The Wrong and Winding Road

By Phil Iwaniuk on at

Signposting is a make-or-break element in all but the most linear games, and at the moment there’s a problem with it. It’s evident every time you push the right analogue stick and suddenly everything goes wireframe grey and orange, or when you realise you’ve been blithely picking up fragments of lord-knows-what for an hour straight. It’s the chief culprit behind open world game fatigue. Simply put, most games have forgotten how to direct you from here to there in a way that makes sense.

In the era of early 3D games, guidance was simpler. When Unreal arrived in 1998 with coloured lighting among its dazzling armoury of engine effects, it made signposting easy: stick a big light above a doorway and watch the player circle-strafe their way towards it like a moth in shoulder pads. Previously you were trained to keep an eye out for conspicuous paintings in Wolfenstein 3D, or incongruous flashes of colour in the fixed-camera environs of mid-’90s survival horrors. Epic Megagames, as we should never forget they once called themselves, found a new method of guiding you through their environments.

Load up Unreal in the cold future of 2017 and all those coloured lights coaxing you forth look like a particularly inelegant solution, as well as an airport runway. In situ, though, it worked — for what was a first-person shooter in the late ‘90s, after all. Levels were tackled at an outright sprint, environmental storytelling meant a few mysterious gibs here and there, and intelligent non-linear environments were, by and large, still a twinkle in Warren Spector’s eye. In the absence of complicated multiple pathways, all Unreal needed to tell you was where to barrel towards next, and its methodology suited that experience perfectly.

Great moments in directing the player’s eye peppered the noughties as the decade saw the transition into bigger game worlds and more player freedom. Remember walking out of the dungeon and into the light for the first time in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? Games writers could hardly let you forget it. That moment garners such praise not because it’s so effective at getting you to walk in a straight line down a linear tunnel, but because the contrast between light and darkness, moving from confinement into bucolic expanse, communicates that this is your world now. You’re free, so choose a direction and have at it.

But as game creators who cut their teeth on the Unreal generation of 3D games moved on to developing vastly more complex titles, they carried over the colour-coding and light sources above doorways too. Following those obvious breadcrumbs soon enough became rote. New solutions emerged, and they weren’t always pretty.

The nadir of player-guiding history was surely the advent of the press-to-look button prompt, asking the player to focus the camera on something or other. Bulletstorm and Gears of War’s implementations were especially heavy-handed. "Look at the explosion we spent too much time on for you to miss," the game honks. "Look at the important plot development we don’t trust you to observe unaided!"  It’s a ham-fisted solution that only ever kills the mood dead. You may as well hold the button down to be guided on rails towards the next important sight.

Nobody likes playing this way, and developers probably aren’t super-proud of wresting control away from players in such a crude manner. Yet this technique persists because open-world games are getting bigger, and linear games are obscuring the limits of their corridors almost to the degree that they look like open-world games.

Some games took the old design approach and reimagined it. Mirror’s Edge took the idea of using colour as a language for interactive objects to the extreme by putting it at the core of its art direction, and to great effect. Others unabashedly embraced it, like Naughty Dog's on-the-nose approach of coloured ledges and pipes signalling routes in the Uncharted games. Even Valve, the holiest of holies, relied on fairy-lighting you through the meatbag gauntlets of Left 4 Dead. “Playtests proved that in a dark game,” says Chris Chin during the in-game developer commentary, “players will go wherever there's light. All we had to do was set up a few critical lights, and players are drawn to them.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these techniques, and to claim that they debased or diminished the games would be a bizarre hill to die on. But when the corridors open up, the world maps start to be measured in tens of square kilometres, and the middle distance gets filled with Speedtree library assets, techniques that direct the player’s eye need to evolve. In the vast majority of modern examples, they haven’t.

