As players we are continually told we are “The One”. A prophesied hero, the world our oyster — with sword in hand we’re set free in search of pearly fortunes.
However, not all games are so emboldening. There are occasionally hostile worlds where even survival is a struggle, where you feel more like an unwelcome stranger than a powerful champion.
The World Is Your Oyster
Alongside the rise of open world games a tendency towards maximising player choice and freedom developed. Virtual worlds became bigger and players were able to decide where to go and who to kill. In short, players were given free reign to exert their powers on the world. The term “sandbox”, sometimes used interchangeably with “open world”, demonstrates the kind of shallow and often frivolous tone these kinds of games produce — large, open spaces there for you to toy with and play within; to traverse, build and destroy, but rarely to belong or feel organically a part of.
Developer Rocksteady’s Batman trilogy, in which each game introduced a larger and more spectacularly detailed open world, illustrates this kind of detached power fantasy. It was the final game in the series, Arkham Knight, where this empowering form of escapism reached its zenith. As Batman you could scan objectives and enemies from above, then swoop down as the perfect predator to dispense justice. Ubisoft took a similar approach with its Assassin’s Creed series: survey, choose an approach, and finally hand-out an ass-kicking. Over time this empowering loop was sculpted by developers into an increasingly pleasurable, although repetitive, experience.
Not all open world games are empowering in this fashion. Some of the best virtual worlds are designed to push-back against the player, or work independently of player action and desire. These are games in which your sword breaks and you’ll be lucky to stay hydrated, let alone find your fortune.
For many Far Cry 2 is the best in the series. What is certain is that it is the odd one out in an otherwise tame sequence of games. Whilst subsequent Far Crys have followed a similar design to those of other Ubisoft games (like Assassin’s Creed mentioned above), Far Cry 2 is a darkly oppressive experience that can be hard to get on with. Unlike so many other open world games, you never really make an impact — zones and areas of the map are never liberated or cleared of danger, instead enemies — often frustratingly — repopulate areas once you’ve left.
Even shooting is difficult, with early weaponry being unreliable and constantly jamming. These mechanics aren’t just gritty realism for its own sake, they fit with the mood and tone of the world. Much has been made of the simulation in Far Cry 2 — take the way fire propagates, spreading furiously to a point beyond control. These are real wildfires, where the person throwing the molotov cocktail can be in just as much danger as those on the receiving end.
STALKER is another game series where danger is ever-present. A cult classic developed by Ukrainian studio GSG Game World, STALKER created an eerie and otherworldly atmosphere not unlike Tarkovsky’s Stalker film or the Strugatsky brothers’ original sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic.
Set in the shadow of Chernobyl, STALKER‘s radiated and anomaly-riddled wasteland is brutal and unforgiving from the get-go. You’ll face roaming death squads, sneak past military cordons, face terrifying mutants and blunder across all kinds of chemical, electrical, spatial and gravitational anomalies. Far from feeling powerful or heroic, STALKER makes you feel vulnerable in its volatile world. Its environment feels as though it could do without you. Just another artifact-chasing chancer, you’re as likely to end up bitten to death by rabid dogs or blasted by some bandit’s shotgun as you are to find your fortune in that blasted land.
Whilst its worlds have always been expansive, Zelda wouldn’t normally be the kind of game you’d expect to make the player feel desperate or fragile. And yet here we are. Zelda: Breath of the Wild is unlike any Zelda before. As with Far Cry 2 and STALKER your weapons are unreliable and break, grenades roll down hills unpredictably, destructive fires burn, and you’re more than likely to wander somewhere hostile and perilous like a frozen wasteland or blazing volcano.
These kinds of games are known as “systemic”, creating complex rules for how the player interacts with the world, as well as how non-player entities act within it and with one another (regardless of the player’s intention, fire always reacts with wood/vegetation, for example).
One of the best systems in Breath of the Wild is its weather. Rain clouds and storms appear randomly, and their effects can be devastating. Lightning not only strikes metal objects (such as your sword and shield), but rain makes surfaces wet and slippery, making climbing difficult and occasionally treacherous.
The weather system has been unpopular with some, but its unpredictability creates a clear tone — an atmosphere of peril as well as simply adventure. You may be Hyrule’s hero, but that burden isn’t an easy one to bare. Hyrule doesn’t just exist as your playground or to simply bolster your ego (as it may have in the past), but to actively challenge you and to present a world which exists regardless of your presence.
There are other games with these kinds of thriving, systemic ecosystems. Organic and often indifferent to the player, The Long Dark is a survival game with its own weather simulation that means storms can descend upon the player and cause them to lose their way in heavy snowfall and the whipping winds of winter.
Rainworld’s weather can also devastate, washing away a fragile wilderness where predators are as susceptible as prey. These games are all unafraid of taking away some of our power; decentering the player. Virtual worlds don’t need to revolve around us. It can be an immensely rewarding experience to simply create a world and let us — strangers, stalkers, outsiders — inhabit it.