By Ben Griffin
When you think of stupidly massive video game worlds, you might think of Daggerfall, Just Cause 3, ARMA III, or Fuel. Big studios, and big budget projects. Well, make some more room in your brain for the indie title Kenshi which, according to its creators, is the biggest game world of all time.
A single-player survival RPG in the vein of old-school Fallout, its creator Chris Hunt tells me the point is that it’s all handcrafted. The six-person development team at Lo-fi don’t use procedural generation, as in No Man’s Sky or Minecraft. Instead, Hunt and co. arduously carve out canyons, raise sand dunes, and place every geographic feature themselves.
Unsurprisingly, Kenshi has been in development for ten years, on and off.
The total area of its world is 870 sq/km. For comparison, Skyrim is around 37 sq/km. It takes two hours and ten minutes to cross Bethesda’s game on foot. Using back-of-the-napkin maths (divide 870 by 37, then multiply 2.10 by that total), we can work out it would take roughly 49.35 hours to do the same here. Although admittedly this figure may be completely wrong as I’m bad at maths [I'll allow it - ed].
Of course, bigger doesn’t automatically mean better. So why does Kenshi need to take place in such a sprawling location? “[It gives us] freedom,” Kenshi’s lead writer Natalie Hunt says. “A larger world gives the player even more choice and more variety in where they can explore, where they can set up a base or who they will make their enemies and allies. It adds to the feeling of setting out on a journey, an expedition to explore its vastness and its unchartered areas through storms, hunger and carnivorous wildlife. I also feel like it adds to the player’s ‘smallness’ and insignificance. They’re not born as The Chosen One, or as anything special.”
The question is whether this game can make such scale meaningful to players, who by and large will never see more than a fraction of it. Indeed, this somewhat fits with the game's theme, which is that you really don’t matter here. The game’s name, Kenshi, is a Japanese word meaning ‘swordsman’. As opposed to a skilled samurai or ronin, it simply means ‘guy with a sword.’ “You are not the chosen one,” goes the game’s description on Lo-fi’s website. “You’re not great and powerful. You don’t have more ‘hitpoints’ than everyone else. You are not the centre of the universe, and you are not special. Unless you work for it.”
So, what’s the aim? Basically, create an avatar, explore, and try not to die.
The daunting scale of Kenshi’s world gives opportunity for anything to happen. Animals can eat you. Bounty hunters can bump you off. Acid rain can melt your skin. At one point I pass through a foggy canyon and blue-skinned cannibals pounce, tying me to a post and scampering away. They return in greater numbers and start eating me, first the legs, then the arms, then the head, as dozens more sink to their knees and start worshipping. It’s bizarre, and completely without explanation. So, yeah, free advice: dodge the fog canyon.
So many open-ended systems are at work here: squad management, branching dialogue, (over 20,000 lines are in this game), character customisation, weapon crafting, base-building. Why, for instance, stop at constructing one base, when you can erect several and form a settlement? Better yet, turn one into a shop and sell loot to nomads, or transform the settlement into a thriving farmstead and grow crops - but make sure to build turrets and spotlights, because river raptors will trample them if you don’t. There doesn’t seem to be a limit on Lo-fi’s ambition.
Actions have consequences. Don’t eat and you’ll turn skinny. Get cut and your blood may attract predators. Run into slavers and they’ll commit you to the mines, where you’ll crack rocks for days on end. If caught stealing you’ll be thrown in jail, with the ensuing stretch behind bars matching the severity of your crimes.
Thankfully, instead of playing the rest of the game as an enslaved miner or waiting weeks to get out of jail, you can either speed up time or switch to a different party. Chris tells me you can have up to ten parties on the go at one time, with a maximum of 30 characters total. In a pinch you can switch control and be your own rescue force. Potential squadmates are everywhere, from caves, to dusty taverns, to religious cults. And they’re talkative, too.
See, it’s not just Kenshi’s world Lo-fi has handcrafted, but characters spanning the entire stretch of it, all of whom adhere to a personality system. Generally, there are traits such as honourable, smart, dumb, and crazy, and NPCs will draw from these traits to generate an identity. So, for instance, a warrior race might generally be honourable, but one or two might have a traitorous streak, and be inclined to backstab each other. People veering more towards the crazy trait means they’ll issue creepy threats towards you for no reason.
So why is it so important Kenshi, massive as it is, remain handcrafted? For Natalie, it’s “mainly because we wanted the world to tell a subtle story, something we wouldn’t be able to do with a procedurally generated world. We have 2000 years of history being shown through every ruin, each biome, and even the placement of the towns and factions. We try and avoid having the player rely on books to discover the world’s secrets, as sometimes this can end up feeling more like studying for an exam than playing a game. Instead we prefer to encourage the player to explore and take in smaller hints and details through sights. It gives exploration more meaning than simply looting rare items and treasures.”
The question is whether Kenshi all hangs together. Whether players will find value in a more freeform place where they can build their own stories, or will be turned off by the rough edges and opaque systems. This is a weird and inscrutable experience: a vast world, dozens of interplaying systems, and no tutorial.
I can’t say I understand how everything hangs together. But that's kind of the point. You don’t have to see or know everything in this vast expanse. You just have to survive it.
Kenshi is currently in Early Access on Steam for £12.99.