Although it could be argued that this gaming generation’s greatest success stories have simply polished familiar experiences from the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, rather than innovate through new control systems and mechanics, the future of interactive entertainment continues to shine exponentially. While it may be common for developers to follow conventions when building their take on the story-driven action-adventure or futuristic first-person shooter, every title which has been revered as a ‘classic’ or ‘hit’, regardless of its genre, has pushed creators forward to further refine and redefine what the interactive play space can produce.
Much like how television, a once critically-derided medium, began to attract talented writers, directors and actors away from film due to the opportunities made available by long-form episodic storytelling, so too have video games evolved in maturity, scope and ambition when exploring their strengths in establishing a sense of place. The beauty of this medium is that there are no fixed models which all genres must abide by. Its diversity is what makes games so enjoyable for so many, and why the medium remains in its infancy as it discovers new methods to express concepts of interactivity we have not yet conceived.
Yet this universal sense of place found in almost all genres, with developers creating a world or environment which could be lived in and which exists with or without the player’s presence, is a distinct phenomenon which can only be fully realised through the interactive medium. From exploring Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid, the depths of Rapture in Bioshock and the failed utopia of Ish’s sewers in The Last of Us, to revisiting a vibrant Grove Street after two straight days of territorial takeovers in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it is a developer’s appreciation for small details which gives their environments a sense of life and texture that is unparalleled in other mediums. Revisiting Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4, fixating on sights and sounds which had decayed over a decade, remains a truly spellbinding moment for this medium. Indeed, it is this evolution and deterioration of an interactive space over time which I wish to concentrate on when pitching my vision for the next generation of open-world adventure: a world which devolves in (seemingly) real time; one which the player must adapt their strategy to, both consciously and subconsciously, given that they can never feel safe in one environment for too long.
I. The Basic Premise of Migration as a Mechanic: Vulnerability Comes First
The common issue that mission-based open-world titles face nowadays is that their design is built around the notion of flexibility, never wanting to deny the player opportunities to have fun. What this means is that ‘story’ and ‘fun’ are often kept separate, with players indulging in busywork before engaging in the main questline of their narrative. Driving to a mission in Grand Theft Auto V is all well and good, but if an altercation breaks out as you travel through Los Santos there is no threat which will force the player to improvise and adapt to the situation. Sure, the police may pursue you, but the Pac-Man-style evasions are relatively simple to keep track of when paying attention to your mini map. Likewise, in Red Dead Redemption, when stumbling across a new area, players might be threatened by bandits – but these enemies can be dispatched by freezing time and tagging their heads with a six-shooter in Dead-Eye Mode, before instinctively looting their corpses. What settles in is ultimately this sense of safety; that the player is never truly vulnerable, except when involved in a story mission. These cinematic set pieces usually last twenty-minutes long at most. After this, players return comfortably to a world they feel is theirs to own and dominate. This explains why a lot of Rockstar Games’ competitors fill their worlds with side quests and collectables, to utilise the wide-ranging space of their ‘sandboxes’ without necessarily imbuing them with meaningful content.
What I propose is a title where players do not become familiar or comfortable with their environment, as its nature is always shifting and evolving. Although I do have the unique mechanics, setting, characters and narrative fleshed out for such a game, this pitch will refer to the title as A World Without End. For the sake of clarity, the interesting background and world building for such an environment will be kept secret as I reduce the concept down to its essence: setting the world amidst a national revolution, rooted in socio-political protest toward the inadequacies of government. Simply put, the government is accused of isolationist behaviour, which it believes is necessary for the good of the state, whereas the revolutionaries are deemed terrorists for endangering the lives of the public and state officials when trying to overthrow the powers that be for the good of the country. There’s no ‘apocalypse’; the world just slowly warps and distorts along a historical timeline. Also, it’s worth saying that this is an idea I’ve been developing for many years now; it is not a response to recent events or certain personalities in positions of power.
Although such a set-up is generic on the surface, please consider that its nuances have been reduced to their essence when conveying the idea for this pitch. The humanising qualities of both ‘factions’ would be present in the finished experience. By taking away easily vilifiable qualities from both the state and the revolutionaries (that is, one side being racist, sexist and so forth), players are provided with a more philosophically-fulfilling narrative which forces them to question how they view and interact with the world around them, blurring the line between ‘on’ and ‘off-mission’ content. Ultimately, each player is thrust into a moral quandary with no easy answers, where everyone is right and yet everyone is wrong – and the world keeps going with or without their consent.They aren’t heroes, or anti-heroes, like most games – they are just residents of a community tearing itself apart, forcing them to participate (often in unglorified ways) to preserve their own daily lives and achieve some semblance of normality in a world without end.