Let’s look at two recent titles that both offer huge environments but take completely opposing approaches to directing you through them: 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider and 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Crystal Dynamics use almost every trick in the book to attract your attention and move you onwards through its sprawling hubs, but it’s a coffee-ringed book from 1998. Nintendo’s approach is so different, so bloody refreshing amidst the open-world glut, that nobody can seem to stop talking about it.

Rise of the Tomb Raider has many virtues, and the variety of its signposting techniques can still be counted among them even if they aren’t innovative. By presenting you with a cornucopia of different visual cue types, it pushes back the sense of fatigue and homogeneity that hub-world environments often suffer from. Important ledges, handles, brackets and machinery parts are all inexplicably coloured yellow, which is handy when you’re climbing up them if not terribly good for the sense of place. Camera framing is variable, which is unusual and slightly unsettling in a third-person game, but works wonders when it zooms out gradually as you climb higher up a tower to show you the vista — and your next location. It’s a less jarring version of the dreaded Bulletstorm camera-wrestling, used sparingly. Flares, fires, smoke and lights all catch your eye too, and because they’re working in harmony with the other cues, it’s that bit less obvious that you’re being guided by the hand.

Game theorists would call these diegetic solutions — ie they exist within the game world — and nod sagely. However, Crystal Dynamics don’t leave it there. Also competing for your attention are the bright orange beacons and silhouettes of Survival Instincts vision mode, aka Here’s Where All The Things Are. This visual information appearing onscreen but outside the game world is spatial, or non-diegetic, signposting, and the thing it’s best at is reminding you that you’re playing a game. It’s an immersion-crushing hotline to the developer, who answers immediately upon a click of the right stick and says, curtly, ‘go to the massive orange thing there.’ It’s hard to feel invested in the story or the environment once that happens, or even convinced by them. It’s a bit like realising you’re in The Truman Show, one imagines, and then going for a romantic dinner with your pretend-wife anyway.

Breath of the Wild solves the problems with signposting in a massive open-world the hard way. It does so with the sheer strength of its environment, and the trust it places in players to find that environment interesting. You’re thrown into a world where there are interesting shapes on the horizon in every direction: strange rolling topography that hides stranger buildings; different biomes bordering on each other to create eye-catching contrasts of colour and shape. And then it tells you next to nothing about that world, or about you, or about what it expects you to do. As a result it generates a magnetic sense of mystery from these surroundings such that, when you take your first steps as Link, you’ve already somehow intuited that the nature of the game is simply exploring and unravelling what's going on. Such an objective means freedom.

It might seem like navel-gazing to talk about BotW’s world map in those terms, but it didn’t happen by accident. Its developers know about Survival Instincts vision and other spatial signposting techniques — they just chose not to use them. So strongly does the game set out its stance that NPCs often tell you, in so many words, to stop being a massive baby and use the tools you’ve been given to figure it out. When the Old Man on the Great Plateau tells you to bring him Spirit Orbs from four nearby Shrines, he’s letting you in on some of the game systems, albeit covertly. But what he doesn’t do is highlight the Shrines on your map, or even give you directions. He tells you to climb the Resurrection Tower and find them yourself. If you ask him for more info, he basically tells you to stop being useless.

By going so far against the grain and delivering an open-world game that seems to have ignored every bit of received wisdom the genre accumulated beforehand, Nintendo showed the rest of the industry what to do with all the space modern games have at their disposal: make it interesting.

In the end, that’s the simplest solution to the thoroughly modern problem of directing a player through a vast freeform environment. But it's also the hardest, which is why it took a developer of Nintendo's calibre to prove it. You can tell right away when you’re being walked through a bunch of movie set facades placed carefully in an otherwise barren landscape, and breadcrumb trails of collectibles aren’t fooling anyone anymore. When the open-world boom began, the excitement it generated didn’t come from the size of games’ world maps, so much as the thought of what might be waiting within them. If game developers want to direct players to the next meaningful encounter, perhaps the first step is to build a world full of meaningful encounters — and trust us to find them.