A while back, I realized that Ubisoft had pretty much killed open world games for me. Their open world model, pioneered by the Assassin’s Creed series and then copied to death by the majority of AAA open world games released in the years since, was initially appealing, but after playing dozens of games that used its template, its limitations became clear. Open world games were designed to liberate players from the aggressively linear corridor shooters of the mid-to-late 2000s. However, with the model that Grand Theft Auto 3 pioneered, and Ubisoft iterated on, it seems that designers traded one form of confinement for another. Traditionally linear games, such as Half-Life (1998), used a “content muncher” approach to design, that put the player on a narrow path from point A to point B. Good ones would give the player more options on their way there, as Half-Life itself did, but still stuck to a fixed order of content. This had its advantages, such as a tight control over pacing and variety, and it by no means was the only philosophy of game design alive at the time, but for a solid few years, it was the default model of AAA games. Ubisoft seems to have done to open worlds what Call of Duty’s single-player campaigns did to Half-Life: distil its foundations so greatly that much of the nuance that made it great in the first place was lost in the process. With Ubisoft, that distilled product took the form of checklists, giving the player a list of goals to accomplish, with every possible activity documented from the moment they begin a new game. This places every decision the player makes in the context of how much of those checklists they want to complete, and in what order they want to do so. The player is technically given freedom, they are not doing things in the order the developer wants them to, but the feeling of artificiality that comes from reducing the entirety of a digital space to a simple completion percentage can all but ruin any sense of freedom the player would have had. They are not exploring an organic world, they are picking which way they want to increase the completion percentage. That has lead to a fatigue with open world games, where, despite examples that I’ve found personally compelling for a time (such as Dying Light or Ubisoft’s own Far Cry 3), they eventually reduce to that completion percentage. Even the newest Grand Theft Auto, with all the artistry and skill put into its world construction, eventually reduced to instanced, scripted missions executed with the same aggressive linearity that its predecessors were created to avoid. Open worlds promised a digital landscape in which the designer did not always feel present, where the player could have experiences not explicitly designed, delivered, and focus tested by the game’s creators, but Ubisoft and its contemporaries seem to create worlds where the designer feels just as present, only giving the player more tasks to complete and evaluating them as they complete them.
But then there’s Skyrim. Of course, Skyrim isn’t alone in its design philosophies. It’s the product of fifteen years of iteration by a single studio, arguably brought to perfection by Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas. But despite believing that New Vegas is the better game, I have spent more time in Skyrim than any other open world game except perhaps World of WarCraft. And I’ll be the first to admit that Skyrim is not without its flaws: the writing is frequently terrible, the dialogue is delivered with barely any direction by the same six voice actors, the combat is shallow enough to be mindless, and far too many quests can be summed up with “kill everything in this dungeon and grab the McGuffin at the end”. But despite these qualities, Skyrim is, without a doubt, my favorite open world in the medium, and I believe that it works so well because it rejects the design philosophies of the Ubisoft open world so thoroughly. It doesn’t create a reactive fantasy world, in fact its narrative and characters barely respond to player input on a larger scale the way New Vegas does. Instead, its use of the open world itself, engaged with mechanically, and creates a play aesthetic that better captures the feelings of exploration and discovery than any other game I have played. The later Assassin’s Creed titles direct you towards every piece of treasure on the map and tell you exactly how to solve its various, instanced activities, but in Skyrim, the designer feels absent. The player directs their experience through the world independent of abstract game concerns like completion percentage, instead indulging their curiosity as they poke and prod at one of the most effective and (here comes the buzzword) immersive fantasy simulations in the entire medium.
