In our last episode of No Coast @Night, Garrett DeGregory posited that Guerilla’s Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like the logical extreme of a now well trodden game design structure.
It follows the template that nearly every big budget game has for the past ten years. Give the player a massive world. Fill it with stuff. Put icons all over the map leading the player to that stuff. This formula has been successful to an incredible degree, leading to its natural proliferation. The issue that all of these games share is that while the world is full of things to see and do, the way those things are seen and done rarely shift.
In my eyes, the greatest example of that decaying paradigm is CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. That game is goddamn beautiful. Its writing is second to none. It’s full of deeply personal stories of tragedy and loss that are startlingly mature for an industry that is built on bikini-armor and Call of Duty set pieces. However, even the game’s most pivotal and critically lauded plot point, the quest lines surrounding the Bloody Baron, are essentially the player doing the same thing they’ve done for the twenty hours before, and the hundred hours to follow. Geralt uses his Batman-vision to find a monster’s tracks. He follows those tracks. He kills the thing at the end of the tracks. The verb set you’re given is very narrow in The Witcher 3, as are the ways those verbs intersect with the nouns of the world around you. It lacks adjectives, it lacks sentence structure. It’s almost as if the open world The Witcher gives you is simply a very beautiful coat of paint on a rather hollow skeleton.
Games like The Witcher 3, Horizon, the Assassin’s Creed series, and many others create the illusion of freedom by building sprawling worlds but where they fail is how the player is allowed to interact with them. That being said, there is a growing movement in contemporary game design that looks to actively buck the reigns of the structure described above.
Every facet of how Hitman is constructed, both in-game and in between is designed to get you to the juicy meat of what Hitman is.
There is very little outside of the basic action of killing your target. That isn’t to say that it’s a simple game, far from it. Hitman is so successful because it has one very specific goal, but the vocabulary afforded to the player to reach that goal is as vast as Agent 47 is bald. Every level follows up on the promise of “sandbox” game design. Just spend a few hours on YouTube watching all of the wacky shit people pull off in the game to snuff out their target (or just hang out and pile bodies on top of a soon-to-explode toilet) to get an idea of just how free the player is.
Hitman is one of many examples of a trend I hope to see more of in the industry. Reduction. Essentializing. Letting the pot simmer down to a thick stew. In that juicy remnant of the pot we have something decidedly more simple than what was there before, but something so much more rich and wide in its range of flavors.
Some of the most critically well received games of the past few years have been those that cut away the excess, and in doing so, make more essential the core nature of that gameplay. And by making that core gameplay more essential, force the player to interact with it in new and novel ways. DOOM for example, is simple on its face. You shoot demons. DOOM knows how simple it is, but through its encounter design and interlocking combat mechanics that force the player to keep moving, keep finding new ways to fight, is much richer for it.
Blizzard’s massively successful Overwatch is similar. You shoot other players and hold capture points. But through the wide diversity of character archetypes it makes no two encounters similar. The game is incredibly deep, simply because the moving parts, though they are few, are multi-spoked. The list of these games goes on: Rocket League, Kerbal Space Program, Superhot, etc.
The argument can be made that bigger open-world games like The Witcher are necessarily less mechanically complex.
So much in the way of resources, time, and salary go into creating that open world, and I respect that. But I don’t think that we’re really looking at open-world apples and linear oranges. Just because Hitman or Overwatch occupy a physically smaller space and have fewer assets doesn’t mean that the comparison can’t be made, specifically because there is a breed of “open-world” games that do embrace that sense of player freedom:
I think there is a very specific reason why Nintendo chose to refer to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in their PR messaging as “open-air” rather than “open-world.” There is a distinct difference in how BotW encourages player exploration through the lack of information. Very few waypoints are given to direct the player, allowing them to explore in whatever manner they see fit. BotW couples this player freedom with equally intricate and interlocking mechanics as something like Overwatch.
Speaking of moving parts, it’s as if every item and piece of information in Zelda is actually a cog that delicately fits in with every other cog, and when one cog is turned the rest follow suit. What happens when an apple touches fire? It becomes a toasted apple. What happens when you wear metal in a thunderstorm? You get struck by lightning. This sounds simple, but because those cogs rotate with each other, they can be rotated in different ways. Want a bunch of toasted apples? Burn down an apple tree. Want to kill a sleeping giant in a thunderstorm? Drop a metal weapon next to it. While the vernacular of player activity in BotW isn’t much more wide than any other Zelda game, the way those words interact is what make it truly special.
How did Nintendo reach this conclusion? Reduction.
Cut away transforming into a wolf, cut away flying between islands, chop off the “Metroidvania” item-gated progression scheme. Let Link climb, fight, and paraglide, and that’s just about it. Let the world speak for itself.
I didn’t intend for this read to end up another Breath of the Wild lovefest, but I’m certain that it will go down in history as a landmark because it shifts the dialogue from “can you accomplish this task” to “how will you accomplish this task” just as Overwatch, Doom, and Hitman have in their respective spaces.