Video games — especially open-world titles — allow us to travel a thousand miles without leaving the couch. Here’s to the artists and designers creating ever more vast, beautiful and nature-filled virtual worlds.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors — increasingly more so over the last 10 years.
Naturally, most of these open-air excursions occured whilst I was sitting comfortably on the sofa; I was, after all, playing video games.
What changed over the last 10 or so years? Several things: improving technology enabled the super-sizing of video game geography; the quality and fidelity of environment art improved significantly; and the overall experience of exploring these worlds became ever more immersive. It’s been enthralling to wander the open-air spaces of the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption and the Far Cry series; as well as the smaller landscapes of indie beauties like Firewatch and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
What impresses me so much about these game worlds? Why are they so successful at evoking a sense of alfresco freedom? Let’s explore…
Quick disclaimer: My lack of experience with particular genres means that I’ve avoided talking about survival games like ARK: Survival Evolved and DayZ and MMOs below. Also, for brevity’s sake, I’ve also chosen not to touch on aquatic games like ABZÛ and Subnautica; sea-faring games like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag; and open-world driving games like Forza Horizon 3.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt; image courtesy of Casablanca L on Flickr.
I may be misremembering, but I think it was when magazines started previewing Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast (c. 1997) that I was first introduced to the dream that we would soon be able to seamlessly travel to distant locations within 3D game worlds. Of course, the reality lagged way behind the frothy marketing hype surrounding next gen 3D engines, but it was an intoxicating thought to a generation trained to tolerate discretely loaded gameplay areas.
If you could have showed 12-year-old me where we’d be within 20 years — the staggering environments of Horizon Zero Dawn or the sheer freedom of Breath of the Wild — it would have blown my tiny tweenage mind. A lot of gamers of a certain vintage cite The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind or Oblivion as the game that finally, meaningfully delivered on that dream (or subsequent Bethesda titles Fallout 3 and Skyrim).
A generation of gamers still wax rhapsodic about the first time they glimpsed the Imperial City whilst wandering Oblivion’s open-world.
Fast-forward to 2017: the more I think about the name ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ — occasionally derided for its abstruseness — the more apt it seems to me. The franchise name, ‘Horizon’, serves as a necessarily generic marketing identifier for the series, but also speaks directly to the expansive, open-air nature of the game. The ‘Zero Dawn’ part is a bit awkward, but if you know the story, it’s a darn sight more interesting than yet another ‘Origins’. It was also a clever idea to have some of those distant, enticing destinations actually be able to move around, as Horizon’s tallnecks can — the game’s mobile equivalent of the ‘Ubisoft tower’.
A distant tallneck roams Sunfall in Horizon Zero Dawn.
If you’ve ever been walking in a mountainous region like the Yorkshire Dales in the North of England (think sheep, drystone walls and Sean Bean’s accent), you might be familiar with the sensation of rounding a corner and seeing your destination come into view further down the valley. Your spirit soars a little at the thought of a well-earned pint whilst your aching feet bitterly complain about the distance still to be travelled. For me, Horizon Zero Dawn succeeded in evoking that feeling on more than a few occasions, although I recognise it suffers from a few of the common open-world issues such as side quest busy-work and the Jackson Pollock-esque overabundance of map icons.
Released around the same time, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is also wonderful expression of my late ‘90s dream of journeying to the far horizon — perhaps the best so far. Throw a rock and you’ll find reams of rapturous praise for Nintendo’s opus; suffice it to say that protagonist Link’s ability to run, climb, glide or fling himself almost anywhere in Hyrule has been revelatory to a lot of people, myself included. Indeed, that freedom might just spoil the next open-world game I play.
One of the opening shots of Breath of the Wild, framed so as to hammer home the sheer scale of Hyrule.