At its highest level, Skyrim, at first, does not seem very different from a Ubisoft game. The player will begin their session in one of the game’s major cities, open their quest log, look at their huge list of objectives, and figure out which to do next. This seems fairly similar to a Ubisoft title, where the player does much the same thing: check list, pick objective, go to objective, complete objective, repeat. However, in addition to breaking the end of the loop later on, Skyrim also breaks the beginning. This might seem like a minor difference, but these quest objectives are not given to player from the beginning, they must be discovered by talking to NPCs or triggering scripted events. In, say, Far Cry 4, the player has barely left the tutorial when the game is slathering notifications all over their screen ordering them to collect twenty deer hides or complete all bomb disarm missions. This adds to the sense of discovery that the player feels before they’ve even left the city, as these objectives organically emerged from the setting, rather than being non-diegetic, game layer objectives. Additionally, when the player opens their map to look around the world, it begins as fairly empty, and is filled in gradually as the player either discovered them or is sent there directly. Contrast this with Ubisoft titles, which start the player with a map filled with objectives. This makes selecting the mission the player wants easier, but Skyrim’s approach makes the world feel more unexplored, and temps the player with large, empty spaces of the map. Skyrim does have a fast travel system that could allow the player to jump from point to point, just completing objectives, but a great deal of the time the player spends in Skyrim’s early game is hiking to their next objective. An NPC might give them a quest halfway across the map, and the player will have to spend half an hour hiking there. The frequency of these experiences decrease by the late game, when the player has explored most of the world, but this ups the pace for the game’s last few hours, so that by the time the player is tired of half-hour hikes between each objective, they can simply fast travel there. It’s worth noting that the game does offer an in-game travel system through its carriage system, a version of fast travel that only moves between major cities. I usually play with fast travel disabled, using only this system, and the simple inclusion of an internally consistent travel system helps the world maintain its sense of scale while still providing that convenience.
After picking an objective and setting out, the player gets into the real meat of the game: exploring the overworld. While its dungeons are not brilliantly designed and the combat is fairly sloppy, the process of moving between the various dungeons, caves, forts and buildings of the world is the game’s greatest achievement. The player begins walking in the direction of their objective, often with a great deal of land to cover if they are early in the game. They could just tape down the analog stick on their controller and go do something else, so to speak, but Skyrim nudges you away from that behavior in a way that many other open world games simply do not. Along the way to their objective, the player will encounter random wildlife, run across herbs and ore veins to harvest, and even occasionally encounter NPCs in the world who will offer them simple quests. This is engaging enough, and works for an experience that provides more variety than simply walking, but doesn’t take away from one of the core reasons Skyrim’s world traversal is so enjoyable: it’s a relaxing walk in the woods. I’m pretty sure that the single most important factor in if I am going to enjoy an open world game or not is if the game makes moving from place to place enjoyable. This is why I can enjoy the completely Ubisoft-inspired Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, because movement through the world is the core mechanic set of the game. Skyrim does not have any interesting movement mechanics, but instead puts a great deal of effort into making the player feel like they’re on a relaxing hike, not just moving their character from point A to point B. The overworld’s sound design is nothing short of masterful, with a brilliant combination of ambient music with rustling trees, softly blowing wind, and idle insects and animals. That soundscape blends perfectly with the often gorgeous fantasy landscape the player is moving to, regularly creating moments where the player can stop and gawk at the environment. Skyrim is a screenshot factory for this very reason: the developers wanted to create a world that the player was okay just walking through. In many ways, these sections remind me of playing Campo Santo’s Firewatch, which took these simple hiking mechanics and made an entire game out of it. That kind of idle relaxation is a perfect method of mediating the pacing of Skyrim’s long dungeon crawls. But those dungeon crawls still blend beautifully into the hiking part of Skyrim’s experience. I thoroughly respect Skyrim’s commitment to avoid instanced activities, and the dungeons just barely skirt the line in this regard, mostly for technical reasons. For example, in Burnout Paradise (a brilliantly designed open world in other capacities), you drive around the game world until you reach a stoplight, then get teleported to an instanced race starting at that location. That race plays out just like it would in a traditional racing game, then ends, and returns the player backed to the overworld. While this has its advantages (many of which Burnout Paradise uses), it creates a very modal game experience, where there is a clear distinction between two stages of play: racing and exploration. Most open worlds treat their content this way, most famously, Grand Theft Auto with its complex open world but simplistic, removed missions. The tradeoff, however, is that it makes the game world feel separate from its activities, and makes the activities themselves feel artificially gamey by comparison. Skyrim, on the other hand, doesn’t distinguish between these modes at all. There are a few load screens in the way, but the player can start in a city, walk outside into the world (even removing a loading screen if they have the right mods), wander until they find a dungeon or cave, enter that, complete it, and find their way back without changing the state of play. Skyrim doesn’t distinguish between game activities and open world exploration, in blends the two in a way that creates surprising moments. While walking to a quest objective, the player can stumble onto a bandit camp or find a dungeon, explore them, then get back on the path to their objective.
