"lifeless" Open Worlds

  • Sup Allies, I wanted to get some opinions on this often used criticism of open world games being 'lifeless'. I think we all see this throw around a lot but I wanted to get some people's perspective on it. What games to you have this issue, and more to the point how do you think devs should try to tackle this issue?

    For me I expect big open world games to have these type of areas as in reality not every square foot is beaming with activity. I don't know if I would want so many collectibles and such on the map that you can't go 20 steps without running into something. I think I wanted to have this conversation because I think this varies from person to person as I've seen people say this about BotW, Ghost and many others. I'd like to see where some people draw that line.

  • That's a cool topic of conversation.

    The ideal open world for me has to have "emptiness" in it. Open spaces and visual landscapes that help me map the land intuitively. Trekking is one of my passions in real life, it's immensely satisfying to set a visual target and on your way accidentally coming across something, like an animal, a hidden crystalline lake or just a fellow trekker taking a shit. Which takes me to what I consider the most important aspect and what current and future open worlds should aim for. Emergent situations. Even if illusory, make me be surprised by the unexpected, make me come across stuff that doesn't serve in any way my mission in that world but it's nevertheless impactful. Take things a step further, have main quests come to me instead of telling me to check that icon on the map. And emergent gameplay too, multilayered systems that evolve towards entropy.

  • @phbz So from what your saying you kinda like what Red Dead has done with throwing random events at you while on your way from A to B? I love the idea of main missions coming to you, like someone is in distress and come seeking your help. Only issues I could see with that is it could kinda eliminate the players choice if they want to do that right now or not. I would love to add on to that idea that if you choose to not do that mission right then that mission will play out without you. I would also like if more mission had multiple parts, so maybe you skip out on the first part, but then you catch up with them later for part two which maybe changes depending on if you helped with part one.

    I think that Kingdom Come game kinda did stuff like this where if you didn't do a quest soon enough it would go on without you. I really like that idea, just don't know if a lot of players would be okay with the idea they could miss stuff.

  • I want to pop in here with an early response and potential hottake depending on how people interpret it.

    I think the term lifeless is too loaded and needs specificity. Sure, there might be some overarching tissue that connects the dots when people say "lifeless" but I also think people need to be more specific in their criticism sometimes. I'll try my best in this unpolished forum post.

    I would argue that when I feel like a game world is lifeless, it has a lot more to do with the gameplay it self (and art direction) versus an empty / bland world.

    For example, take The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. An all time classic, right? Well, I'd argue that of all the games on the market, Skyrim is really damn ugly, bland, samey, often empty, copy and pastey, and... well... lifeless. I mean this game can depress me with its grey sky, white snow, and the same ugly greenish brown evergreens over and over again. I feel like I'm getting seasonal depression just writing about it.

    Look at this vista here. I mean y u c k! And this is vanilla on Ultra!

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    But why is it so rich and immersive despite my distaste of Skyrim's aesthetic? Well, a first person camera helps. I'm brought right into that world. I can see where I am going, what I am doing, what I am supposed to do, and what direction I am supposed to go. The world is a backdrop for really fun quests with really varied stories. The world also has a ton of built in lore. So every person has a backstory, even if they don't have much dialogue. Same with the things people wear. So the world doesn't matter as much as the things that happen in the world. And by this, I argue that a pretty bland environment isn't so lifeless in the end.

    Now let's compare Skyrim to Horizon Zero Dawn. I'd argue Horizon, to a degree, is somewhat lifeless. And it isn't because the game is void of enemies to hunt, loot to collect, and a wide variety of environments. It's a bit lifeless, to me, because the camera is pulled back so far and the quests are all fetchy. What incentive do I have to immerse myself when my task is to follow a purple train to find some guy?

    Along the way you are asked to find certain objects that you can't even see because the art direction has green on top of green, red on top of red, blue on top of blue, black / grey on black / grey. I struggle to even stop and physically see the bucket I'm looking for on the ground or the boar head on the shrine because everything blends into itself. And the game knows it too because it wants you to use your special purple "Vision" to highlight the important stuff. So the game is directly telling you to block out the noise in the world and just focus on the purple things. Don't even bother paying attention to the world.

    So with the camera so far back, and a good handful of things to look at in the HUD, including multiple rows of text / sentences, in the end, Horizon is a colourful hectic mess of a game world.

    Accordingly, where Skyrim pull you in, Horizon pulls you back and out of the world, therefore making the world a lot less immersive; lifeless if you will.

    Now, there is Zelda Breath of the Wild. A very divisive game but most people agree, like Skyrim, that it's an all time classic. I personally found the game world "lifeless". I believe the gameplay loop paired with some pretty run of the mill environments cause this.

    The game tasks you with endlessly replacing weapons and gathering food while you find and complete very boring Shrines. Couple up a boring gameplay loop with standard grassy fields, sandy desert, and hot volcano's, there isn't anything compelling to latch onto.

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    That's it. There isn't an x-factor to these mountains. This is just one cold ass mountain. It's probably a chore to be in there too because you'll take damage from being so cold.

