I consider Rudyard Kipling’s Kim a precursor to the modern open-world game. All of the notes of adventure, of exploration and of novelty come through in the book as they do in the genre. There’s a lot shared between the Great Game and the video game. Both Kim and a game like Breath of the Wild are a ton of fun and both would find postcolonialism to be an interesting complication.
These imagine a world that must by necessity be shallow. In order to center the player, the world becomes hollowed out. This is a problem for a genre for which the world makes the game. Ideally, we can go from delivering a theme park to making a world which the player can actually inhabit and postcolonialism is an effective tool to take us there.
Living In The World
The nature of Link is to come into a broken world, save that world and then leave the world, but never to live and stay in the world in any way save a shallow happy ever after. The house in BotW is the most forgettable feature in the game. There’s no space in the hero’s quest for downtime
To further illustrate this, the most interesting quest of the game is when you put together a new village with the construction crew. It’s nice to make a meaningful difference in the world outside of the big quest. It’s nice to feel like you’re leaving something behind and it’s nice to have a story with lower stakes. These are people who are working to change the world in their own way and the result is a very pleasant place for people to live. It’s much more grounded than defeating Ganon.
Complicating The World
Part of making the world more habitable is making it more complex. The magic fades quickly out of the theme park. The most magical moment in BotW is when you first see a dragon in the distance and the game feels like there’s something amazing that was around you without you ever knowing. That magic disappears as you farm them for crafting ingredients. Put things in the world that the player will never understand, leave in secrets that remain secrets.
The game has some gestures towards this already and they are part of what makes the game so good. It’s really interesting to see toxic areas and ruins of ancient battles. It’s also fun to see different areas have different personalities. However, the static nature of these attributes makes it hard for the game to breathe.
Another important way to complicate the world is to move away from a singular history of the world. History is revealed to the players as unimpeachable truth and while that’s fine for an epic quest, it doesn’t make for a world.
Respecting The World
A world with some depth is one that’s easier to respect. Infinitely respawning enemies and harvestables ask for no thought from the player. Have some complication here to keep the player from devaluing them to nothing more than some of the player’s time.
Once you’ve done this, ask the players to perform rituals for the killing and the harvesting that they do. Ask them to take a moment to recognize what they have taken from the world and so encourage them to take no more than what they need.
Also, damage the world through your conflict. Fights do not just take place between the hero and the forces of evil, there are always others involved and it is always the people already most marginalized who bear the worst of the fallout. Carelessness needs to have costs. Imagine trying to funnel conflict away from areas where it will do the most damage. Imagine refusing the aid of a village so that they may live peacefully.
Finally, allow the player to find places of beauty and to acknowledge them. It’s always nice to find a space in an open world game that strikes you. Let the player give thanks to that space for its beauty. People have placed piles of rocks as makeshift shrines to nature for longer than known history. What will they do in your game?
A strange idiom of open-world games is the complete lack of character development in the protagonist. They level up and gain abilities and experience, but never change as a person. The traditional epic quest is built around the protagonist overcoming a character flaw, most often learning to temper their headstrong nature and to trust their comrades. Games like to pretend that allowing the player control prevents this and that the main character must be kept a blank slate for the player to write themselves over, but they do not give the player enough true autonomy for either of these to hold. Furthermore, tying the mechanical progression to the growth of the player character as a person is a fascinating space to explore and I would love to see more experimentation there.
- Also, the story of the revolution is never that of a single person, no matter how they grow. The revolution must come from the people, not the hero. There is no true revolution that comes from above.
- Is there any space to turn the game from competitive to cooperative? Ganon is a poor example here as he is literally the embodiment of evil, but what if you and your opponent are trying to make the world a better place, but through different means. Is there then space for you to cooperate even as you disagree? The ending of Princess Mononoke is an interesting complication to the standard pattern of man vs. nature.
- Lower stakes stories let you make something more personal.
- Sid Meier’s Pirates is an excellent open-world game for how dynamic the world is.
- Sable is a very different take on what the postcolonial open-world game looks like and you should look there for more ideas and another perspective.