Many games have flirted with such a concept before, albeit in a distinctly novelistic and ultimately static format. Bioshock is set in the ruins of a failed utopia, with no physical experience of how such a promising society slowly (or indeed swiftly) collapsed, delivering a sense of mystery and intrigue as a compromise of lacking the technological ability to take an established community and destroy it midgame. Its spiritual successor actively tackled this misstep by having the player disrupt a sky-high vision of harmony when ‘wiping away’ Booker DeWitt’s debt. Still, in both games, the subtle transition from widespread protest to acts of violence, and then police to an authoritarian ruling, is neglected. Surely, against all other mediums, this transition is perfectly suited to the interactive space? The beautiful yet hideous world of Columbia ignites in minutes, with all its pedestrians fleeing as the city descends into a warzone. Can’t a living environment exist amongst such violence? This is the case in human reality. If so, such a fluctuating environment would make the open world a danger and joy to traverse – unlike anything players have played before, without relying on tropes such as zombies to lean heavily on one-note combat.
Seeing a once-busy train station be shut down by the police early in A World Without End, only to revisit it an in-game week or two later and see migrants littering the railway track, until, in just over a month or two, the entire station has become a hotspot for migrants to trade food and supplies, would be a remarkable metanarrative that shows how the world responds to a crisis with and without the player’s input. Many players might only have known the station as being a migrant settlement, whilst others may have only visited it when using trains to traverse the open world during the game’s opening hours. Apply such shifts in environment and control to the whole game world, and suddenly players are funnelled towards areas of interest (by the police heavily sectioning off certain areas), without taking away the fact that the world is constantly evolving in ways the player might not expect. Former areas of danger might have been reclaimed by protestors, as was the case in 1989 when failed attempts by New York City’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policing could not banish the homeless persons sleeping in Central Park from what they considered public, not private, space. But when the riot police come back in force, will players hold their nerve or will they sneak out the back door? If the road is dangerous, players might not risk journeying at night. Such decisions are a product not of the game’s story; they result from overarching systems which dictate AI behaviour.
If you look to The Last of Us, which, in pursuit of its stellar, in media res narrative, concentrates on the contrasting perceptions of life twenty years after its end through the eyes of a forty-something and fourteen-year-old girl, the truly interactive and morally obscure elements of the post-pandemic United States are skipped over in a two-minute credits sequence. We hear how Los Angeles has turned to martial law in the wake of the ever-spreading cordyceps fungus, whilst Americans protest the federal government for becoming too authoritarian in their precautionary measures. Likewise, a revolutionary group called the Fireflies has emerged by way of galvanising public opinion against the state. What would this have meant for the player?
Joel has been fighting to survive for twenty years, slowly sacrificing the remnants of his humanity bit by bit, before the player controls him fully; he’s accustomed to the hardship players experience from one in-game encounter to the next.With this in mind, Joel’s journey with Ellie across the post-pandemic United States sounds relatively peaceful when compared to Joel and Tommy’s past, which has left Tommy with ‘nothing but nightmares.’ Although Tommy survived because of his brother, he claims – despite living with Maria, his wife, in a pleasant, prosperous and seemingly honest community – that ‘it wasn’t worth it.’ For a film with a runtime of, at most, three hours, concessions like these are nuanced ways of hinting at character and, as such, are understandable techniques for adding depth to the world. But games are capable of exploring change unlike any other medium. Being an everyday person robbing, if not killing, other innocent survivors when invading homes for supplies – knowing that the police and military are distracted by maintaining general order elsewhere – is infinitely more harrowing than the early action in The Last of Us. How would players reconcile with such actions later in their adventure? The closest we get to this is a brief conversation between Ellie and Joel in Pittsburgh, where Joel comments on how he knew about the ambush due to him having ‘been on both sides.’ Again, a great way of adding depth to the character without flashbacks – but can’t games actually have such sombre reflections stem from the player’s own actions?