As a sandbox for Link’s generous moveset, the masterful designers at Nintendo EPD created a game world so gobsmackingly humongous — full of broad plains, plunging ravines and towering volcanoes — that a sane player has to make peace with the fact that they simply won’t see it all. That realisation can be daunting or slightly disappointing, but also liberating if you let it. I’m never going to see all of the region I live in in the real world; so why should I expect to be able to survey such a giant virtual world as lonely little Link, however powerful and mobile he may be?
It makes you wonder whether any of the (admittedly common) delays to whoppers like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Far Cry 5 have been to allow for tweaks in response to the design gauntlet thrown down by Breath of the Wild. Likely not in those two cases, but the teams behind whichever other open-world games are currently in development are surely scratching their heads in ponderment as to how they can match up.
Nathan Drake spies his destination(s) in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
More traditionally linear games like Journey or Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series also use distant landmarks, typically mountains, temples and towers in outdoor areas, to entice you to keep pushing forward towards the horizon.
Journey maintains the player’s focus on a spectacular peak.
How a game handles the freedom of the player character is pretty crucial to how convincingly ‘outdoorsy’ a setting feels. One of the other things that sets Breath of the Wild apart is the relative lack of contrived barriers to exploration typically made up of combinations of cleverly arranged bushes, cliff edges and fences (although there is still some usage of convenient shadow ooze to gate off areas). Fortunately, video games across the board have moved on from the bad old days of so-called ‘invisible walls’ — occasions where there wasn’t even a visible, contextually appropriate reason for the player not being able to pass.
A scene from the opening moments of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
In recent years, games like Firewatch, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture have served up what I think of as ‘indie open-worlds’: smaller, more tightly designed areas that players are nonetheless free to roam around. What they lack in size, I find they make up in manicured beauty, where the weather and seasonal effects, environmental sounds, flora and fauna all combine to make each respective game world feel unique. When a small team attempts this, it necessitates smart art direction and high levels of attention to detail to sell the setting. Perhaps inevitably though, indie open-worlds tend to feature more barriers to exploration than a Far Cry or Red Dead Redemption for reasons of available budget, person-hours and technical horsepower.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter sure makes me want to visit Wisconsin (despite the mysterious, grisly deaths).
I generally don’t mind contrived outdoor barriers in games; they often feel authentic to my experiences of being a not-exactly-rugged outdoorsman. In the real world, depending how adventurous and nimble you are (I’m not very), there are myriad natural and man-made barriers to exploration: thickets, brambles, ditches, fallen trees, fences, rivers, fields with bulls in them… all things that would stop the average amateur hiker.
It’s true that in larger video games, you’re often role-playing as someone who is essentially a superhero — for instance The Witcher series’ Geralt of Rivia (master witcher, monster slayer) or Horizon Zero Dawn’s Aloy (anointed seeker, robot dinosaur hunter).This can mean that dinky-yet-impassable barriers can prove to be as frustrating as they are incongruous. But with indie open-worlds, the player character is often a mere mortal biped, meaning that realistic-ish obstacles feel more appropriate and justifiable.
Firewatch, as a character- and narrative-driven hiking simulator, is an explicit celebration both of the liberation and the isolation that one associates with ‘the great outdoors’. Player character Henry huffs and puffs as he strides and climbs, and you regularly have to look down at your (in-game) paper map and glance at your compass to navigate.
Firewatch’s designers had to be canny about how they cordon off areas.
I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Brown’s Game Maker's Toolkit video “Following the Little Dotted Line”, which reserves praise for games that encourage players to use the environment to navigate (either as a feature or by turning off minimaps/directional aids). He also praises instances where NPCs give the player character directions that conform to the actual game space (e.g. ‘go down to the river, follow the bank until you reach a hut’); as well as in-game maps that mimic real life maps (e.g. Firewatch, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy); and hand-drawn, intriguingly incomplete treasure maps (e.g. Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag).