That core loop of moving towards an objective, getting distracted, then returning to the path to your objective is another of Skyrim’s greatest strengths. That direct path to the objective is interrupted by the player’s curiosity more often than not, and, surprisingly, this is done partially by the in-game compass. I usually believe that games should remove as many non-diegetic UI elements as possible, which is why I always play Skyrim with mods that disable or at least tone down the HUD as much as possible, or replace the in-game map with a parchment one. Skyrim’s exploration loop invites the player to immerse themselves deeper in a way that a standard “click an objective on your map and follow the dotted line to get there” loop really doesn’t. Skyrim’s designers put a lot of care into that stage of gameplay, and it really shows. I mentioned earlier that Skyrim doesn’t scatter objective markers across your map, but rather reveals them as you discover them. The compass slightly breaks this rule, but in a way that I think encourages exploration. While walking to your objective, the compass might show a grayed-out icon of a nearby cave, dungeon, house or outpost. It doesn’t show you its location on the map, just says that one of these locations is nearby and in a certain direction. This helps keep the player from becoming bored on some of the longer walks, as they might see a dungeon marker along the way and decide to take a break to explore it. This is incredibly helpful for exploration later in the game, but also breaks up the direct, point a to point b line into a zig-zaggy path between different locations. This reinforces one of the core design philosophies I believe the game’s designers were aiming for: one of exploration, but exploration with surprising discoveries. Telling the player where every location on the map is from the get-go removes that sense of discovery, but Skyrim’s travel loop bakes it right into one of the player’s most common activities. This lets the world feel mysterious, like there are hidden treasures to discover, but not so much that it takes away from the game’s state of flow. The game won’t tell you that you’ve collected 100% of the treasure in a dungeon, but it will tell you if you’ve completed its primary objective. The game won’t show you the exact position of every location on the map, but it will show you the general direction if you’re nearby. In this regard, Skyrim feels like much more of a console or ARPG than a CRPG, for lack of better genre terminology. It doesn’t want the player to be figuring out written directions and hand-drawn maps like in Morrowind (though it does occasionally offer those as side objectives), it wants the player to be in a state of flow that also incorporates discovery to keep it interesting. Walking across large distances in digital space can often kill any sense of flow that other parts of the game had built up, but with the balancing act of making the game flow but not flow so much that it’s mindless, the designers create an experience where you never feel completely lost. The end result is a system that enables and encourages hours of exploration, and doesn’t create moments of frustration where the player might quit the game. And this experience is topped off with the game’s approach to dungeon design.