Having to justify such atrocities, and then to see the innocents of the game’s early hours harden around you into grizzled survivors over the weeks and months the game takes place in, would be a dynamic evolution of difficulty which is rooted in gameplay first. Moreover, conversations between Joel and Tommy, for instance, would carry much more weight given that players remember the incidents being discussed. Moments like learning about characters far removed from Joel in The Last of Us are fantastic. An excellent example is that of Bill, whose relationship with Frank is fleshed out only when Ellie is perusing through Bill’s items. His homosexuality is not a defining trait. Just like Joel hides his relationship with Tess, or lack thereof now that she has passed, so too does Bill about his ‘partner’. However, applying the same rules to characters we know robs the interactive medium of its ability to create much stronger connections to characters than passive mediums. The chapter with Tommy has no meaningful conversations with the brother when chasing after Ellie. These moments are reserved to cut scenes, reducing Tommy to a loyal gunman than a brother whose relationship you’ve ravaged simply by thriving in a world so far removed from the one you were raised in.
By making real-time migration a mechanic in an open-world title, subtle changes to the established mission-based structure of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption can be made. Primarily, if the player has no place to call ‘home’, somewhere they can retreat to and push the everyday chaos to the back of their minds, the open world would become much more dynamic. Hiding inside some dilapidated buildings and making a campfire runs the risk of you and your group being spotted by stragglers in nearby surroundings – if not the police, who are persecuting runaways outside cordoned-off urban sites. Simply sleeping and gaining some rest runs the risk of waking up to a confrontation. Having impositions like these placed on the player, such as restricting their activities through curfews and checkpoints, would mean that real-world events necessitate a shift in strategy. Players couldn’t risk walking around pedestrianised areas with weaponry on their person for fear that the state would arrest them, if not shoot them dead. In the early days of the revolution, players might have temporarily given up their morals by way of raiding supplies. Sixty days later, corner shops are empty and the wholesale goods merchants are largely relegated to state-controlled supermarkets. With no income and the police actively arresting – if not murdering – dissident forces amongst the community to curb the slowly-growing national uprising, suddenly what was a simple trip to the supermarket when waving a gun around in the early hours of the game becomes its own objective rather than an afterthought. You might need allies, you might need a getaway car. None of this is a mission; this is just how you keep alive. How your allies react to such gameplay, in many ways, is the story – or, at the very least, something which keeps the story alive outside of the bigger, more structured set pieces. The open world is constantly given a purpose which challenges the gamer but also complicates the story and the player’s relationship with the world around them and the various parties which inhabit it.
The issue with existing linear games with these themes is that they take place in worlds removed from society, or fast-forward past the complications I wish to engage with by eroding society to a state of relative stability. Two games which are slightly guilty of this, but remain braver than most, are two underappreciated PlayStation 2 titles developed by Rockstar Games: 2003’s Manhunt and 2005’s The Warriors. These two games, whilst not technically the most polished games of their time, were highly innovative to the extent that their legacy has come to define many the most critically-acclaimed titles in recent years. Manhunt locks the player in private land filled to the brim with bloodthirsty gang members, whereas The Warriors is set amidst the economic and social unrest of 1970s’ America, where the city was perceived as a crime-infested cesspit that no one would feel safe walking through at night. The context is there to make the urban jungle desolate.
Aside from both titles imbuing their worlds with a sense of atmosphere and dread, heightening the tension and danger which permeated every facet of gameplay, Manhunt and The Warriors evoked a genuine sense of strategy in how players approached threats in semi open-world environments. Regardless of whether you were relentlessly pursued as James Earl Cash across the streets of Carcer City, following a failed attempt to dispatch a series of enemies undetected, or outran baseball-waving mutes as an entire crew, players were challenged to compromise their safety by taking risks which turned the tide of battle. But more importantly, these games transformed city blocks from being areas that players confidently perused and controlled into prisons with few hiding spaces to escape your enemies. The Warriors took its open-ended environments one step further during police raids and the 1977-inspired NYC blackout by having other AI gang members hide in the shadows, further emphasising how the player was just one small cog in a much larger ecosystem. While Manhunt made you feel truly alone, where every bullet counts, The Warriors makes you feel genuinely attached to your allies. These are the people who have your back in a sticky situation, so long as you’ve got theirs. And these are exactly the type of mechanics which need to be applied to an open-world title of this type, giving the player simple A-to-B objectives whilst posing dynamic challenges in their way which complicate matters and force you to rely on your brothers-and-sisters-in-arms.
Of course, such drama ultimately points to both games’ shared sense of vulnerability. By using numbers against the player, flight was just as much of an option as fight when deciding how to reach your objectives in the various boroughs of New York City. Players familiar with Manhunt will immediately identify similarities to the gameplay of The Last of Us, whether it be using bricks and bottles to distract enemies, or viewing enemies as genuinely lethal when they have a bat or 2×4 in their possession (as opposed to the player, who has nothing but their fists). Nowadays, games just have you duck behind a wall and wait for the AI to cautiously scan an environment. Here, these games had you literally bomb it back through an entire level just to catch your breath, find a hiding spot, or turn with your back against the wall and fend off your pursuers with one last assault.
