In the snowy valley outside Winterhold, amidst hills and mountains galore, awash with foreign plant life and fantastical creatures eager to harm my character; I come face to face with a common wolf. It stares me down from a distance, growling and standing its ground, expressing discomfort and anger at the very sight of me, an unfamiliar antagonist trespassing upon its habitat. I maintain a cautionary range, readying my battle axe and hand full of fire, not necessarily eager to row with the snarling beast, but at least anticipating the necessity to defend myself.
Fortunately, I make my way past it and continue to wander the land in search of something, anything to rouse interest. I need not look far. To my left is an abandoned cave, likely swarming with giant insects and ample fungi, but plenty of rare items to raid. I pass a large rock formation upon which rests an ancient ritual stone, no doubt kept guard by some dark being quick to spew witchcraft at undesirables. A populated fort stands at a distance, probably housing a mystery to solve and plenty of treasures to unearth, if I only could muster up preparations to storm in and capture it for myself.
Skyrim is an ecstatically vibrant landscape. There exists not a single moment where the player must consider what more there is to accomplish or where to go next. The simple act of roaming around its enormous terrain will bring about a seemingly-endless array of objectives to complete, riddles to solve, riches to gain, etc. It is a glorious configuration of the risk/reward foundation which so most effectively fuels an ideal open-world video game experience.
Many titles deliver a vast setting and encourage the player to spend hours exploring its various locales. However, most developers fail to include enough to peak the interest of the player and properly motivate them to explore, which in turn fails to elicit a proper appreciation for the focused attention to detail.
Grand Theft Auto V is unfortunately exemplary of this, pitting the player in the dynamic, lifelike setting of San Andreas without including an abundance of engaging distractions to perpetuate their curiosity. Performing yoga, watching in-game television, playing pool; these are not anywhere near as enjoyable to do as, say, investigating decrepit tombs or travelling to myriad settlements. Within the contexts of a video game template, the magical becomes a reality and the player can transform themselves into any form of being they wish to be (provided what exactly the game’s limitations allow for). In Skyrim, one can enact the role of a Dark Elf, practicing spells and placing curses on enemies, simultaneously looting caverns and battling dragons. In GTA V, one has little freedom to do much more than carry out random acts of violence using practical weapons.
And therein lies the most prominent issue with most open-world games: the developer is so eager to grant the player as much liberty as possible — to explore, to role-play, to wreak havoc — that they too often forget that the context of situation is the most important aspect of maintaining the appropriate motivation in which to do so. There has to be a sense of empowerment bestowed upon the player character, without allowing them too much power to necessarily get away with just anything.
A great example of this clause is Just Cause 2. The fictional island of Panau is a strikingly-detailed world, brimming with sights to behold, strongholds to conquer, and chaos to produce. Under the guise of a skilled mercenary, the player is given a parachute, a bevy of weapons and automobiles, and one of the greatest tools ever invented in the history of the medium: the grappling hook. But the illusion of limitlessness is effectively balanced out by the fact that the protagonist is still just a man, able to die at any given time. They are encouraged to utilize these tools to cause as much mayhem as possible, but the limits of mortality appropriately hold them back from generating the illusion of perpetuity.
By tasking players with the simple act of destroying anything and everything in sight, it allows the developers to effectively focus more on the worldbuilding and design aspects of Panau, rather than shoehorn in any unnecessarily complicated objectives to achieve. Placing emphasis on the entertainment factor, while providing environments to lay waste to and proper capabilities to so perform with, emphasizes a focus on player freedom akin to that of living out a maniacal rebellious fantasy. Each section of the expansive island harbors unique areas to discover, even if the written objectives can often become familiar and routine. What retains stimulation is the abundance of goals to checkmark off, and the myriad ways in which the player can overcome any and all obstacles standing in their way.
Referring back to Skyrim, one of the most invested ways in which the game maintains player interest is in the direct application of levelling up the character. Experience comes from exactly that, actual experience in performing skills. In doing so, this allows for the appropriate development of the player’s specific skills, meaning the skills which they actually use. This allows for a more effective empowerment of character, gifting the player with advantages they actually will utilize rather than letting them guess at which skills they think will properly suit them. For instance, picking more locks will in turn make me a better lockpick; using magic will make me a resilient sorcerer; my one-handed weapon abilities become stronger as I continue to defeat enemies with my battle axe.
Thus, a whole nother level of freedom underlies the foundation of The Elder Scrolls V as a game. The freedom to most effectively create a protagonist suitable to the player’s playstyle; which ultimately provides a different experience with each and every playthrough. This functionality mirrors the developers’ intense focus on environmental dynamism, pitting unlimited developmental possibilities within the boundaries of an unlimited world to explore. It is what Bethesda is arguably the best at providing. The Fallout games function in much the same way, however the rather arbitrary inclusion of a Karma system detracts from player incentive to play as they wish to play. Even titles like Dishonored (which they published, though did not aid in developing) breathe that familiar Bethesda air of providing liberty through an assortment of progressional dexterity.
