Posted in Contexts of Games and Play (Academic), Quiet Stories

How to Design A Realistic Open World


“Although Breath of the Wild totes some of the greatest mechanical depth and emergent gameplay I’ve ever seen, its world building and narrative doesn’t even come close to that of Horizon.”

It’s just over a year since Horizon: Zero Dawn released. Despite its obvious quality, it didn’t quite receive the praise it deserved during game of the year discussions. As most gamers know, this can be attributed to another game that launched around the same time, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Although Breath of the Wild totes some of the greatest mechanical depth and emergent gameplay I’ve ever seen, its world building and narrative doesn’t even come close to that of Horizon.

If you’re following along with my weekly game development for beginner’s series, then you need to understand how Horizon manages to create a truly realistic world… with robot dinosaurs. Having an engaging narrative helps in crafting a fully realized world. It gives the player a sense of direction and forces the world’s lore upon them, but it isn’t necessary. These are the three things you must consider when hoping to create a believable world within a video game.


Complex Options


Salen and Zimmerman go into a lot of depth in regards to the necessary amount of complexity needed in games and I highly recommend you check out their theories.

“As a system, a game is a set of parts that interrelate to form a whole… If complexity is not present in a game, meaningful play cannot occur.”

 (Games As Emergent Systems, 2003)

They go over several types of systems that we’re going to analyse. A fixed system is when no matter what the condition, the outcome is the same. So consider a television that has had the power cut off to it. No matter what happens, if the television is off, every pixel on the screen is black. A periodic system is sort of like a loop. Salen and Zimmerman use the example of a game where a character must deliver messages between two adjacent buildings. Yes this could work as a game, but it isn’t fun. You go back and forth, delivering messages, with no room to deviate. A chaotic system has no rules or regulations by which it follows. Think back to the arena challenges of Ratchet and Clank 2. In certain scenarios you would be forced to defeat waves of enemies, with a randomly rotating weapon. Now imagine if mid fight, for no reason, gravity disappeared and the game transitioned from 2D to 3D. It’s nonsensical and completely random.

A complex system is a system that provides various options and ways of going about things, much like Horizon: Zero Dawn’s systems. You can choose to follow the narrative or you can venture into the world and explore. If you stumble across a giant Thunderjaw, you could attack it head on, corrupt it (take control of it) or sneak past it entirely and continue looking for herbs. To create a realistic world, the player needs to feel like the games systems allow them to react how they naturally would in the real world. When confronted by a creature in real life, you might try several tactics to survive, so providing various traps and weapons is crucial in game. If you were fleeing from danger in real life you might jump out of the way or try scramble up some rocks. If those systems or options aren’t available to the player, if their real world logic fails in the game world, their immersion is broken.


Your Actions Should Have Believable Consequences


You can have robot dinosaurs AND a realistic world, but you need the logic to back it up. When inhabiting a virtual reality the human mind will often look for fault. If you travel through a vast and empty desert and suddenly find a man wearing three woolly coats, you’re going to question the validity of the world. If you’re playing a game that aims to historically recreate 1930’s America but people are using cell phones, you’re going to question the validity of the world. Developers spend hours upon hours researching, when they decide to create open worlds. What were the flora and fauna of this time period, how is the geography spaced in this environment, how are cities structured in this country. These visual cues are important for the player to both believe in the world and understand it. Despite having to incorporate robot dinosaurs into their world, Horizon does a masterful job of using this same methodology.

We know the corruptor is an older machine than the ravager, because the ravager is shiny and roams the environment freely, whereas the corruptor is often dirty and found in excavation sites. We know something cataclysmic happened to the world in the near future, as buildings and vehicles aren’t too different to what we see in our day to day lives. The narrative and audio logs help expand our knowledge further, but the visual cues are what is key.

The same applies to people. Humans aren’t just window dressing in Horizon. They are individuals with customs, goals, professions and religions. The people of the Nora feel like they could be members of your own community.

So if everything appears to be logical, then the world should react to you logically. If you shoot an arrow at a window, the glass should break. If you throw a fire bomb into the grass, the fire should spread. Many games forget to add in these keys elements of realism, thankfully Horizon doesn’t.

It is only when your actions don’t correlate with the world how you would expect, that you start to realize how important these little details are. Simple things often make the biggest differences. September 12th: A toy World, is a simple game, with a simple premise. You have an overview of a Middle Eastern town. You need to fire your bombs, kill the terrorists and avoid civilian casualties. You wouldn’t think the game would do a great job at recreating a realistic game world, that actually allows the player to understand what it would be like to be in that scenario. Yet it does, because of one small design choice. When you fire your bomb, there is a slight delay before it hits the target. Like in the real world, by the time the bomb hits, the terrorist you were aiming for has moved on and civilians have moved into the line of fire. As they die other civilians walking past weep over their bodies and then transform into more terrorists. The more bombs you fire, the more civilians you kill, until there is no one left to save and you’ve now created an entire town of terrorists. Visually it’s hard to immerse myself, but because of the realism created from my actions impacts, I truly believe in this world.

The small things matter in games. They can make the biggest differences.


Your Choices Need to Matter, but Not Too Much


By incorporating player agency into a game, you are allowing the player to feel like they can make meaningful choices. Player agency isn’t directly correlated to open world games or games that give you a lot of options. Hidden Agenda is a game all about branching dialogue trees, so you’d think it would provide a lot of player agency. However as I discussed on the Fist Fight podcast, despite a multitude of choices, the effects aren’t varied enough to make the player actually feel like their choices matter. On the other end of the spectrum, just because a game is linear, doesn’t mean it can’t provide a high level of player agency. The opening minutes of The Last of Us could have been a cut scene, but playing through that initial segment in the house emotionally grips the player from the start. As Extra Credits puts it,

“It’s only a tiny bit of freedom, but by putting you in their shoes and making you guide them, decide for them, it carries so much weight.”

(How Much Agency Do Games Need, 2013)

As you walk through your house in the middle of the night, you know something is off, so the player’s decision to either enter the bedroom or not is a gripping choice. Player agency isn’t about creating the most options possible, but about creating an appropriate level of choice for that moment. Horizon’s narrative is linear. You can’t change what happened in the past, or drastically alter the world’s path moving forward, but along the way you are given enough options to feel like your choices matter. You can’t change the interactions you have in the world, but you can craft how Aloy responds to them. Is she thoughtful, aggressive or kind in her responses? You can’t remove the violent machines that stalk the environment, but you can cleanse corrupted areas or purchase and uncover new skills that make survival easier.

If the game gave you too many options the world would lose impact. If there were 50 different ways the narrative could play out, you would lose the dramatic tension built from slowly uncovering the mysteries the developers crafted. If you had the choice to remove the robot dinosaurs from your experience altogether, then exploring the world would lose a lot of its depth and urgency. The key to creating a fantastic open world is having an appropriate amount of player agency. Not too much, but not too little.


Horizon: Zero Dawn is a masterpiece in believable world building, because it understands that the process isn’t all about flashy visuals. It’s about research, complex systems, consequences and choice. Vital lessons for anyone wishing to make their own game.

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