Yet the real strength of The Warriors came from the evolution of its sense of space through the narrative of the nine lieutenants of Coney Island’s newest gang: The Warriors. Set at night, when pedestrians were mostly safely tucked inside their homes, each mission in the game starts from the gang’s hideout, where members of the gang work out, chat, drink, or play pinball. From here, the player speaks to their War Chief, Cleon, who then sends one of the eight lieutenants out to represent the gang in 1979 New York City. Heading out to the train yard as Rembrandt to lay down burners on the brand-new trains circulating NYC’s subways, or gaining favour with the Saracens by sabotaging the Jones Street Boys’ relationship with two crooked cops, had a sense of risk about them. In Coney, players felt like they owned the neighbourhood given that they had fought, and even died, for its streets. When thrust into other areas, wearing gang colours, you’re being watched by pedestrians, police, and, naturally, other gang members. The spotlight is on you, and, should you choose not to flee, players must stand their ground. The game brilliantly makes you feel safe and exposed without needing to mark such areas on a map or the HUD. When focusing on the theme of identity within a post-modern society, police officers and revolutionaries similarly carry these ‘colours’ and are looked upon differently by varying groups of people.
And yet, it is the final third of The Warriors which has influenced my design sensibilities most. Following Cyrus’ failed pitch to amass NYC’s 60,000 soldiers into an army of the night, the eight remaining lieutenants of The Warriors – falsely blamed for the murder of a high-ranking gang member – are forced to march across the turf of every gang in New York to make it safely back to Coney Island. Gone are the openings to missions set inside the base. The men must run from station to station as every gang in the city calls for their blood. Cleon, Fox and Ajax lose their lives and freedoms over the course of their journey, emphasising the danger that the player is in – not as an individual, but in terms of the makeup of their crew. Those that make it back to the beachfront of Coney Island are radically different from the excitable young punks that headed out to hear Cyrus’ dream to rule the streets earlier that evening. Although such a trajectory was linear, this sense of migration and never feeling safe is an untapped mechanic in games – especially open-world games. And this is what I envision would change the way we play open-world adventures in the future, as well as how they are fundamentally designed.
Suddenly, driving from A to B (a routinely-criticised feature of Grand Theft Auto) becomes its own challenge. Without imposing obtrusive, heavy-handed puzzles on the player – in the form of moving ladders or pallets – the simple act of making it to an objective in the open world could take minutes, hours, perhaps even days. By having allies accompany you through the open world, and having areas or groups in place which distract the player or catch their attention, as well as the more general side activities, suddenly the ‘side-content activities’ are ways of breaking up your journey and giving you time to catch your breath and relax. These moments aren’t relegated to cutscenes when you’re not currently shooting strangers, as is the norm in most third-person action games; they’re a way for the developer to properly pace an otherwise sprawling open-world experience without relying on cinematic set pieces and cut scenes.
Interestingly, even Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas experimented with this type of thinking – that is, having the open world affect how players traverse environments – when inspired by the L.A. Rodney King riots in 1992. In the final hours of the game, the city of Los Santos devolves into chaos, with citizens running around with stolen TVs and fighting the police in protest of Officer Tenpenny and Pulaski being deemed innocent following accusations of C.R.A.S.H.’s corruption. When driving to missions, such chaos forces the player to drive fast and take alternative routes. Moreover, when completing a mission for Cesar, or locating Big Smoke’s crack palace outside of the core narrative, players were often swept up in fights they would have otherwise avoided. Although such interactions were frenetic and chaotic, such changes don’t have to necessarily be triggered by story sequences and can be fun in their own right if there design has greater depth.
More importantly, can this idea of a world in socio-political disarray be achieved subtly, as opposed to turning the ‘revolution’ on or off, so to speak? How can historical events better inform the measures and pace of a revolution within an open world, whilst still conveying how the environment decays and deforms – whilst also breathing life into new ways of thinking and governing? If the conflict feels real, it is easier to convey the notion that the game’s various characters lead lives amidst all the fractured chaos dealt againt our society.
