Why is nothing changing?
So, you’re the hero of legend. You’ve conquered countless trials, climbed the ranks, and killed the big ugly monster trying to destroy the world. Hundreds of people died. Towns were destroyed. Everyone supposedly knows your name. So why, then, does the guard at the entrance to the town still refer to you as “outsider”? Why, even though the big bad evil was out destroying villages, are all but a couple of small hamlets still functioning as well as they were at the beginning of the game? Why has that NPC had nothing different to say to you over the course of the past 30 hours of gameplay? The world has not changed to reflect the actions of the hero.
This scenario is something that has come up countless times in video games. The player spends hours killing monsters, traveling across the world, and saving people. In cutscenes, the player is confronted, praised, even hailed as a hero. Once those cutscenes are over, however, the world remains static. The hero is barely acknowledged by the NPCs.
In these types of games, big events relating to the story usually happen off screen. When you hear of a town getting attacked, it’s already fully destroyed by the time you get there. At the end of the game, the town hasn’t been rebuilt or anything. There’s probably still one or two NPCs there talking about how great of a tragedy it was, and that’s it.
If you’re in a big epic adventure, why does nobody care? Guards still talk down to you at the end of the game like they did at the beginning. Your badass armor deter random bandits from attacking you. Although there is a civil war going on, there’s no actual battles happening unless the player is there to experience them.
Why is the world so lifeless?
The root of the problem
This kind of shallow game design happens for a couple of reasons. Let’s take a look at some examples.
1 – It’s too much work too late in the development cycle
If you’re working on a game for months or even years, there comes a point in the dev cycle when it’s time to put on the polish. This is where side characters get dialogue, graphics are refined, UI and VFX are spruced up. By the time this phase of development hits, the developers already implemented dozens of scenarios. These scenarios all feed directly into the task at hand. For example:
Side quest scenario:
Old Man: “The only way to save the village is to get the holy crystal from the palace.”
Hero goes to palace, kills monster, gets crystal, returns.
Old Man: “We are truly in your debt!”
Hero receives gold
This example quest follows a basic flow: Encounter => Conflict => Resolution.
Most side quest scenarios end at resolution. After all, why would there be anything new afterwards? The side quest isn’t significant to the main story, so the player is probably going to go off to some other village. In many cases that may be true, so developers will often slap on a couple of quick dialogue changes and call it a day. After all, there’s fifty more generic padding side quests to code, right? When a team is in the polish phase of creating a game, they don’t want to create more content to make the world seem more realistic, they just want to move on to the next plot point and make it nicer.
To compound the issue, this isn’t usually restricted to side quests either. Significant events happen in the main story, but the world around the player remains the same. Take Skyrim’s early quest to slay your first dragon. You get to a watch tower, which was already destroyed beforehand, but now there are some smoke particle effects to show that there was totally a big dragon fight going on. You and the guards valiantly kill the beast, and confirm to everyone that dragons are back to terrorize the people. So, what happens in Whiterun? The Jarl names you a thane, giving you some sway with the guards, and gives you a fancy axe. But I’m talking about what happens to the town. Are extra guards posted to fight back against dragons? Do people seem the least bit concerned? Not really.
2 – It’s Scary to change the world when there’s still things the player can do
So let’s say the game developers have thought of the follow through, added in a few bits of dialogue, and now the player is touted as a hero. That’s great! Now the player can feel like they’re making a difference. However, acknowledging the players themselves is only part of the issue. Developers are afraid of making drastic differences in their game worlds.
So, what causes this fear? Many games, especially more modern, cinematic ones, want to make sure the player experiences everything the game has to offer. If the world around the player is changed too drastically, the player would likely miss out on some optional content. How can you do a side quest in a town when that town is now destroyed? As a result, many game developers make all of the death and destruction happen offscreen, or only near the ending when the player has passed the “point of no return”. This fear of depriving the player from fully experiencing a game actually makes the game’s experience less memorable.
