Players will not do what you want them to do. They won’t always talk to that NPC who’s designed to teach them where the magic toothbrush is. They might not seek out the city where the Holy Rhubarb Warrior lives. Freedom is what the open world genre is all about, but letting players run totally free and unguided damages the quest- and plot-focused experience that most of these games are trying to deliver. We want players to visit the scattered areas of carefully designed content. We want them to have particular experiences that will advance the plot or further their understanding of the gameplay.
And we can't rely solely on NPCs, map-markers, or floaty HUD waypoints to do this job (I will come to your house if you use floaty HUD waypoints, I swear to Offler). These elements are unreliable and easily ignored, leaving a lot of players to fall through the gaps. The player is surrounded by the environment at all times, so why not design the environment so that it leads players from place to place? The world can act as its own tour guide, a safety net for those who miss the more literal instructions given by the game.
Map markers and floaty waypoints are often very non-diegetic, belonging to that weird digital half-way space where the HUD and menus live. These elements are not a part of the game's universe, and by inserting them into it we remind players that their experience is artificial. That's not great. When the environment is designed in a way that directs the player's attention in subtle, non-invasive ways, we don’t need these things. We don't even have to take control of the player’s view to show them what they need to see - they'll look at it anyway. And all without breaking the illusion that we've spent so long crafting.
For this purpose, the line of a carefully constructed road can be an invaluable tool. It’s safe to bet that, given the precedent of placing stronger monsters away from well-traveled areas, the majority of players will stick to roads as often as possible. And so, in any particular area, we know approximately where most players will be and, given that people tend to face their direction of travel, we know what will be in their field of vision. We place the thing we want them to look at in their field of vision and half the work is done for us.
We can use gaps in trees and spaces between rocks to frame objects or places of importance, and use contrast to drive the message home. Contrasting shapes, colours, materials. Contrast between nature and civilization, or movement and stillness.
An early moment in Skyrim illustrates this well. The player comes out of the tutorial area and finds themselves following a dirt track. Soon they see the following scene:
Over a ridge, a distant ruin, dark, ominous and cold. A blue palette is surrounded by relatively warmer colors. Bold, iconic, and clearly man-made shapes are surrounded by natural forms. Black stone is surrounded by white snow. All of this framed by trees, and raised up above the surrounding world.
Years of being exposed to visual media (as well as our own survival instincts) tell us that the thing that stands out is the thing worth paying attention to. In this example we see that even if the player runs ahead of the NPC whose job it is to be a tour-guide, the importance of this particular landmark is communicated to the player entirely non-verbally. The player doesn't know it yet, but this ruin is an important quest setting that they will soon be asked to visit. Through visual design and careful placement, it is solidifying its position and importance so that players can draw on that information later on.
It’s worth noting that raising a landmark above the surrounding landscape is one of the single most powerful ways to reinforce its importance or significance. Castles and towers in the real world project a sense of power that we tend to respond to - it’s a matter of their relative enormity compared to our small human bodies. Making things big has a practical use as well, ensuring that the structure is visible from a distance. Consider the Mountain in The Witness (Thekla, Inc. 2016), visible from all corners of the island, or the Citadel from Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004), visible (with some help from clever framing) from most of the cramped and claustrophobic streets of City 17. When one landmark is more visible than others and visible more often, it takes on the special role of being the dominant element. We know it's important not only because it sticks out, but because it's the most sticky-outy thing around. Death Mountain from the Zelda titles is clearly important, and we know this without anybody telling us, simply because it's always there, looming over us.
A small and often overlooked part of Skyrim that excites me is the placement and flow of the White River. Rivers are another type of line that we find in the environment, and are unique in that they encourage one-way travel downstream. The movement of the river also draws the eye in the direction of the flow. In the early moments of Skyrim, the player is expected to travel to the city of Whiterun, a location that's hidden from the player by a mountain. The White River river flows from the player's location, down a valley and past the city, so it’s already leading the eye and nudging the player's attention in the direction that they need to go.
But the river also functions as a delivery system. If players fall into the river, they’re carried towards their objective. By following the river, it’s not long until players see their destination, some distance from the river but contrasting with the environment enough to draw a lot of attention, rising tall and angular above the surrounding landscape.
The river won’t play a huge role in every player’s experience, but it’s one of those little things that can increase the chances of players getting the intended experience, achieved in a way that’s totally diegetic.
It's tempting to fall back on floaty quest markers and cinematic cutscenes as a way to show players around. They're easy, convenient, and efficient. But they lead to some less-than-ideal situations - underdeveloped environments and a corresponding decreased sense of immersion for players. In the future we'll look at how games like FarCry 3 fell into this trap, and we'll also explore some other techniques that you can use to guide players with subtlety and skill. For now though, go and jump in a river, and see where you end up. Pocahontas it up, yo.