Skyrim’s dungeons are certainly not the best designed in the business. They’re not complex labyrinths with interweaving paths, they don’t have complex puzzles or perfectly managed difficulty curves. They don’t brilliantly tell a story through environmental design, the way New Vegas’ vaults do. And they don’t offer a great degree of variety in enemy design like the Souls series. But Skyrim’s dungeons work incredibly well for what they are trying to be: slight variations on a dungeon diving experience that aren’t meant to last more than twenty minutes. Mystery is perhaps the dungeons’ greatest asset, as the game doesn’t tell the player what boss or treasure to expect at the end. Sometimes, with scattered journals and light environmental storytelling, the game will hint at an end boss or magical artifact, but that is the exception. Each dungeon provides just enough variety for a quick experience that doesn’t distract the player too much, with a guaranteed boss fight and boss chest at the end. In a similar loop to Diablo (a comparison that Fallout 4 would go on to strengthen), Skyrim gives the player a few distinct stages to each encounter, which it does break from time to time for variety. There’s the initial discovery, where the player is getting a sense of the environment and enemies of a dungeon. If the dungeon is going to provide a narrative hook or a side quest, they will usually do it here. Then, the player starts to explore the dungeon proper, fighting enemies, solving light puzzles, and getting their first taste of some treasure. The game will often split the dungeons into two sections here, with a loading screen in between. The second room usually has higher stakes, tougher enemies, and better treasure, building up to the door to the boss room. These will often be tougher draugr enemies, but will sometimes be dragon priests, powerful necromancers, or other varied NPCs. Then, the player finds their word wall and boss chest, and leaves with a new ability and some good loot through a hidden door back to the first area. This loop is quick, not distracting, and still satisfying for the amount of time it takes up, and the repetition actually works fairly well for letting the player know each stage so the designers can break it when they need to. And when it is broken, if often leaves the player with a sense of excitement that sticking to formula and revealing all the dungeon’s secrets from the beginning never could have.
One of my favorite experiences playing Skyrim since the remaster was released was discovering the Redwater Den, a quest area from the Dawnguard expansion. I wasn’t on the Dawnguard quest at the time, so my experience was entirely organic, a generated story that felt uniquely personal. While exploring near Riften, I stumbled across a broken down house, so I went to check it out, expecting to find a bit of loot and then move on. Instead, I found an NPC who directed me to a Skooma den in the basement. I had never been to a skooma den, so, curious, I found a nearby trapdoor and checked it out, and what do you know, it’s an underground skooma den! The area featured a vendor table with a protective cage, attendants selling skooma, and passed-out customers. I poked around the place, found a few bits of loot, and was about to leave…when I noticed a locked door. Now, I had no reason to expect that there was anything beyond that door, but the designers had left it there to pique my curiosity, to bait me into exploring. They didn’t do it with a quest marker, they did it with a simple locked door. So, I picked the lock, snuck into the back area, and, what do you know, there’s an entire system of caverns, traps, and skooma manufacturing machines being run by a cabal of vampires using the skooma den to harvest their victims (Redwater. Get it?). I fought my way through the facility and got a ton of loot, ending in a dramatic showdown with the master vampire. Apparently the area is used for a quest later, but I didn’t care, because I had found these layers on my own, and I hadn’t expected a single one. It was a ruined house on top of a skooma den on top of a vampire den, and the discovery of each layer lead to more excitement. I was directed through these layers not by an artificial game system, but by my own curiosity and some subtle design tricks.
Bethesda’s approach to open world design has radically shifted since Morrowind, from an more organic, if clunky-feeling world with a heavy emphasis on narrative complexity, to, as Errant Signal’s Campster described it, their own blend of walking simulator and ARPG. Yet despite the studio’s contemporary lack of narrative ambition and setting reactivity, I find two things about their design ethos that keep me hopeful for the future of the format, even if Fallout 4 was largely a disappointing iteration. The first, is that New Vegas proved that their format could work beautifully if the right team with the right narrative focus takes a stab at it, as New Vegas is one of the most fascinating and reactive 3D open worlds in the entire medium. The second is that Bethesda has only continued to refine the core loop of their quest structure, finding a way to push it closer to the rhythmic flow of Diablo-inspired ARPGs, but keeping a feeling of player-driven, designer-absent play. Skyrim’s designers push their audience towards a specific playstyle just as much as the designers at Ubisoft and their contemporaries, but they do it with a subtlety and a respect for the diegesis of the simulation that it feels much more natural. This is a very careful balancing act, as the failures of Skyrim and Fallout 4’s radiant quest system proves. Despite the increasing emphasis on procedurally generated missions, Bethesda has still proven that they have the raw design talent to create open worlds that beg to be explored, with a mastery of their craft that seemingly almost no one else in the industry can pull off. For all my dislike of contemporary open world games, the fact that developers like Bethesda and Obsidian can create games that are so consistently engaging gives me hope that designers outside of these companies can shift away from creating abstract game spaces and into creating simulated worlds.