    Compare the desert area in BoTW to the desert area in Neir Automata. Hell, the desert in Neir Automata is more empty than Zelda BoTW, but I don't find it lifeless because the minute to minute gameplay is more engaging and compelling than in Zelda.

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    Like that is one lifeless desert... but, pair the compelling combat and enemy types with the mysterious nature of Neir Automata's story and you have a really interesting open world, despite it's emptiness.

    TL;DR - Poor game design choices can make a solid looking open world less immersive, despite there being a lot of activities to do (Horizon pulling camera back, fetch quests). Whereas, a relatively bland world can be more immersive by solid game design choices and a good plot structure.

    A boring gameplay loop can make an open world feel pretty lifeless on it's own.

  • @dipset huh, pretty interesting take really. I agree this criticism is too broad hence why I wanted to get into a conversation about it. It seems for you what makes a game seem lifeless has less to do with what's in this field and more to do with game aesthetics (point of view, color palette, lore,etc.) this is really just me trying to understand your view point better, let me know if I'm off base. I think your comments on Horizon are interesting, because one thing I liked about its open world was the narrative story telling the environments could give to the player. Mostly coming across old city ruins and the like. For the character they don't know what it is, for the player we know this environment use to be a builder or what have you and that kinda stuff I think can make an enviroment more engaging then just a big open field.
    BotW is also interesting because while I agree the game loop isn't always super engaging I do think that game does some interesting stuff with the korok seeds making a seemingly empty field have some hidden secrets. Tho personally I missed a ton of those and often would feel like this area is just big and empty, so there's a bit of a double edge sword there.
    Mostly thanks for sharing, let me know if I misinterpreted your post at all.

  • @themarcv

    You pretty much hit the mark. I should say that I completely agree with what you say about Horizon having the interesting backdrop kinda like how Nier Automata does. I think what I like about Neir Automata can also be applied to Horizon. But Horizon just has waaaaaay too much noise so I'm always forced to turn on the vision mode and follow the path, etc.

    Same goes for The Witcher 3. In an unmodded version of the game on Ultra settings, the world is breathtaking. Still pretty much best in market if you ask me. But what makes it so unimmersive to be inside of, is the visual noise again. I'm literally looking at the mini-map instead of the game world.

    Now I guess I could rephrase my criticism of Horizon and TW3 to be something more like "noisy" than "lifeless" but I do seriously argue that the amount of visual noise in those games bleeds a lot of the open world dry.

  • A huge thing for me is that in order for an open world to be living, it has to have life in it. And I don't mean things that are conceptually alive, but characters and creatures that seem to live a life completely separate from what I am doing in the game. Characters who live with or without me being there. I think a great example of this is Grand Theft Auto V, a game in which the secondary characters are out and about doing things not dependent on what the main character is doing. They seem to have a life of their own, which makes the world itself feel lived in. It makes me feel like the world is not reliant on me, the player, and that I am just a part of it.

    Another different example is Breath of the Wild, which is, in my humble opinion, the best open world ever made. It benefits so much by making Link feel so small. There are larger open worlds than the one in BOTW, but they all pale in the scope of Hyrule because Link feels almost inconsequential in it. The perspective helps a lot because it increases the size of the world exponentially. As for life, well sure it has living characters who do their own thing, but that's not why it feels so full of life. It is the world itself that feels living. The temperature and weather contribute to that, but the fact that you can look off into the distance and see something you've never seen before, and then go to it and discover what that thing is is just incredible. The world is full of life because it is full of mystery, and we want to uncover the mystery not because it tells us to, but because we are genuinely interested in it. It's the rare open world that keeps us engaged in it 100% of the time.

  • @capnbobamous And funny enough BotW it's a game designed around last gen levels of processing power.

  • @dipset Again just trying to compile your thoughts into my head, so when you say noise you seem to be discuss the color palette correct? It's been a while since I played either so I have a hard time recalling if I had similar issues. I think for me I'd take that trade off because I enjoy having a more colorful and diverse setting vs having the environment palette being mostly grey/brown which seemed very common last gen and I think it's why were seeing more colorful games this gen.
    I think these games do suffer a lot from people just looking at the mini map like you mention so I did give props to Ghost for removing it and trying to use the Wind mechanic to replace the mini map. Likewise I thought the Getaway (PS2) had a cool mechanic with using the vehicle turn signals to tell the player where to go, wish more games put thought into how we could natually remove the mini map as I do think it does take away from the game.

  • My answer's quite general and kinda abstract, so please bear with me. In real life I easily get distracted seemingly random details or events around me. For example: a little engraving of someone's name on a table in my university's public library, overhearing random chatter while walking around, or seeing new scratches on my motorcycle not long after I leave it in a parking spot. I think what these examples have in common is that they remind me of how the world around me is constantly moving and has been doing things that I may or may not be aware of, and this kind of feeling is what I would expect a lifeless open world to fail at.