When used effectively, large-scale destruction or changes can drastically improve the memorability and impact of a game’s big moments.
Let’s look at some examples.
The bad example – Skyrim
I know, I know — Skyrim again. Sure, this game came out in 2011, but it was re-released just this year for the millionth time. Plus, criticism is timeless, and I need someone to pick on.
Among Skyrim’s many selling points, one included the random events that could happen. The most impressive was probably dragons randomly attacking towns. More than once, I’ve walked through a small town like Riverwood only to hear a dragon swoop in and start burning people. This is great! This works to the plot point that dragons are terrifying and dangerous. When the dragon attacks, people get killed, and it’s awesome.
But then the player kills the dragon. Afterwards, nothing happens. Peoples’ panic ends immediately, the deceased are completely ignored and left lying in the street till they de-spawn. Most importantly though, the fire-breathing dragon does absolutely no damage to the town. If a dragon were raining fire, these wood houses would have burned up, or at least had some cosmetic damage. Developers would never put that in though, because it’s too much work, and that could cancel out some important side quests.
While this is an old example, this does break some level of immersion when playing Skyrim. The feeling of danger evaporates. Dragons suddenly feel less dangerous, and the narrative as a whole loses its impact.
The good example – Nier: Automata
This year, Nier: Automata has landed among many peoples’ game of the year awards lists. But why? The graphics aren’t out-of-this-world. The combat isn’t quite as deep as other Platinum games’ combat systems, such as Bayonetta. It’s also been called a bit tedious, as you have to replay the game five times to see all of the content.
Nier: Automata is so widely loved because it’s not afraid to take risks. The story, driven by famed designer Yoko Taro, is masterfully crafted, and masterfully executed. Here’s why: When something significant happens in the story, the ramifications from that event affects the entire world. There are several points of no return, barring many important side quests and opportunities. Entire areas will change to reflect the large-scale battles and events. The actions of the androids, robots, heroes, and villains all feel significant.
Obviously I’ve been vague to avoid spoiling anything, so here’s a specific example from about mid-way through the first play through. Skip ahead to avoid spoilers.
Spoilers start here
After meeting the friendly robots of Pascal’s village, command informs the player that there are multiple huge robots attacking the ruins of the city — the hub area of the game. Upon getting to the city center, there are behemoth robots destroying everything. There are missile strikes raining from the sky. There is fighting going on everywhere. 2B and 9S climb into air combat units and fight the robots. After killing the area’s boss, there is a huge explosion, and the center of the city is leveled. As a result, there is a gigantic hole in the center of the city. this hole remains here for the rest of the game.
This has story significance, as it opens new areas directly relating to the overall narrative. After this point, there are more dangerous robots walking around. You can no longer stroll through the city – now you have to navigate around this huge crater. The world has changed as a result of the player’s actions, and the changes are there forever. It’s awesome.
SPOILERS END HERE
The above example is but one of many, many times this type of thing happens in Nier: Automata. Huge story events happen throughout the game, and huge chunks of the game change as a result. The tale gets darker and more interesting as the game progresses. The world as you see it at the story’s close is completely different from the world you saw at the beginning.
Having a world where bad things actually happen, and the world changes to reflect it, draws the player in. It makes them want to play it again and again. It also adds a feeling of tension that most games don’t provide. You, as the player, know that anything can happen at the next point in the story. Cities can be destroyed, important characters can die, and content can be walled off from the player’s access. Nier: Automata doesn’t play it safe, which instantly makes it more memorable than many other big AAA titles.
The AAA gaming industry has been widely criticized lately for being too stale. Many AAA games feel the same as one another. Designers use the same cliche tropes over and over. Nothing ever changes.
Developers need to stop being lazy, and stop being afraid. The more engaging your games’ world, the better your game will be. And that’s all gamers want. Good games.
What games do you feel do a good job reacting to the hero’s actions? Leave a comment below! Thanks for reading!
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