One of my initial Battlefield 4 memories oddly wasn’t about its scale regarding the size of the multiplayer maps, being able to play one for the first time in 60fps on console, playing with 64 other real player or seeing the focal point of Siege of Shanghai’s skyscraper falling over for the first time. It was going to the parking lot and being surprised it had stairs that followed the same function of our own world. It felt like this map had been given, even if a small detail, some life. Following the design philosophy of architecture that our own structures use gave this little parking lot on the edge of a multiplayer map life unlike games I’ve played before.
I’ve been playing a lot of Watch Dogs 2 recently and it’s biggest draw for me above every other open world game Ubisoft releases is that its world is actually important outside scale. I’ll go more into this later, but whenever a game from Ubisoft or AAA game (for example Rockstar) a primary point of marketing is the scale of its world. Assassins Creed: Origins’ map is bigger than Unity and and Syndicate put together. Assassins Creed: Odyssey’s map is even bigger than Origins. It’s a never ending loop, not for the purpose of adding something substantial to their worlds but to sell it to the player on the idea that bigger means better. The world is not bigger to give more meaning to the culture they’re based on; however, to give players even more to explore and kill.
Camps and strongholds don’t exist in Odyssey for any political insight into the war or bandit life, they exist to populate puppets that get you closer to a number that means you’re progressing. Graffiti doesn’t exist in The Division 2 for political action, it exists for lore. Neither of these aspects exist in these games for the reason they exist within our world and it creates this lifelessness. Just because a game has NPCs that react to your actions does not mean it feels alive, when those NPCs exist to only provide dialogue facing the player they’re not alive. They’re a puppet that was a given a small voice.
Watch Dogs 2 doesn’t really fit into this hole, for one the game wasn’t advertised to have a world that’s bigger than Watch Dogs 1 and more, instead it being more open for the player. Graffiti exists to show action against ctOS, a presidential candidate and Dushan (the antagonist). It’s architecture (mainly) follows that of our own, yes I checked the parking lots to make sure. A staircase exists to elevate the player to a higher floor, whilst that floor might have nothing of value the room and the stairs follow their design. A room doesn’t have to exist in a game to feed the player information, it exists to populate objects. Buildings in AC and The Division exist to give the player xp or a new piece of gear.
A game’s space is vital to its world building, just because you populate a building with people, if that building doesn’t share the same architecture as that of one in the real world it doesn’t make it alive. A space can feel much more alive without humans if it follows the architecture. The most prominent game that I rarely saw discussed last year is It’s Winter, this game is proof that humans don’t make something feel alive. It’s Winter is about you and the mundane world that is the apartment complex you live and the snowy streets. You can open your fridge, take an egg out, crack it, place it on a pan, eat it and clean the pan. It is a game about walking down a staircase that can either take you nowhere or the outside streets. It’s about opening a door and it having nothing of value to the player, it’s just full of cleaning products.
It’s Winter’s world is one of the realist worlds I’ve ever walked through in a game. It’s more impressive than so many AAA games I’ve played and it’s not even a 20th the size in scale and scope.
At the time of writing this I’ve been playing the recently released Umurangi Generation and Sludge Life. Within the state of the world right now I believe these 2 games are the most important games of the year, as I’ve discussed so far there’s an issue with gaming worlds. A lot of worlds exist to be walked through with no real thought, a lot of their aspects do not exist for the same reason they exist within our own. Umurangi Generation and Sludge Life do not follow that direction of design and environmental storytelling. These 2 games ask you to look at their worlds and learn their stories. Very much like how we learn about the environments we’re in.
I’ve lived in this town where I am now for 12 years. It’s a pretty small place I’d say, at this stage I know almost every path and if I don’t I could make a pretty educated guess to where I’d end up if I walked down it. Obviously when I first came here in 2008 I didn’t what was where, I was so sure I could remember the house door but just ended up knocking on the wrong house. How I learned what went where and where the Argos was (I liked the catalogues) was by studying the town. I learned about the town by walking down paths, remembering buildings, exploring with my friends and that’s how I’ve learned about the environments in Sludge Life and Umurangi Generation. Through interacting with these environments in the same manner I would in real life cements this locations as all the more real. I learn through actually looking at the world around me in these, not through following a waypoint or analysing a mini-map.
Through looking at the world of SL I can see the clear themes of environmentalism; how the island you live on is ruined by the gruelling rise of capitalism. You see the state of peoples living conditions by going into their rooms, they live on mattresses in torn down complexes, they live in cargo containers stacked on top of each other. Everything structure exists above a lake of darkness, this sludge shows how the island is consumed by the greed from the owner of the brands on the island and how the people will never be able to recover. You learn that the workers are striking and protesting outside the owners building and whilst it’s going on all he’s doing is taking a bath with champagne at his side. Sludge Life does what The Division 2 cannot do and that’s show actual political action, the surfaces you tag with graffiti shows disrespect for the law and how they don’t own it. People are striking for better conditions and you do not learn these things unless you take that action yourself and look at the world around you.
There’s an extreme issue right now with people refusing to look at the world for what it is, ignoring issues for the sake of themselves and their image. That’s why I think Umurangi Generation and Sludge Life are important, with their emphasis on taking photos of their worlds it shows the importance of actually analysing the world you live in and discovering its issues so you can take action to make it better for everyone. Tagging walls shows people they’re not alone, striking shows that are you not disposable and should be treated seriously and with respect.
This is a shorter piece because this is a subject I know has been discussed much better by Dia Lacina, I highly recommend reading her piece on the photo mode and how game’s worlds have become commodified. Gaming worlds should be just as meaningful as their systems and story, without a believable world to go through, the game will never real feel as alive as they publisher say it is. Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s world is alive because a tree behaves as a tree should; it falls over as one should. Houses exist to be lived in by NPCs that have daily movements, not to get a new weapon. Even though it might be devoid of human life in areas that doesn’t make it feel lifeless, the actual life within it and architecture make it feels alive.