Again, Breath of the Wild has met with praise not pre-cluttering the reference map with icons, instead gradually marking what you’ve already encountered (I also heartily recommend the ‘Pro HUD’ option, which removes the mostly unnecessary minimap and made me feel like I genuinely was roaming free). Brown concedes that playing huge games with overlapping questlines like Fallout 4 or The Witcher 3 is extremely slow-going without the crutches of mini-maps and/or mission markers; but there’s fun to be had playing au naturel, for a while at least.
The region of Beauclair in The Witcher 3 expansion Blood and Wine is especially bewitching.
Of course, some people are just crap at reading traditional maps and/or following directions. I would never want to deprive the navigationally challenged the ‘little dotted line’ — that magical in-game GPS that I first noticed in 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV — but it does seem slightly incongruous in games where the world and story doesn’t justify it, such as The Witcher 3. There is indeed a thrill to be had from successfully navigating a space using traditional orienteering tools and skills; something that, for me, translates incredibly well from the real world outdoors to open-air video game spaces. I hope designers continue to iterate and innovate in this way.
Another challenge (or opportunity) game designers have to face is making the mere act of walking (as well as riding, sailing, driving etc.) fun. IRL, walking is soothing for some and tedious for others. But the best virtual worlds have been crafted in such a way that there’s always something interesting to look at (Breath of the Wild’s landscape was composed using triangles according to its designers); and designers ensure that something occurs every 30-90 seconds to keep players engaged (as practised by the The Witcher 3 team, according to the fantastic Noclip documentaries). That could comprise an enemy ambush, arriving at a new town or some other distraction.
Ensuring Breath of the Wild’s world was consistently visually stimulating involved the use of lots of triangles.
Where the wild things are
I find it fascinating that somewhere amidst each video game development team is a group of people responsible for the flora and fauna that many players only notice in passing, but which is crucial to selling the illusion of a natural outdoor space. Someone has to research the species, create and animate the 3D models, program the AI, source and implement the sound effects and so on. Creatures and foliage have to be carefully placed (or generatively spawned) so as not to seem unnatural within these entirely artificial worlds. Further, if players can harvest plants or kill animals for resources, there’s a design job to be done working out how valuable those resources are and how scarce they ought to be.
An elephant hanging out in Far Cry 4.
In games like the more recent Far Cry titles, animals are a factor in emergent gameplay: attract a tiger into an enemy camp and watch from half a mile away as it rips people to shreds. Beyond rampaging throat-rippers though, developers are increasingly using in-game animals as an opportunity to introduce a little bit of joy: for instance, Bayek petting cats in Assassin’s Creed Origins or dogs chasing their tail for Link in Breath of the Wild. Beyond interactivity, so much work must go into the hundreds of trees, plants, animals, insects and birds that serve as an essential backdrop to help establish the verisimilitude of a virtual space.
To me, Grand Theft Auto V’s coastal, mountainous and wooded spaces are that bit more convincing because you can seamlessly travel from city to countryside, from urban to rural locales, and it feel like a consistent world thanks to the impeccable environmental and sound design.
Flora and fauna in Grand Theft Auto V.
There’s clearly an appetite among gamers to be able spend more unstructured time in these stunning places, as evidenced by the proliferation of photo modes and things like Assassin’s Creed Origins’ Discovery Tour mode, where players are free to explore Ancient Egypt and take guided history tours without having to worry about missions and combat.
Assassin’s Creed Origins; image courtesy of PulseZET on Flickr.
Like a lot of people, I’m in love with the world of Shadow of the Colossus and, in particular, the way those lonely landscapes set you up to have your mind blown by the immense scale of the larger colossi. Fantastical open-world’ers that came later like Final Fantasy XV, Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild also feature gigantic creatures beyond the human scale that can be seen from a virtual mile away, roaming the land. The geography of those game worlds tends to be carefully constructed so as to better frame these giants, making them seem all the more splendid.
Shadow of the Colossus’ 2018 remake has enjoyed a heck of a graphical makeover. Image courtesy of @ChopinTheTh3rd on Twitter.
Shadow of the Colossus (2018).
