Worlds You Can Get Lost In
Making games can be rewarding but is also a lot of hard work. If you’re going to take it on, I think you should make sure you’re making something you care about, something that your team can get behind, and, of course, something that players will want to play. When I started working with FarBridge two years ago, we began brainstorming new projects we wanted to develop, and it was clear that we wanted to make games that were more than just intriguing gameplay and compelling mechanics, though naturally those remain the bedrock of any title. We found that the games we all loved and the games that we wanted to make were games that were transportative, games with a real sense of place, games that we could get lost in.
Where Did You Go Last Night?
In our internal Slack I asked our team about some of their favorite games they’ve gotten lost in. Many people mentioned the immersive sims we love — such as Dunwall in Dishonored, Constantine’s Mansion in Thief: The Dark Project, and Rapture in BioShock. There were also a lot of replies that talked about the best open world games, such as Steel City in Saints Row, the Mojave desert in Fallout: New Vegas, or Los Santos in GTA: San Andreas. And of course there’s the more fantastical worlds one wants to explore, like Yharnam in Bloodborne, Teyvat in Genshin Impact, or Thedas in Dragon Age.
From the comments our team made in the Slack discussion, people loved these games not only because of the “very videogame” activities we get to do in them, but also just because these games became great places to go and stay a while. Our all round artist and UI / UX specialist Josh Squires had a particularly telling answer: “Night City from Cyberpunk: 2077 is the most fully realized city environment I’ve played in a game to the point where, just last night, almost 1.5 years after I got it, I booted it up just to drive around the city, listen to the in-game radio, and mess around in photo mode.” Hearing something like that, as a developer, makes me feel that the Cyberpunk development team succeeded. The best game worlds achieve that feeling, where even after the “game” is finished, we long to go to their worlds just to be there again.
The Pillars that Hold Up a World
Creating worlds players can get lost in is something we think about with all our projects, not just as a catchphrase, but throughout our development process. There are a bunch of creative goals for the environments and systems we build.
- People Live Here: The world should feel like somewhere that people might actually live. Characters here don’t just exist as plot devices or to give you quests — they have homes, stores, functional spaces, and have their own plans that they’re working on before the player character ever shows up. The game should feel like an ecosystem that the player is stepping into.
- More Below the Surface: The player won’t experience everything about the world at once or maybe even ever — there’s more below the surface. Developers don’t have to build out every inch of the world — maybe the bathrooms are locked, maybe the rest of the town is visible but not accessible just beyond a wall. Most development teams won’t have time to build an entire functioning city, but they can still imply it exists.
- Consistency: The world is internally consistent, there are rules about how this world works, and it doesn’t break its own rules to suit a cool moment or an unconnected game mechanic. Players are surprised by what they find as they continue to explore the world, but it all feels like it still fits together with what the player has experienced before.
- It’s Distinctive: There has to be things that make your world stand out. Even games set in real world locations need to have their own spin on that world — the New York City found in Spider-Man is different than the one found in Max Payne which is different than the vibe in Grand Theft Auto IV, just like the Pacific Northwest found in State of Decay is different than the one in Alan Wake. If you’re making a fictional world it may be easier to stand out, but remember to ask yourself not just how the uniqueness plays into your plot, but also how players will enjoy exploring that world. Players want to get lost in worlds they can’t find anywhere else.
- What Does the Player Do?: In a game, the experience doesn’t fully exist until the player plays it — they are co-authoring their experience. To get lost in a world players need to be able to explore it and get to the parts they want to see. If the world is big enough that you need multiple ways to get around it, we may add vehicles, ships, or animals to ride. Traveling must be fun to not leave the player hoping for fast-travel. Then the player has to have ways to affect the world to feel like they have agency. Can they break things, chop down trees, strike up conversations, or leave spray-painted murals behind? And lastly, if the player can do things, how does the world react to what they do? Because if the world is supposed to feel living, having characters react to the player’s changes to the world is essential.
Getting Lost in Games
Of course games aren’t the only media where worlds are built for the audience to enjoy. From the very distinctive regional flavor of Stephen King’s Maine, to the afro-futurist Wakanda in the Black Panther comics and movies, to the hyper styling of Tarantino’s films, to the bleak but hopeful apocalypse of Station 11, these are all rich places that achieve almost all the qualities I listed above. They invite their audiences to wonder what else might be going on in that world, and be hopeful about getting to spend time there again.
But games are the only media that gives the audience real agency, and that’s what makes traveling to game worlds so much more engaging than what you can find in linear media. As a player you move yourself through the space, at your own pace, looking at exactly the parts you want, appreciating the sunrise or the rainstorm or the meteor or the roaring crowd just as much as you want. You are truly IN the world.
Returning to a game feels so much more unique than in linear media. When you’ve finished reading a book or watching a film, going back to that world to reread/rewatch you see exactly the same parts of the world that you did before. When a beloved long running TV series ends, there can be a true feeling of loss of not getting to visit new parts of that world anymore. But as a player, if you return to Rapture or Los Santos or Teyvat, there’s no telling what you might find on your next visit.
As game developers, we have the power to make players care so much about our worlds, and invite them in to stay a while and return whenever they want. We have a responsibility to build worlds that feel so alive and unique that players look forward to returning to them and yes, getting lost in them, for years and years to come.
Richard Rouse III is the Studio Creative Director at FarBridge. He is director, designer, and writer with a history at Microsoft Studios, Ubisoft Montreal, and Midway. Richard has worked on games in the State of Decay franchise, The Suffering games, the Rainbow 6 franchise, Quantum Break, and The Church in the Darkness. Rouse wrote the popular book Game Design: Theory & Practice and is a frequent speaker on game design and interactive storytelling at conferences and universities. Richard can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.