Back in the day, aspirations for a sequel to The Warriors ranged from a modern-day equivalent set in Los Angeles to the iconic conflict of mods versus rockers. At the time, I secretly wished for a British version of football hooliganism, something reminiscent of the early ’00s film Green Street Hooligans. The parallels were there, I thought, with their shared emphasis on group-based, hand-to-hand combat in an urban jungle where territory was divided, and the train stations which interconnected these warring factions. Thankfully Rockstar Games knew better than to replace the style but mimic the gameplay with any form of sequel, and so now I look instead to exploring its unique gameplay strengths and applying them to an open-world environment where violence is a part of life rather than an anomaly experienced only by our characters.
Therefore, A World Without End‘s emphasis must be on living with the violence and having a society be portrayed as understanding and almost reconciling with the world they live in. The following sections details how I think such an environment could be achieved.
II. Historical Influences and an Emphasis on Law and
Disorder Through A World Without End‘s Protagonists
Although the open-ended structure of A World Without End provides unique opportunities for gameplay, especially for an open-world environment, it also allows for an engrossing narrative to emerge from the various applied to characters within that world. Again, for the simplified purpose of this pitch, I am going to reduce the characterisation of the game’s main protagonist(s) by resorting to archetypes which best illustrate my point. These archetypes are of the ‘revolutionary’ and the ‘police officer’. Despite being straightforward, such roles are made ever more complicated as the game’s events inevitably unfold and the game’s mechanics affect the player’s morality.
Imagine if the player, much like The Episodes from Liberty City, was given a choice to select one of two possible protagonists at the start of A World Without End: a person who is drawn to the revolutionaries, like Shaun in the outstanding Shane Meadows’ film, 2006’s This is England, who sees the good and bad in their rebellious actions; or, controlling a police officer whose role changes from chasing bad guys to keeping civilians in line. Seeing the same world from opposing perspectives, but having both narratives subtly (or perhaps overtly) cross paths as the two possible windows into this world meet in the middle, would really be a testament to the mosaic approach to storytelling that games are capable of emulating. Such an approach really allows designers to squeeze the potential of their open-world settings by doing away with the one-person oddyssey we usually experience.
Through the eyes of the revolutionary, journeying with your fellow rebels and squatting across desolate environments – all whilst avoiding the watchful eye of the state police – would inject elements of traversal and stealth into the open-world formula just as a way of finding a place to hunker down for an evening. Whether the player journeys in a car or on foot, having these Warriors-esque allies by your side would give the game a genuine sense of brotherhood which is similarly lacking in open-world games, given that they adamantly refuse doing anything which temporarily sacrifices the player’s freedom.
Something as simple as attending a football match or governmental assembly and stashing nail bombs (reminiscent of despicable tactics employed by the IRA in 1982) would have to be discussed by the player and their allies beforehand as a way of justifying such a violent act. Players would likely argue that, even if such a move alarmed the public and forced the government to concede to demands, such an act is evil. However, if the world building is strong enough players could actually be manipulated into seeing such an attack as a positive force for change against a tyrannical state. It would also emphasise how games don’t have to be post-apocalyptic wastelands when confronting dystopias, and that the most interesting qualities of such environments are the communities which linger within them. Think about the Berlin Wall or South African Apartheid – some of the most terrifying and evil events in modern history were condoned, or at least accepted, internationally. Because of this, everyday (albeit tormented) lives simply carried on within such hostile landscapes. As such, it is vital to build an open world in a similarly hostile community in order to witness its successes and injustices on a daily basis, even if the player is simply travelling to another portion of the map.
The possibilities for nuanced storytelling, whilst also pushing the player away from certain areas, are endless. Players might enter a house on a street corner, only for one of their allies to comment on the shouting heard at the end of the street. As players leave the house, five or ten minutes later, two police patrol cars could have been called – with the police now sectioning off the street. Needing to avoid detection, given their affiliation with the revolutionaries, players would eagerly look to flee the area without attracting attention. A dynamic event like this pushes the player whilst also alluding to resistance within the community (and how quickly and severely it is suppressed, even under lawful procedures).
Furthermore, imagine the implications for social stealth. Would you and your revolutionaries don police body armour and be seen as a state officer when entering certain areas under privileged access? In the early hours of the game, such a guise might evoke authority and instil fear in the pedestrians who would otherwise stand in your way. However, later in the game, it might instil anger and attract unwanted attention if the player drives into a certain estate with an armoured police patrol car. This way, the identity you present to the world would change as society evolves and regresses. The same would be true of openly brandishing iconography which associates you with the revolutionary cause. Initially, you’d be vilified and hunted down – but later on, you might be treated with cheers and cries of thanks when entering a new environment.
