Skyrimland! – Open worlds vs theme parks

800px-SR-map-SkyrimIt was this article on Kotaku’s Talk Amongst Yourselves that finally forced my hand. Forced it to pull at the imaginary hem of Emperor Skyrim’s new clothes.

Now, I like Skyrim an awful lot, but not because of its open-worldy-ness. I like the dialogue (mostly) and the art design. And jumping backwards up mountains.

But Skyrim’s world is not a chaotic, living open world, like Fallout: New Vegas. And Skyrim is not a rich, epic fantasy novel, like Baldur’s Gate II. It is a nice game with shouting and dragons. Mountains, named NPCs and an all-male voice choir do not make a game an open-world epic.

That said, this post isn’t about how epic Skyrim is. It’s about how open-world Skyrim isn’t. The thesis is as follows; some games offer an emergent, personalised “open world”, and some games are theme parks, populated with discrete, anonymous, ride-like experiences. (Disclaimer – This post was also partly inspired by a recent Idle Thumbs comparing Disneyland to a video game.)

Fallout: New Vegas is an open world. A wide open, dusty sandbox. It is open, in that you can wander from almost anywhere to almost anywhere else. And it is a world, full of stuff, and the unexplained residue of past events, and things that happen regardless of your input. As a player, you frequently happen upon the dying embers of a something; a gunfight between Legion and NRC goons. Or a robot fighting a Deathclaw. There are scripted events, but you are constantly faced with evidence that the world of New Vegas exists irrespective of your actions. It doesn’t care whether you are there or not. And that is liberating.

The scripted events and plots mingle with the emergent experiences to create what feels like a unique life experience. Exploring the open world of New Vegas, and weaving this narrative, feels authentic in a way that “exploring” the theme park of Skyrim rarely does. In New Vegas, you can play an active part in events, or observe, or start something. And while you are doing these things, you are aware that there are other events that you didn’t watch, or take part in, over there, because you were over here.

In Skyrim, everything feels like it is for you. Yes, it is wonderfully, majestically, open. But it isn’t a world, in the sense that it feels like it exists as a separate, uncaring entity, populated by entities going about their business. The world feels like a theme park. A big playground of experiences designed for you, the visitor, and untouched. Yes, there are random events, and unexpected outcomes, which in many ways resemble those of New Vegas. But there are random encounters in a theme park. The world of Skyrim not only cares that you are there, it needs you to be there. Everything of significance, from conversations to dungeons, waits for the player’s, the Dragonborn’s, interaction.

Furthermore, your whole Skyrim experience, from beginning to end, feels like it has already been written. Which of course it has.

Obviously games are designed to be interacted with by the player. My point is that New Vegas does a better job of obfuscating this than Skyrim. And I don’t understand why more reviews and retrospectives of the latter don’t address this.

A Skyrim apologist might be tempted to pass this determinist feeling off as intentional, the experience should feel a touch preordained, the coming of the Dragonborn is written in the stars. But that’s lazy. The topic of open world (or sandbox) vs theme park MMOs has been discussed at length. The grinding, bite-size nature of MMOs makes theme park design an obvious choice, but for single-player experiences continuity, character, plot, etc are all more expected, and more noticed when they are absent.

P.S. For a thrilling analysis of open world game design, check this Gamastura article out.

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