    A living open world, to me, would be something that has a history of sorts. In a living open world, there are objects/things/creatures that has affected the world that they're living in, and it can either leave some sort of mark to signify that effect (for example, a ruined house that has been ransacked with dead bodies inside). or I can actually be involved in it as it's happening (for example, stumbling into encounter with strangers that lead you to doing some sort of in-game activity). I also consider whether the world responds to said effect (for example, seeing people talk about a big event that has happened sometime before).

    Using Ghost of Tsushima as an example since it's very recent in my memory, there's a lot of things that the game does to make it feel alive for me. Deers running away from you, people bowing down to you when you're walking near, smokestacks leading you to places of interest, multiple burned houses and dead bodies in various forms to signify the war that is going on, meeting people in safe places that you once helped before, and so on. GoT also has the added bonus of the impeccable immersive presentation with barely any HUD and super contextual pointers, which allows me to focus on these little details even more than usual. Of course there are some janky stuff that takes me out of this feeling for a bit, but it doesn't really matter that much for me.

    One of my favorite examples of this would be in Red Dead Redemption 2, where you can see someone building a house in some town, and the house would be progressively more complete as you went on with your main quests and check it out again every now and then. Another example is Shenmue, it's chock full of life IMO. There's nothing quite like seeing NPCs leave and come back to their homes in a day to follow their schedules.

  • @capnbobamous Interesting, I agree with your point about GTA V but personally kinda want it taken a step further. For example the watch dogs games give the NPC even more backstory and personality which I really appreciate. For me personally, Shenmue really set this bar for me. Everyone character in that game has a backstory, and I mean a real backstories. These were only seen in the Shenmue passport and Strategy Guide but they were unreal. One I recall is a father of one of the students Ryo knows, it talks about how he's an architect but late nights as caused a rift with his family life . These details don't really factor into the game at all (which I think for a lot of people ultimately kinda makes them pointless) but just the fact they would go into that much detail for an NPC that just tells me he doesn't have time to show me where the bus stop is blew my mind.
    I think what BotW did that really made their world feel so much more alive was their climbing mechanic. Like you said it does such a great job showing you something in the distance but really comes together by their systems allowing you to get over there in a fairly simple manner. Open world games can often break immersion by how they limit character movement in their world, so for BotW to completely remove that barrier I think really strengthen the game. I'm actually shocked more games didn't implement that feature as well. I think the newer AC games do it too right? Haven't played them yet.

  • @bam541 Nice, and I totally agree with you, environmentally story telling can really make a environment so much more impactful even if there's nothing to actually do in it. Do you have any example of open world games that felt lifeless to you?

  • @themarcv Yes, RDR2 when it comes to non quest stuff is the target everyone should aim for. Imo, of course.

  • @phbz Agreed, I think where it really success is the variety in those random encounters. Sometimes your saving a person from being jailed/killed. Sometimes your helping a person get out of a bear trap or giving them a lift to the next town over. This variety I think is key, Ghost also has these random events but most ive come across are just killing mongols to save a person. I still enjoy them and im glad they were included as its a fun side distraction to make travel more engaging but I'd love more variety.

  • @themarcv The one I can think of right now is Final Fantasy XV. I just remember most of the open world areas themselves feeling pretty lifeless and barren, there's not much going on aside from enemies randomly (and awkwardly) dropping off dropships or monsters running around. I think the Galdin Quay area could be an exception, but I'm having trouble remembering what exactly made it more lively for me. The banter with my teammates certainly kept it interesting from time to time, but that's more of an character development kind of thing.

  • @bam541 Dude A+. Since I asked you I started thinking about it myself and FF 15 didn't cross my mind but I think that's a fantastic example. A game I also really enjoyed but yeah, I think the open areas between towns and such were very devoid of all the things we've been talking about in this thread. No random encounters (in the vein of RDR2, not like JRPG random battle encounters) or much of any enviromental story telling at all.
    My example was going to be Borderlands, outside of towns there's really no NPC or people just trying to live there lives. Seems like its either natural predators or bandits scattered through out the map.

  • @themarcv Borderlands is a great example, now that I think about it. I guess I always thought of those games as just shooters set in big-ass arenas filled with things to kill, so the lifelessness of the open world never really bothered me since the game never communicated to me that it's a living world in the first place.

  • I don't know if I would describe it as lifeless, but playing Metro Exodus the game is making a very poor job of justifying it's open-worldness, which is one of my most common complaints with open world games just how unnecessary it is and how little it usually adds.

    Linear path gang 4 life,

  • @themarcv But it's not just those type of encounters. It's stuff you come across while exploring, like finding an house being invited in and finding out the worst way they're cannibals. Or listening to a weird howling and realising it's coming from a naked guy with a wolf mask, that you can follow to know more. Or reading on a newspaper that there was a strange light in a certain region and then finding a huge meteorite crater.

    So much stuff like that in that game that many people won't even come across.

  • @phbz I gotcha, the stuff I mentioned is super surface level, stuff everyone will run into. The stuff your talking about is the real secret shit. I also think its that stuff that really separates the mega devs (imo Rockstar, Naughty Dog, sometimes Vavle) from the rest of the pack. RDR2 doesn't just seem 'lived in' it's alive.