The Open Range
The current generation of gaming has seen a prolific increase in open world and sandbox experiences. I list open world and sandbox separately as a game can host a linear narrative and level structure while still retaining large sandbox levels, such as Bioshock, Dishonored, Halo or even the more recent Tomb Raider games. Within each new title that explores the realms of open design, we can observe familiar techniques and traits that each developer is drawing upon to refine each experience. While level designers have more real estate to play with, these techniques are no less refined or considered than those of their more confined counterparts.
Safe as Houses
The language of the landscape is often the most consistent element across many of these games, particularly because most open world and sandbox titles favor natural or rural landscapes. Just Cause, Far Cry, Shadows of Mordor and Metal Gear Solid: V, to name but a few, all feature similar principles of level design. For example, within each title, players can find pockets of what’s known as “refuge space”, a term coined by British geographer Jay Appleton, where they can lie low, take shelter or defend themselves from predators (particularly predators with long range weapons!). Refuge space is incredibly important, particularly in stealth games where the player character is a lot less durable and relies on the clear positioning of such spaces in order to progress across the open. Refuge space has also adopted a particular expectation within the context of gaming as a location where pickups and useful items may be found. It helps focus players on a goal, gives them a location to explore as well as often rewarding them for exploring.
Prospectin’ on the Frontier
In The Experience of Landscape, Appleton refers to open space as “prospect space”. It’s easy to understand why it is labelled so, especially as an avid game player, when you consider that such space is characterized by its offering for opportunity. I believe this is why most E3 presentations for open world games use the classic “see that mountain, you can go there!” selling point.
Mr Appleton’s theory was that humans would crave refuge space when faced with prospect space, as opportunity is also partnered with danger. You risk being spotted by hunters, you risk the elements and you require something around which to orient yourself or risk getting lost. All these themes are prevalent throughout open world titles, and in particular Metal Gear Solid V makes excellent use of all three, with snipers, sandstorms and open plains to explore.
I also have to make mention of one of my favourite open world games of all time, Red Dead Redemption, and how Rockstar utilize the draw of opportunity throughout the landscape design. Having rocks and undulating terrain not only helps technical performance by reducing draw calls, it also creates a sense of exploration and pulls the player to distant locations. “What’s around the next corner” type curiosity is a very powerful emotion in open world games.
I believe it is the draw of the unknown and the true nature of prospect space apparent in Red Dead Redemption that distinguishes it against, for example, titles such as Assassin’s Creed. Assassins Creed can sometimes forgo the draw of the unknown to present a map full to the brim of icons and events, leaving little to the imagination in favor of presenting a world full of activities. The world map in Red Dead can often be ambiguous, with nothing but a question mark to send you galloping across potentially dangerous open ground.
What to take away?
While open world games continue to get larger and longer, tried and true techniques and principles can help create the foundation of a game that speaks not just to gamers, but to the nature of human aesthetics. At least, that is, according to Jay Appleton. However I feel there is sufficient evidence within games such as Assassins Creed, Red Dead Redemption and even Batman: Arkham Knight, which subverts the typical “cave like” refuge space to extend to perches and high places, to suggest that these theories have merit.