The Barrier of Barriers

Imagine a land surrounded by long stretches of tall mountains, where snow and ice tower above rich foliage in distinct layers, as the sun’s rays attempt to compete with the natural beauty of the land in what turns a normal sunset into a magnificent spectacle of color. Imagine a place where the beauty is only matched by the danger. A danger which comes from the senseless war that man desires with himself, and the endless war man faces with nature. Imagine a place so captivating that these dangers still could not halt the bold, curious mind.

Kyrat is a mesmerizing land.

And so I stand here looking down at it all, glider in hand, with feelings of peace. I know there is so much more to be done, but if I am not to survive the flight into the valley beneath me, I can be grateful for the majestic earth I would rejoin.

When I leap off, there is no fear. And as I fly through the cliffs, Kyrat gets put into motion around me, transforming the initial view into a tunnel leading towards my destination, wherever that may be.

The cliffs seem to deviate further apart as I fly forward. My gamble has paid off, and a new patch of this amazing world has opened up to me.

But suddenly my vision starts flashing red. In the sky I can read the words, “Out of Bounds! You have 10 seconds to turn around!”

Wait, what the fuck?

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That was an example of how Far Cry 4 directs the player, and it is honestly a terrible way to handle open world gameplay. This is not any sort of judgment on Far Cry 4 as a whole, but this idea of the artificial “Out of Bounds” area truly does a disservice to games that seek to establish massive settings with such great detail. And so, the idea deserves some criticism. It is a sloppy, lazy method of player direction.

Admittedly, after my recent love affair GTA V, other open world games will probably always seem pretty strict in comparison. GTA V is just a massive playground. Nothing in the game really tells the player where they have to go, but rather where they could go. It really all depends on the player’s fancy at any given moment, and that sort of freedom is a lovely feeling in a game.

But I understand that not every video game world is trying to be a playground. Sometimes a story is trying to get told that requires more direction, or the gameplay requires better skill from a player in order for it to smoothly translate in later level environments. The solution to those problems still should not be throwing up a giant sign that reads “Go No Further! -the Developer” the moment the player steps over some invisible line.

If an open world game requires strong barriers, then the barriers need to be something natural to the world. It can’t be something easy like “poisonous fog” or something that will randomly go away later. It should be something that the player can overcome later. In some ways, this design philosophy originated back in the days of Super Metroid, and it still works as a great way to gradually open a world up to the player. Even as these worlds have gotten more elaborate and detailed, there will always be more satisfaction for the player who earns his way through a gate than when the game arbitrarily opens the gate for him.

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A great example of a game that executed on this concept was Fallout: New Vegas. At the beginning of the game, the obvious route to the player’s destination is cut off. Not by radioactivity or some other convenient tool the developers could have pulled out of the setting, but by the fact that the monsters on that path are particularly territorial and challenging. There is actually a fair amount of areas in New Vegas that shut the player out like this, and it’s a very rewarding way to keep the player guided. Until the player gets better equipped and more experienced, they will usually try to find the safest ways to navigate the Mojave Desert. They’ll stick mainly to the roads that are available to their skill level, until it is time to put everything they have learned and gained to the test.

And when the player is finally able to march through the areas that would have spat them out so easily before, then they have a true grasp of what they accomplished over the course of the game.

This whole topic might seem like the whining nerd screaming about his “immersion being ruined”, but it’s not really about that as much as it is about putting making the game and the world of game work cohesively. I’m well aware that I’m playing a video game, but it is up to the developer to decide what “playing a video game” means in the context of their game. So when an open world game throws up the “Out of Bounds” sign, it can be manifestation of an actual barrier that showed up in development. Sometimes this happens, of course, and it doesn’t mean the game is bad just because the developers could not find an elegant solution. However, the best games are the ones that manage to turn their barriers to the game’s advantage.

Excuse the corporate-speak cliché, but barriers are an example of when to turn obstacles into opportunities. Do the developers see a barrier as a challenge for the player to eventually overcome in a way that will be satisfying, or are barriers just necessary evils because the game needs direction? If it’s the latter, then developers should ask themselves why those barriers are even there to begin with. What is the goal of a world that is not completely open, but also fails to direct the player in any interesting way?

The goal is probably just to irritate me, I’d bet. Yeah, that’s it. It’s all about me!

  • It’s not like it’s a secret that I don’t love the Assassin’s Creed series, but the “out of bounds” handling in that is particularly annoying. “Here’s this big city where you can climb and explore *anywhere!*” . . . “Oh, wait. Not there yet. Because story!”

    Dark Souls is probably another great example of boundaries done well.