A Living Virtual World

In games these days open worlds are very popular. And something that often comes up is the idea that an open world feels “alive”, and while a world can look very nice and realistic, actual realness is achieved via the denizens of said world, the NPCs, acting “alive”. A big example of this is the Elder Scrolls series, specifically Oblivion and Skyrim.

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Well… not specifically in this picture. Unless all the NPCs are hiding in that grass I suppose.

“Our NPC’s exist no matter if you’re there or not.” Ahn Hopgood, a programmer on the game Oblivion said. “Radiant A.I. that allows the people in the world to react really intelligently…” Todd Howard said, director of Oblivion and Skyrim. And as far as I know they used this radiant A.I. system on both those games.

But despite the brilliance of these NPCs that exist without the player, making a virtual living world. There is still one thing that kind of hinders that idea. You, the perspective character, the player, is the centre of everything.

I mean, you aren’t the centre of every single daily activity of course. The NPCs wander around their home town or city, they will pop to the shops when their systems tell them that they should, or if they were programmed to go at a certain time. They will react to you depending on your friendliness with them or with their faction, etc. But that’s only what they are doing, reacting.

That does simulate a rather alive world in a sense, but is routine really what makes things feel alive? The most important time in that NPC’s life is when you finally take their quest. Maybe they need you to save a family member, maybe they need you to deliver a parcel, the point is, they will hold onto that quest forever.

The NPC may have a family member in peril, but unless the player goes up and talks to them about it, they will do nothing towards it. Days can pass, months can pass, and as long as the player doesn’t visit them, they will not lift a single pinkie toe to try and improve their situation, and oddly enough their situation won’t get worse either, despite their inactivity.

I know it sounds like I am ragging on the game a lot here, but I do think it is great, I really like all the Elder Scrolls games… apart from maybe the MMO. Also the original one was a bit too hard when I went back to try it… also that time I fell into a hole in Daggerfall and forgot to bring a flight potion. Okay, I really love the three most recent single player Elder Scrolls games. But I digress, they have a lot of other great stuff which they are focusing on more in their games. Which actually only makes it harder to have a truly “alive” world.

If an NPC went off to try and solve their problem when the player took too long to help, that would be content gone. Making it completely alive does potentially hinder such a large game, it makes it harder to see all the cool things throughout the big open world, you almost need to make the player the catalyst for everything or else they will miss so much… unless of course you do what The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask did.

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And when I say, do what Majora’s Mask did, I don’t mean stare into my soul with it’s unbelievably creepy orange and red eyes.

What am I talking about? You ask, while staring at Skull Kid’s horrible staring eyes. What could a Nintendo 64 Legend of Zelda game have to teach Oblivion and Skyrim about super advanced radiant A.I. or whatnot? But it’s not necessarily super advanced radiant A.I. you need to get the feel of a living world.

For anyone who hasn’t played the game, Majora’s Mask takes place over three days, and at the end of those three days you zip back to the first. Like Groundhog Day but with swords, and weird magical dead people masks… so not massively like Groundhog Day really, but still, time travel wise, much like it indeed.

And over those three days, everyone in the land of Termina goes about their lives actively trying to achieve whatever goal they have, conquer whatever hardship has befallen them or generally go about their lives, dealing with the odd things that happen to people in a normal day’s events. It isn’t a simple matter of them continuing their routine until the player comes along to spice up their lives.

I could start the game on the first day, spend the whole three days playing with the dog in the town square, and know everyone’s stories that I could go and interact with and effect in some way, are all happening, just beyond the walls and in the surrounding buildings. Things would be occurring that aren’t just time wasting until the player shows up.

So, even though the A.I. isn’t super advanced, making up what it will do as it goes along, the world is populated by real seeming people, for whom I am just another person in their life. Granted, probably a very helpful person, but just a person none the less.

Though while this system makes the world feel so alive, it is kind of what the whole game is based around. Without the time loop mechanic you would miss out on almost everything the game has to offer, the people can have their own lives and motives simply because you have an infinite number of tries to interact with all of them over the repeating three days.

Skyrim and Oblivion are both good games, but their primary goal is more or less to have a big open world where the player can be the hero in a traditional epic fantasy sword and sorcery narrative, who swoops in and saves the day.

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Like this heroic fellow, trying to save those innocent demons from that terrible princess and her awful fashion sense.

But Majora’s Mask as far as I can tell, seems to have the theme that you can’t solve everyone’s problems. It likes to play with the idea of futility, it makes you feel fantastic when you do help someone solve their problem, but on another run feel sad when you see that same person you helped in another time, with their goal having failed since you were helping someone else, every effort to find their missing child, or whatnot, gone awry without you to lend a hand. But that is the point I guess, they try even without you, the world isn’t on hold so that you can see everything, it just keeps chugging along whether you want it to or not.

Maybe the ability to pull off a truly living open world isn’t really what Oblivion and Skyrim are going for. Their “alive” world is more or less a way to have as real a place as possible that you can constantly save, for if they were to get too real with how the NPCs act, then it would be too overwhelming, where the problems would keep piling on and you could only save so many people, which isn’t really the experience The Elder Scrolls series wants to give it’s players.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed my ramble and that I have inspired you to try at least one of the great games I have been talking about, I would recommend any of them to fantasy lovers. And I will leave you with the cool drawing of Skyrim, from the Elder Scrolls series, enjoy.

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All images sourced through creative commons from Joshua Ezzell, BagoGames, Chris Drumm and TheAmyTucker.

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