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A World Without You: The Secret to Believing A Game's Open Sandbox Environment
by Chris Hawke

I've always loved RPGs and open-world sandbox games. They're the ones that unleash gaming's true potential as a truly interactive experience, by placing you in a world which you directly alter with your own actions. As such a fan of the genre, I've spent a lot of time listening to podcasts, reading articles and watching interviews in which developers talk about building these types of atmospheric, non-linear games.

I've think I've found the rule for a successful open world game.

I don't think anyone can doubt that making a game with good atmosphere isn't one of (if not the) main goals for modern game designers. Any game that has a large area to explore has got to feel right; whether it's magical and fantastic or real and grounded, no matter the genre or take, all imagined worlds follow the same principles to feel alive and real. Fun, engaging gameplay is important, but if you're spending 300 hours in an unconvincing land, you won't have fun; a nagging voice in your head will always remind you that 'this isn't right'. Feeling immersed is a vital component for both basic enjoyment and that special emotional connection felt only in incredibly good games.

Graphics, obviously, often aid immersement. Most upcoming open world games look to have no lack of beauty - Skyrim is an obvious example. But it's the wealth of small, often minor features or mechanics that truly make or break a game world. Take S.T.A.L.K.E.R., for example. While its textures may be bland and outdated, its lighting is superb. When combined with other effects, like eerie scrathces and moans, it has a huge ambient effect. Why do players get so scared when, say, approaching a Bloodsucker lair? It's not just because of the streaks of intermittent lightning; it's the fact that, at night, you've wondered past the lair before, seen odd lights, and heard strange noises. You've noticed twisted corpses and blood painting walls, all of which give you a feeling of the area's history. A Bad history. You've heard rumours from NPCs about this place, so while you have an idea of what's coming, you're not truly sure what to expect. Graphic and sound aesthetics combine with narrative clues to create a place that feels frighteningly tangible.

After playing these types of open world RPGs and sandboxes for a long time, I think I've come up with my own little maxim that you can apply quite well to all those games that have truly outstanding atmosphere - the ones that truly feel real, truly engage with the player with a real, breathing world. Basically, after you've turned off the game, close your eyes and imagine the game world for a moment. Once you've envisioned it, ask yourself:

Is it possible for that world to function without a player?

Example: GTA. Take Vice City or San Andreas. Those worlds only functioned with the player inside them. If you imagined the game was still running after you stopped playing somehow, it would be utterly dead. Cars would still go round, but nothing else would happen. All its missions are simply waiting around for you start them. The cops wouldn't have to chase anyone down. The gang wars would never happen, as in the game it takes the player to press a button saying 'start a gang war'. NPCs would wonder aimlessly, without purpose. It just wouldn't feel real. The Vice City or San Andreas worlds do nothing but wait and react to one person: you.

GTA IV, on the other hand, pretty much nails it. Thanks to what you've seen or experienced in the game, you know random events can occur. So, if you imagined Niko Bellic went away for a while and Liberty City was left to it's own devices, it would actually make for a pretty convincing world. The police would still chase criminals, whizzing past you while chasing someone else as you've often witnessed, so when turning off you console you feel like 'Hey, there's stuff going on that isn't player-dependant'. NPCs would carry shopping bags home, dash between awnings in the rain, drive to work, and react to one another. Helicopter tours would fly around the city, day would turn to night, there'd be a shoot-out somewhere, the weather would change, and so on and so forth. It'd be a boring place, sure, but you still feel like things would happen, events would occur, and there'd be some purpose and order to the city without you roaming it. The game, on this occasion, isn't simply waiting for you to affect it; it's a realistic, alive place, that you just happen to have a very active role in.

This 'can-the-world-thrive-without-its-player' theory can be applied to many of these types of games. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R, Duty and Freedom patrols occasionally run into each other and have a fight in its shadowy environment. That made it feel alive, real, ever-changing, and so on. As progressed, you visited places with escalatingly worse atmospheres. As the environment became increasingly harsh and the situation more dire these sort of events happened less and less, until essentially it was only you doing the unique, world-changing things; the game was just waiting for you to accept a mission to go somewhere and do something. If you didn't play, nothing would happen.

Here's another one for you - Fable. Peter Molyneux did a good job with this. In the original, there were ships that deliver trade goods on certain days of the week, and villagers transporting those goods to individual shops. And then every night all the villagers would gather at the tavern and have a few drinks. Small details, yet it did wonders in making the game world feel vibrant and alive.

In half a year we'll be able to test this 'does-the-world-function-without-me' theory on the newest title in the Elder Scrolls series: Skyrim. I love Skyrim. I utterly adore Skyrim. And I actually have great faith in Bethesda, because despite engine limitations Fallout did a pretty good job of creating a believable environment. You'd find people fighting over a fridge, or someone crying with a bomb strapped to their chest - these made the place feel dynamic, like it would be a pretty interesting, eventful environment without you (though, of course, not as eventful as if you were there).

It'll be the small things that will make or break the world of Skyrim. Imagine, for instance, you go to a town and see Jimmy. You have a chat, and he tells you that he's going to start work soon, or that he really wants to be an adventurer. You go off and do missions and explore the world, but eventually you cross the same town again. Jimmy's there, with a lovely new piece of armour on. He tells you he did a bit of work for a friend, and earned enough to buy this really awesome breastplate. You, as a player, are thinking "Wow! While I was off doing my own things, Jimmy was actually off doing HIS own things, independent of me! It feels like this is a real place where people do new things and have experiences regardless of whether I'm here! I can't wait to see what else has changed!".

Or you'd probably just think "Wow, that's kind of neat. What's for lunch?".

Point is, the world with Jimmy feels alive, real, atmospheric, engaging, and full of wonder and change and dynamicnessosity (a word I just made up). There are loads of seemingly insignificant ways to add this Jimmy effect. A house has a broken roof, and after a while, you go back to see the house and it's fixed. A store clerk mentions getting new stock soon, and you come back later to see they've actually received it. You could even have mini-missions occurring that you don't take part in. You see a wife running down the street of the town, asking if anyone has seen her husband. You can't take it as a mission or do anything to alter the events, but you find her later, hugging her rescued husband. And you think:

"Hey... It is possible for this world to function without me"

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- Chris Hawke

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