Open-world game designers have a seemingly impossible task. They have to create beautiful looking, fully functioning games with clear and engaging narratives, but they also have to make the player feel like they can do whatever they want and that the choices they make effect how the game plays out. This is best accomplished through something called systemic game design, which is likely what’s behind all your favorite games from the past five years. It all seems a little dry, but this excellent video essay from Mark Brown does a great job of digging into what makes it all work, and why it’s so much fun.
Systemic games, like the name suggests, rely on systems. Non-player characters, environmental elements, and other entities in the game function on a system of inputs, outputs, and rules. They’re triggered by the presence of some other element which causes them to react in a certain way. Most importantly, these systems can function independently from the player. There’s something oddly satisfying about coming over a hill in Far Cry 4 and realizing the guy you were about to kill is already being mauled by a wild tiger. Seeing systems interact independently makes the world you’re inhabiting feel that much more alive, and allows for more unique player experiences.
Additionally, having a game built on interplaying systems and rules allows the player to attack a problem from multiple angles. The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild’s systems are so well designed and easy to understand that you can complete most of the game in seemingly any order regardless of what equipment you have. Knowing the rules of a system means you know how to manipulate it to your advantage, rather than simply riding on the narrative rails the game designers laid out. It’s this sense of real freedom, as opposed to the illusion of freedom, that makes well-designed systemic games so much fun.
Saying you should make games that let people do whatever they want sounds simple enough. But it’s these intricate, multi-layered systems that make that type of game possible. Lucky for us, the systems in use only seem to be getting better.
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