There’s a reason most players find themselves obsessed with most of Bethesda’s catalogue. More opportunities to uncover various environments and explore a bevy of dynamic, tropical locales elicits a curiosity that is hard to satisfy, especially given the multitude of expeditions to embark upon. Hundreds of hours can be placed in a single playthrough and there will still be more to experience firsthand. While GTA V has in fact attained a similar level of popularity, most have to make their own fun out of the experience, exploiting glitches or modding the world to better suit a more otherworldly fantasy setting, befit to house their outlandish desires. Skyrim’s liberties are awarded by the developers’ intentions, rather than taken advantage of by users. For that, it remains exemplary of the potential with which how much a game can afford its audience an effective level of capability. Through exploration, rather the insistence upon it, players can become pleasantly trapped within the grasps of a certain title, eager to discover one more area, uncover one more secret forevermore.
Compare the explorative ideals of Skyrim to that of Bethesda’s latest open-world offering, Fallout 4. The former retains this magical air of genuine discovery; completing questlines feels impacting, as though the player character is actually shaping the history of Skyrim through their interactions with the world and its inhabitants. Fallout 4, however fails to deliver the same level of satisfaction. Most missions come across as monotonous fetch quests, consisting of trekking to a far off area, killing a multitude of enemies, retrieving some artifact, and returning to another assortment of dull, overly-explanatory conversations. In Skyrim, every task is fueled by a magnificent level of adventure, much thanks to the abundance of variety in regards to enemies, locations, abilities, tools, and collectables, each enabling more depth to the tasks given.
But Skyrim does fall short of complete open-world fulfillment. While the game excels at forging a rich, vibrant ecosystem to explore, its human inhabitants greatly lack personality. Dark Souls, a more successful venture also released in 2011, features a multitude of memorable NPCs and bosses, most of which exhume charisma through mysterious background, or a light persona which juxtaposes with the decaying environments housing them — Solaire has himself become synonymous with the very mention of the Souls series. The most significant characters in TES V, however fail to capture any allure and too often simply come across as task-bearers. It makes Life in Skyrim seem so boring despite the mythical setting and its magical potentiality.
Arriving in Riften, the first inhabitant I meet is Mjoll the Lioness. I inquire into her personal history and she immediately opens up to me, explaining how she used to adventure across the land (like me) until she nearly died alone outside a cave. Aerin, a local Riften native found her and rescued her and she has remained in the port city ever since, believing herself to be its protector. While at first an intriguing character, one that appears able, self-sufficient and proud, the fact that this weak, naive, male homebody Aerin was a necessary component in saving her from her plight, only to bring her back to Riften where she agreed to remain for the rest of her days, dissolves any notion of her strength and independence or any semblance relating to progressive characterization. I also certainly question her contentment with being tied down to Riften, since she seems all too noble to wear her wild armor and face paint all the while declaring her adventuring days over. Furthermore, her entire history is briefly summed up in a few moments of dialogue exchange, dispelling any further insight into her character.
So while a vibrant, evolving setting is essential to establishing a properly engaging experience for the player, a location is only as interesting as the individuals whom reside within it. A vast assortment of books and passages litter the caverns and towns of Skyrim, depicting a rich history of knights, leaders, public figures, storytellers, monsters, and magicians, and yet the current denizens lack as much sophistication as these fables describe. Arguably, the most interesting character is the player’s protagonist, forging a new legend to be passed down through the generations proceeding them, a concept which may perhaps moderately compensate for the lack of investable personas.
Even Just Cause 2, a game where the main storyline takes a backseat to the liberating mania allowed to the player, features a cast of ridiculously cheesy stereotypes which appropriately function to serve the most basic narrative process necessary. They aren’t intriguing characters, but the game never pretends they are, nor does it need to. The developers at Avalanche maintain a focus on the gameplay experience as a whole, and properly illustrate the importance of attending to environmental detail in order to satisfy that initiative.
Now, Bethesda have never been known for their ability to craft enticing characters within their games. Obsidian later perfected Fallout 3’s template with their New Vegas spinoff, adding a layer of charm to the ravaged Wasteland atmosphere through amusing personalities and situations. But Skyrim remains the developer’s most impressive title because of its massive and believable locales, all of which entertain a multitude of experiences to be had. The titular setting may very well be the most refined open world featured in any game, a world which never ceases to provide one involved escapade after another, and thus never fails to offer incentive to keep on playing.
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