Moreover, by doing away with the linear level-based structure associated with games which tackle dystopias, and therefore drown their games with gun-based combat, a more social emphasis on the world itself would mean that players live with the revolutionaries rather than just see them as the iconic ally or enemy. This way, much like The Warriors, you would learn their intricacies – warts and all – in a way that the other protagonist, the police officer, would not appreciate. By not dooming the civilised world to the blackened landscapes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or their equivalent, players could even engage in activities with these groups outside of violence, making their individual members more than one-note characters who only represent the cause they’re willing to die for. I can easily see a tutorial of sorts involving the various fresh-faced ‘revolutionaries’ scaling a warehouse or factory to find a site to squat for the evening, evading patrolling security guards, and giving the player a sense of the world they live in without opening with blood and explosions galore. Players good have a game of football outside in the day, before heading to the arcade or a rave at night. The protagonist’s general transition into a full-blown revolutionary would be a natural part of the story, with your various allies manipulating you into taking drastic action over time in ways the player might not even be aware of – again, pushing the interactive qualities of videogame writing and AI-driven gameplay.
Conversely, controlling the police officer would pose an altogether different style of gameplay and quandary for the player within this rapidly regressing world. Early in the game, following the outbreak of a revolutionary act in defiance of a certain law or government policy, the police officer’s duty would slowly (or perhaps even swiftly) shift away from having to scour environments to detain genuine criminals. Instead, he or she would have to ‘keep the peace’ by actively targeting and expelling the revolutionaries in front of the public eye. A simple ‘bounty hunter’ mission now has you locating and extracting everyday people pushed to the brink, rather than killers or wrongdoers. Questioning whether what you’re doing is right, and having your allies in the police department and civilians around you decrying the revolutionaries as being cold-blooded terrorists, would really allow for open-world gameplay to be framed around historical perspective. What is my role in this world? How will this all end? What will happen to me once it does end?
Indeed, seeing a police-officer-turned-soldier entering the lion’s den, so to speak, given that your role in society is to remove revolutionaries, would be very similar to the crisis facing British soldiers sent into Northern Ireland during The Troubles (as recently depicted in the film ’71). The potential for slow-boiling tension – such as having kids heckle the soldiers by throwing water balloons filled with piss at the player, and residents of a terraced street slamming bin lids on the floor to signal to surrounding dissidents that the police have arrived – would be unnerving. Knowing that this estate used to be such a peaceful place fifty days earlier, where the player enjoyed a trip to the pub with a friend, would make the transformation even more difficult to stomach. The player knows that, even if they do their job, things will only get worse. That’s the kind of tension games can create and should be capitalising on with this new generation of hardware. Above all, such context would be essential for world building. Not everything has to be a full-on oppressive dystopia to be interesting and meaningful. The more chances there are at subtly, the greater opportunities there are for reflection, guilt and hesitation on the part of the player. No matter who the player controls, their actions are part of a grander narrative and history of revolution. That’s a game the world wants to play. And the medium needs to create it.
The story would surround not only how the two differing individuals develop over the course of the revolution, but ultimately how they come to terms with their actions over time. In many of these types of games, the ends justify the means and the player is rarely challenged to think about what they’ve done. The highest degree of moral choice in Bioshock surrounds the Little Sisters – not the denizens of Rapture that you have killed – whereas The Last of Us lets you think about all the killing only in the final stage when the game forces you to act a certain way in order to mirror the mentality of Joel. In this style of game, an event in the open world (such as seeing the military be summoned to a city centre and be instructed to fire on civilians who breach their perimeter) would be a radically different event from the perspective of the revolutionary, the police officer and those who each protagonist calls an ally. The same event could radically motivate each character in dramatically different ways. It would be exceptionally profound.
Above all, the game has the opportunity to change how enemies are perecieved in an open world. The most fearful force is civilised humanity when pushed on the brink. Not an evil doer twirling their moustache, and not menacing crooks with nothing to lose. A man, woman, and even child, who have everything to lose will fight that much harder to keep their reality alive. If you stand in opposition of what someone believes, you’re in a very trepidacious position indeed. These are the kind of ‘enemies’ players would have to think twice about engaging in A World Without End – especially when thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions in a temporarily unruly dystopia. Just look at riots in England against the Poll Tax in 1990. Anti-government demonstrations quickly get out of hand once the emotions of the people don’t die down and the police are forced to intervene. There’s no need to rely on nukes to achieve images of a dystopia in the modern world.
