Seeing as the trend towards open world gameplay looks to reach its pinnacle with Horizon: Zero Dawn and Ghost Recon: Wildlands among this year’s hottest releases so far, the issue of effective world building seems to be more critical than ever. As the open world game market has filled up over the last 5 years (mainly thanks to Ubisoft…probably), the most pressing issue is holding the player’s interest as they move through an expansive world without boredom setting in. As a fan of open world gaming, nothing is less appealing than trekking across vast expanses or urban environments with a complete lack of interest in anything going on around me. As a consequence of this, I do believe there is such a thing as too much content in an open world. Having a world filled to the brim with content may sound appealing on paper, but stimulation overload can quickly set in, with every NPC trying to catch your eye for a side-mission, your map being unreadable due to its saturation of optional mission icons, your five different ongoing fetch quests, or possibly all three. With this in mind, perhaps it is time to take a step back from the quantitative aspect of the open world genre, and instead build quality into a more limited selection of activities. In short, why exactly is it that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is acclaimed while Assassins Creed: Syndicate struggles to generate a collective ‘meh’?
This question brings us to Mass Effect, a franchise soon to be updated in March with Andromeda. The franchise remains one of my all time favorites and is an excellent example of appropriate world management in what can arguably be one of the more massive game environments in modern gaming, with the sheer amount of content such a reputation would also entail. What Mass Effect accomplishes that other open world games of recent times have often failed to, is the ability to maintain player engagement throughout 20+ hours of gameplay with little chance for boredom to set in. This is done by what I like to call the use of ‘world compartments’. Rather than place the player in what is essentially a giant map that all gameplay ultimately takes place in, Mass Effect divides its world into small to medium-sized individual arenas that the player moves between. While this mechanic might seem to be a hangover from the days when computing power couldn’t handle gigantic worlds wholesale, it actually provides an ingenious way of maintaining player interest across long periods. Rather than spending time trekking across vast sections of game world to reach objectives (a particularly annoying situation at the start of games before fast travel becomes a feasible alternative) the player can simply transition to either a dedicated map or a smaller free roam area that allows quicker travel and interaction time with side-quests and general NPC interaction.
Ironically, segmenting the game world across maps can also contribute to a sense of scale that often falls flat with single-piece open world games. While in a single open world you can simply fast travel at the touch of a button, in Mass Effect you have to return to your ship, load the interior as you un-dock from the relevant world and/or space station, access the galaxy map, faster-than-light jump to a different area, then dock and eventually set boots down onto the new location. Rather than being a simple monotonous set of tasks, this process does reflect the sheer scale of the galaxy you inhabit as a player and really drives home the vastness of the game world you find yourself in, an effect that would have been lost with a simple fast travel mechanic. It also brings a strange sense of satisfaction as you arrive at a new location with little idea of how the environment will look or the opportunities that await.
In the space of open world games, Mass Effect remains a masterclass in world design for perhaps what some would consider the antithesis of a free-roam game environment, segmented map areas with dedicated mission areas. However, it is precisely because of this that Mass Effect retains its focus on content and story-telling, and this does far more to build a realistic and livable world.