As we head towards a new console generation, I’d like to say my piece on where the development focus should sit. This last decade of gaming has been a competition of who can create the largest game worlds, with numerous AAA developers boasting that their latest title is “the biggest in the series to date.”
With the recent announcement of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, producer Julien Laferriere disclosed the size of the world in an interview:
“I do not have the exact figures at this stage, but we have not only created the whole country, which is in this case England, but also to a good part of Norway too.”
Laferriere also mentioned it would be bigger than Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a game that sits at a whopping 90 square miles of explorable area, and while I thought it was fantastic, there is a considerable amount of padding. There were numerous repetitive fetch quests, never-ending combat sequences and hundreds of collectibles to find, Odyssey required players to repeat the same types of tasks over and over again.
This is one of the reasons why I think developers could be misplacing their focus as we move into a new generation. Rather than building worlds which are bigger, we should focus on creating tighter spaces which engage the player more. The Assassin’s Creed series has always felt like it was using a ‘design by committee’ approach: creating lots of content and a huge open world, but never really fusing them into something more meaningful.
This wasn’t the only series this past generation to prioritise size over depth. The Batman: Arkham series increased in size with each iteration, a choice which would eventually undermine Arkham Asylum‘s concise and claustrophobic atmosphere as it eventually turned into a formulaic open world checklist filled with waypoints and markers that followed the established open world template.
Some of my favourite games from this generation have been smaller, denser titles that prioritise utilising a smaller space for a greater effect. The worlds of the Soulsborne, Hitman and Yakuza series utilise this ethos of smarter, tighter level design while still creating a sense of openness.
One recent release which took advantage of that is Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us: Part II. Whilst venturing through a post-apocalyptic Seattle, every location you wade through has unique props and interactions that makes the world feel a little more tangible, providing stories of survival from the citizens who once lived there. This additional exposition makes exploration feel worthwhile and brings the world of Seattle to life, rather than just providing a backdrop for all the action.
Minor spoilers follow, but an early example of this occurs when exploring the overgrown downtown ruins, in which Ellie finds an abandoned guitar in an old bookshop. With a few simple player inputs, she can play an acoustic rendition of A-ha’s “Take on Me” to her girlfriend, Dina. It’s a really touching scene that invites us into their relationship for a brief moment, but interestingly, it’s also a completely missable scene if you don’t ever enter that room. Naughty Dog just puts its trust in you to find it for yourself, and it’s a reward for anyone who wants to seek out these appendages.
The Dark Souls series has built a number of worlds over the past decade, all of which are brimming with additional narrative and lore built into them. While there are countless stories weaved across each game, the way in which the legend of Artorias the Abysswalker is established across numerous bosses and in-game items is a great example of using the environment and lore to create a more involved experience.
Part of Dark Souls‘ mythology involves the knight Artorias, revered as an exceptional warrior able to defeat intensely powerful foes, as he travels to the Abyss with his wolf Sif to fight some of the most feared creatures imaginable. He later sacrifices himself in order to save his companion, in turn becoming corrupted by the dark. When you come to fight Sif during the main story, it’s easy to miss a lot of this detail and dismiss the fight as another unusual boss, but there is so much lore and sub-text surrounding the encounter that it feels extra rewarding when you seek it out.
This is content that a lot of players potentially miss as it requires a lot more agency from them, but it’s this kind of story which sticks with players in the years to come. This isn’t to say that huge open world games can’t achieve this, but the execution can feel a lot more focused in smaller playable areas.
It’s not just limited to narrative design either. The character navigation of both The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding uses the world itself as a backbone of the gameplay loop. Making traversing the world a key feature immerses players, encouraging them to use either real world logic or the logic of the world to solve puzzles that the developers may have not even intended.
One title that executes this well is SnowRunner, which includes all of the typical open-world tasks you’d expect to find: watch towers, unlockable upgrades, and collectibles. But the game makes that open world interesting by filling it with hazards and dangerous terrain you must traverse safely. Going off-road presents a genuine challenge, where climbing the slightest incline without tipping over or blowing your engine forces you to think outside the box when presented with specific risks.
What I’m trying to say is that I hope developers utilise the power of the next gen systems to create engaging, dynamic and unique open environments. I want more worlds with narrative depth and interesting mechanics rather than a free roam checklist, and I think the games industry can do better than simply aiming for ‘the largest game world’ possible. We should instead be aiming to make the most involved one, otherwise we could end up with another Fuel.