Still, the opportunities for dynamic storytelling in an open world of this sort are endless. If one thinks to the story of The Handmaid’s Tale (an excellent speculative future of modern-day America) or Children of Men, which sees Theo escort Kee – a woman capable of bearing children in a world which is now infertile – the unique opportunities for gameplay are very interesting indeed. Unlike The Last of Us, which sees players essentially control Theo (except the world is driven entirely by violence), what if players controlled Kee?
Early encounters in the game would be straightforward to deal with, mainly because players could fight or flee as they saw fit. However, at this early stage of the game, the world wouldn’t have been locked down by the authorities. Therefore, as the world becomes more authoritarian, with martial law in place for any and all who break curfew, players would have a harder time to fight or flee on account of their pregnancy. Throw in additional features, such as the need to eat more and having contractions at inopportune moments which give your position away to enemies or temporarily inhibit movement, and suddenly the game becomes dynamically more difficult in a very natural way. Given Neil Druckmann’s influence by Children of Men when creating the plot of The Last of Us, I would expect Ellie’s quiverring hand in the Part II trailer to signal a similar mechanic to the pregnany-focused one I have just described. Ellie temporarily losing control in the middle of a firefight as a new strain of virus (or an evolving version of her original bite) would be agonising. Joel knowing he has subjected Ellie to this fate, depriving her of a chance to do some good, just for five more years spent with her will be an interesting story to see explored, at the very least.
Moreover, unlike bonds with an AI character which the game is hoping you won’t find to be a chore (even having the AI be undetected from enemies, or, in the case of Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth, forever handing you equipment), players would develop their own views on their unborn child. Following the plot of Children of Men, assume the child is proof of mankind’s revived fertility. You might argue that the player would grow frustrated at their responsibility, but surely having a relationship with an invisible soul, essentially a game mechanic, is exactly what developers would want? Resenting your responsibilities, and how the baby makes your life more difficult as a player, but knowing that carrying this bundle for nine months – maybe more, maybe less – will ultimately reap major rewards for the preservation of humanity would always be in the back of the player’s mind. Their impression of the child is based on how they have felt about the mechanics of the game itself – not what the author wants you to think and feel. Surely that’s what makes games such a powerful storytelling medium? We have choices in gameplay (go left, go right) but not so much in story – because we’re always aspiring to tell stories in ways akin to novels and film. But we’re a different medium and developers should be braver in celebrating such difference, even if it risks failure. The experiment paves the way for greater success.
III. In Review
Apologies for the stream-of-conscious nature of this pitch. By avoiding any specific details of the game and world I have envisioned, I’ve relied on stereotypes and basic mechanics in order to prove why an open-world game such as A World Without End is so necessary for the genre and the medium.
Of course, there are certain complications with an idea like this. However, unlike other pitches I have made recently – that is, a prison-based game and a detective-themed game – many open-world titles confront issues of violence and inequality without sacrificing their tone. Typically, there’s a nice balance between humour and drama, with certain characters in the modern metropolis serving as an antagonist or comic relief respectively. Admittedly, A World Without End focuses more on social, economic and political oppression than some menacing threat or far-away and fantastical enemy, but I’m certain that such a game can still be made enjoyable across its lengthy runtime.
Likewise, although I haven’t mentioned it here (please read my earlier essays on Grand Theft Auto IV and The Last of Us), such a setting naturally blurs ‘on-’ and ‘off-mission’ content quite nicely without having to litter the player’s map with mission markers. I also feel the dynamic gameplay allows for a lot of player choice without having to arm players with a million weapons, thereby distinguishing this title from other open-world games like Grand Theft Auto and the Red Dead Redemption franchise.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty I can see this game raising is that its enemies aren’t ‘bad’, per se. Despite some reviewers flinching at the brutality of combat in The Last of Us, an excellent game which went to great lengths in humanising its enemies, the combatants were still very different from today’s civilians. A string of compelling notes in Pittsburgh gave you the impression that the ‘hunters’ players were fighting and being relentlessly pursued by had been forced to become killers, but other characters in the game like Henry and Sam, and even Maria, wait before they shoot at Joel and Ellie. No ‘enemies’ in the game do this. It’s understandable that the Fireflies be cautious around Joel, given his history in Boston (which Marlene was reluctantly accepting of, assuming Ellie would just be escorted a short distance – not the entire breadth of the U.S.), but everyone else shoots on sight. The same goes for Bioshock Infinite, albeit for the sake of story purposes and the theological autocracy of Comstock. That wouldn’t be the case with A World Without End, which could prove very problematic in motivating players to engage in combat (or, at the very least, hostile actions).
