I think it was GoldenEye 007 that made me fall in love with big, varied levels in games. For those of you who’ve played Rare’s legendary Nintendo 64 first-person shooter, you’ll remember that the title gave you the tools to approach stages in a variety of different ways. In the opening objective Dam, for example, you could choose to fight your way across the upper level of the facility before bungee-jumping down – or you could instead opt to fight your way through the bowels instead.
Practically all the game’s levels have this blackbox style of design, where there are multiple paths you can take and various solutions to the same problem. Crucially, though, none of these environments are open world – they’re simply intricately designed, single stages that are densely populated with things to interact with. As I’ve gotten older and my taste has refined, I’ve realised that I vastly prefer these smaller sandboxes to gigantic sprawling maps.
One release I fell in love with a few years ago was IO Interactive’s Hitman reboot, which subscribes to the same principles as the aforementioned James Bond title – it’s just an evolution on the idea in every single way. The mission set in a Parisian stately home is a great example: you’re given access to the entire building and its surrounding gardens, and it’s up to you how you approach your objectives. You can snipe your targets from afar, or work your way up from the basement to the top floor.
The thing I find with these kinds of games is that I want to replay their levels over and over again in order to explore all the possibilities. I recently started Dishonored 2, and I’ve played through the opening mission a couple of times now, exploring the different routes available through Dunwall’s densely populated urban environment. While I’m no where near to finishing the Arkane stealth-‘em-up, I can already appreciate the thoughtful nature of its backdrop’s design.
I think the difference between these kinds of games and open world ones is the density of the detail. Hitman’s locations are not gigantic, but the developer packs so much into each and every sandbox. Obviously, enormous titles like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Horizon: Zero Dawn have deeply captivating worlds, but their expansive nature comes at a cost; it’s all about the bigger picture, rather than individual locations that fizzle with character and personality.
There are releases that blur the lines: Assassin’s Creed Unity, for all the criticism it attracted, had some outstanding individual levels set within its larger sandbox. But these instances are rare; developers tend to subscribe to the line of thought that bigger is always better. I disagree, and I hope that developers working with PlayStation 5 resist the temptation to leverage its SSD and processing power for bigger worlds, and rather focus on crafting richer, denser, more dynamic levels.
Where would you like next-gen developers to focus their efforts? Do you want better levels, bigger worlds, or perhaps even a combination of both? Take an alternative path in the comments section below.