Some might point to 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved and its ring stretching off into the sky as an earlier successful attempt at making the player feel dwarfed in an open-air environment.
Halo: Combat Evolved.
There are, of course, real world outdoor locations that will take your breath away due to sheer scale — the Grand Canyon or St. Peter's Basilica will do the trick — but you’re pretty unlikely to clap eyes on something as majestic and imposing as one of Breath of the Wild’s Divine Beasts whilst hiking in the Peak District. In this way, fantasy games enjoy a license to thrill via impossibly gargantuan spectacle in contrast to more grounded titles like Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto V. And, whilst colossi in films like The Avengers and Michael Bay’s Transformers series are impressive (to somebody, at least), there’s nothing quite like being able to travel around and often traverse a giant creature or structure yourself to help you appreciate its awesome size.
Breath of the Wild’s imposing divine beasts are a sight to behold.
Breath of the wind
The 2012 commercially released version of Dear Esther was a revelation to me in the way its weather effects and outdoor lighting set the mood. But it wasn’t until I stood still and saw — and felt — the wind blowing in the trees in The Witcher 3 that I truly appreciated how far environment design has come on in terms of immersing the player.
I’m also a sucker for a cheesy sunset — something that Horizon Zero Dawn’s staggering outdoor lighting engine delivers in spades (seriously, you have to try the time of day slider in photo mode).
Aloy chilling with a strider in Horizon Zero Dawn.
When it comes to these immersive touches, I feel like we’re pretty much there. The latest batch of blockbuster beauties (available to play in 4K with HDR lighting) feature eye-wateringly gorgeous graphics, lighting and weather effects, even if developers still have to be inventive and economical when optimising for the ageing PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, or the relatively modestly powered Nintendo Switch (I know, I know: with a powerful enough PC, you can make it look like God has touched your screen).
The fidelity and the artistry of environment design has reached a point where I’m personally sold on the idea of these spaces as natural worlds. Further, VR headsets and experiences will catch up once the tech improves just a bit more — the only thing we’ll need after that is Smell-O-Vision for virtual worlds.
As of early 2018, Uncharted 4 is still the best-looking game I’ve come across (but then I don’t own a gaming PC...)
The end of the road
Despite the allure of virtual worlds, I am still a fan of the real world. Sure, I’m no Bear Grylls, no adventurer of the wilderness; and I can’t quote the literary greats on the glory of the natural world (without the aid of Google.) But for every parentally-enforced misery trek in the rain, I’ve enjoyed a sunny hike with friends amid stunning scenery, stopping for a pint of ale and gammon steak at the pub halfway.
“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them” – John Ruskin
When it comes to ‘the great outdoors’ in games, I’m completely in awe of the environment artists, world designers, animators and audio engineers that conspire to create these vast and verdant game worlds for our collective enjoyment and exploration. If the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films amount to 11 hours of “walking… roaming… hiking… more walking... and strolling” (as the Honest Trailer gag goes), our experiences with virtual open-worlds comprise countless hours of walking, climbing, sneaking, sprinting, hunting, fighting, jumping, riding, swimming, sailing, floating and flying… not to mention glitching, falling, dying, swearing and reloading. I’m grateful to have travelled a thousand miles and seen a thousand sights without leaving the sofa, and cherish every game able to conjure that certain sense of fresh-air freedom.
With all that said, it occurred to me recently (after 50+ hours of Zelda) that I should probably get out of the house a bit more often.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt; image courtesy of Casablanca L on Flickr.
Thanks for reading! I would have loved to touch on the relationship between landscape design, architecture and the natural worlds of open-world games, but I simply don’t know enough about these topics to speak with any confidence. I highly recommend the Eurogamer article: "We asked a landscape designer to analyse The Witcher 3, Mass Effect and Dishonored."
We had an interesting chat with a professional photographer about video game photo modes, which let players explore amazing environmental art up close.
As for music and audio in open-world games, be sure to check out: “Sparsity blues: An ode to peace and quiet in video games”