Still, there are many positive features to take away from this thought experiment for the next generation of open-world adventure:
- Most notably, migration functions as a mechanic. Players no longer feel safe in the open world. Therefore, they treat its denizens and police officers with respect, if not fear, when traversing through environments as the story unfolds.
- The visual details are perfectly suited to an open world. Seeing an entire street be sectioned off by the police months into the revolution, and having to sleep on the floor of your former house with no electricity or heating, would really emphasise how player’s memory of locales (and people, lest we forget) can be manipulated through interactive entertainment. Getting nostalgic in a videogame is extremely powerful.
- In turn, the hostility typically present in game mechanics (such as killing the enemies in your way) would become a much more difficult and ethical dilemma; more so than it is in other open-world games, differentiating itself from existing titles developed by Rockstar Games.
- The characterisation made available by such mechanics is dynamic, too. Forming a bond with the kinds of people that some deem terrorists but you deem friends, whilst still challenging their actions from time to time, adds such depth to the standard archetypes found in games. Questioning why you’re completing objectives and making your way through a world which is unrecognisable would prove profound.
- Importantly, both the police force and the revolutionaries would lead everyday lives outside of the activities for their respective causes. Life goes on, even amidst such confusion, anger, and perhaps even suffering. To be a plausible experience, not everything the player needs to be what a hero or antihero would do in a movie or biography of their lives. They need to have fun and relax in this kind of world. Seeing what opportunities are available for that kind of experience, especially as the world decays around them, would be incredible. Under such conditions, how would people have fun? Back in the interwar period, dancing occupied the country’s youth – as much as it did terrify them. Surely, if cities were under such strict control, people would have to revel outside urban areas and take advantage of the countryside. This could even tie into ‘missions’ or story beats and set pieces.
- Historically, such a world draws from moments found in the recent past. As such, researching how a society like this could come to be would mean that the in-game revolution wouldn’t be unfathomable for the player to believe and buy into.
- Perhaps most interestingly, in the sense that it reshapes what we understand an open-world game to be, is that there’s more consequence to the world. Each time a new day starts, or players boot up the game, a graphic would read ‘Day X in a world without end’. Players have no idea what dangers are ahead, and they have no idea if former allies in the game’s major city (or cities) are still alive.
- Mimicking the story arcs of film and television is fine, but games provide better than any other medium a sense of place and memory. I remember Grove Street; I know which houses belonged to Ryder, Sweet and OG Loc. I know how I felt when returning with Sweet near the end of the game, after having spent months away from the Grove, the need to clean the streets and reclaim what was ours. This is a real strength of the medium that goes underutilised in existing open-world games, because they are made to allow the player to do anything at any time. A World Without End confidently confronts this feeling and imbues it into the actual gameplay without overreliance on cut scenes.
- Such an approach builds on much-heralded moments in existing games and gears them even more towards the interactive medium. To alter an example I’ve discussed before, think about the fantastic storytelling in Ish’s sewers. Thought went into how the place operated for Ish and his surrogate family to survive, and it’s a shame the place wasn’t active when you got here. It reminded me of the hatch, or Station 3: The Swan, in Lost, and how Desmond lived before abandoning the site. In an open-world game, perhaps if you had found the sewers in the midpoint of the game you would interact with Ish and see how the community lived. If you arrived later, you see how it collapsed. It feeds back to the idea of using open-world games as a mosaic for narrative. Again, A World Without End wouldn’t depend on such moments – every single feature of the game world would passively communicate such a story. This level of thought would be ingrained into the entire world.
Ultimately, by emphasising an everyday people and everyday institutions which are affected by change on a daily basis, this would be a game which details a world in revolution, capturing the sense of ‘bottling real life’ that recent Rockstar titles like Grand Theft Auto V have been attempting to achieve. It is for this reason that A World Without End would not only set the benchmark for what open-world games can become, but what the interactive medium as a whole is capable of producing with gameplay, story, characterisation, world building and atmosphere. It is a game I want to be involved in making, and, more than anything, it is a game I want to play.
For a detailed synopsis of my actual pitch for this type of game, along with character profiles, a thorough description of mechanics, the game’s setting, and history of the landscape players would explore and struggle to thrive in, as well as script samples, please e-mail J_Ford2017@hotmail.com.
This game is the culmination of what I have been thinking about in other articles on this blog, so please read them to best understand what qualities I believe open-world titles should explore to push the potential of this medium forward in terms of both gameplay and storytelling.