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An Open World of Story

By Gareth Harmer on March 07, 2017 | Columns | Comments

An Open World of Story

“Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” As I experienced Horizon Zero Dawn for the first time, Arthur C Clarke’s legendary third law kept creeping into my mind. Here was a game that felt cohesive and logical, and yet still managed to trip those fantastical delights.

That experience didn’t come about by accident, however. Instead, several pieces of narrative design work together to deliver that consistent, congruent open world. We notice when it’s missing or fragmented, but it becomes almost invisible when it works well, meshing with strong gameplay and entertaining storytelling to pick up great reviews and critical awards.

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But there’s also a subtler shift: as open-world RPGs pick up more persistent multi-player elements (here’s looking at Destiny and The Division), or become franchise platforms rather than single games, that world building is growing in importance. Depending on what you play them for, these single-player or small group experiences might scratch that itch next time the MMO content drought hits.

World of Future History

MMO regulars and RPG fans will both be familiar with games where the narrative – where the world itself – has been stretched too thin. We’ve experienced droves of ‘filler’ quests that don’t relate to our surroundings or ongoing events, but instead seem to be making quota or hitting points on an experience curve. It’s factory-produced fiction, where the content could be ripped out of one game and shoved into another, and still make sense (and be just as bland).

The world building in Horizon Zero Dawn is what prevents this blandness, giving the storytellers and quest writers a detailed world to bite into. Pulling on the experience of John Gonzales, previously the narrative lead behind Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Fallout: New Vegas – both open-world experiences – Guerrilla Games set about crafting a setting where humans were no longer the dominant force on earth, and where robotic creatures had become part of the wildlife.

With a mild spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t yet played it, Horizon’s world-building starts from the opening stages, presenting post-apocalyptic images from a ravaged and ruined future. We’re introduced to the tribal remnants of civilization that cling on to myths for meaning and purpose, and the symbiotic nature they’ve developed with the androids around them.

There’s an eerie familiarity about the world that could have easily ruined that wondrous feeling, and that’s because familiarity breeds contempt. We know how robots work and regularly experience artificial intelligence, so it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to picture herds of robo-horses wandering the wilds. Likewise, Google Glass and MS HoloLens have demonstrated Augmented Reality, so Aloy’s focus seems futuristic rather than magical.

Ready Chapter One

However, by experiencing the story through the eyes of Aloy, Horizon Zero Dawn shifts our perspective, encouraging us to see these creatures and marvels as she would. It tugs on empathy a little, using her isolated status as a tribal outcast to amplify a need to thrive in the environment, but it’s effective in allowing us to drop the cynicism and enjoy the fantastic. As we fall from the wilderness and clamber around inside the ‘Metal World’ of a former research laboratory, wrecked by the rot and grime of hundreds of years, there’s a shared wonder of seeing it for the first time and yet being startled at how far our civilization fell.

Having a cohesive, rich world is one thing, but it doesn’t count for much without the combined elements of strong storytelling to experience it and engaging gameplay to interact with it. Building on the legacy they forged with Killzone, Guerrilla have mixed shooting and melee combat with a Fallout-style vulnerability system to identify robot weaknesses in a satisfying manner, with various skills to augment your preferred mode of combat.

While the gameplay augments this experience by offering the ability to tame robots (yes, you can have a techno-pony) and more, the central questline is what propels action forward and gives purpose behind those actions. And there’s certainly plenty of it, with both major beats and minor points, plus numerous side-quests to amplify that open-world experience and break off a linear path.

Recent RPGs have led us to expect strong voice acting paired with subtly-animated cut-scenes as the benchmark, and Horizon only slightly disappoints with some slightly glitchy facial movements that subtract from the emotion being conveyed. That said, the overall experience is of a story that’s felt as much as played through.

Indeed, it’s difficult to talk about Horizon without comparing it to other story-driven RPGs such as Mass Effect, or other open-world experiences like Skyrim. While Horizon doesn’t have the heavyweight linear experience of the former, or the vast open experience of the latter, it manages to blend the two elements together into a mix that’s arguably almost as strong. If anything, the experience has more in common with The Witcher III, both in terms of the blend of elements and finished quality.

To Be Continued

Will we see more of Horizon Zero Dawn? If sales are any indication, Guerrilla will already be hard at work on the next part of Aloy’s tale, expanding on the foundations laid down by that earlier world building. For a studio with a legacy of shooters, moving into RPG territory is an interesting shift.

While shooters might be making a move into stronger art direction and tighter gameplay, as exemplified by id’s reboot of DOOM, the push to a better grade (and better acclaim) of storytelling seems to be a growing pursuit of the RPG genre. Even if Guerrilla move on to do other things, storytelling in games seems to be on an upward trajectory.

For open-world fans, whether single or multi-player, that’s certainly something to celebrate. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to clear my schedule for Mass Effect: Andromeda. 

Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.
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