. You just clip right through the world and eventually “fall” and warp back to a safe spot. In a world where the player is encouraged to explore – is functionally told that they can go anywhere and climb anything as long as they have sufficient stamina for it – this kind of constraint feels artificial.
Note that these are both open world games. But in bringing this up, capturing the feeling of constraint is something that I don’t think is a unique property of the open world. What I mean is that you could have a fairly linear game that doesn’t feel linear if you set up the game’s narrative, mechanics, and world correctly.
So the more that a game reminds its players that they can’t literally go anywhere, the less satisfaction those players can take away when they actually can go somewhere. The key here is whether the constraints seem natural or artificial. And by that I don’t mean that putting up mountains versus concrete barriers determines this fact. Rather, how is the world itself constructed? If you put players in a cave, then while they have little freedom to move, they might not necessarily feel constrained, because the space makes intuitive sense: caves don’t offer a lot of freedom. Conversely, if you put them into a big plain, but then put walls that they can’t climb but are able to see over, then you remind the player that there is a world that they could be exploring, but aren’t allowed to. The players feels constrained, because the space no longer makes sense intuitively.
Constructing an interesting world – whether an open world or a linear one – is hard and takes a massive amount of work. To succeed even a bit is something we should respect and praise. But I highlight this component of game exploration because it is something unique to the game experience, something that books and movies and even other forms of gaming can’t really spark. Because the idea of exploration is built into a game’s interactivity – you are the one controlling the experience. A movie can show you a mountain in the distance, and then in another scene be on or near that mountain. But seeing that same mountain in a game, and then physically going to that mountain is an entirely different experience.
This is a problem that a lot of open world games have struggled with for a long time, and certain games do better than others in this respect. The exact reasons why are multitudinous: it could be a problem of the original setting, or a problem of management, or a problem on the part of the individual world and content designers.
But in talking about this “you can go there” experience and some of the components that help to facilitate that experience, I want to reiterate that I don’t think this is an experience that is unique to open world games. A more linear game could invoke this same experience. It would be difficult, and may not be a good idea in every circumstance. But it is an idea worth exploring.
Because one of the most valuable things about game worlds is capturing the feeling of realness. Even within a fantasy or science fiction setting, being able to stop for a moment and say to ourselves “I am in this world” is a triumph – a triumph of imagination and a triumph of design. We often talk about stories and books and movies and games transporting us to faraway places, but that transportation only really works if the audience feels invested in the world. The world needs to feel real to establish that investment. And it is useful for us to step back and think about how games can help players feel invested in the worlds they explore.