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Scrustle avatar 3:25 PM on 04.29.2013
When did the World Lose its Soul?

Recently I've been playing Skate 3, and it's a great game, but it's got me thinking about something that's been on my mind for a while. It seems to me that in so many open-world games now, their worlds feel so artificial and forgettable. They lack personality and the feeling that they are real, living places.

Although Skate 3 has been a recent acquisition, I have owned the other two Skate games from their release date (but I've long since sold both). I had a lot of fun with the original game. In a world where skating games were dominated by the already faltering Tony Hawk series, it was a revelation. I even played the demo endlessly, as I instantly fell in love with the game's unique but still intuitive control method.

But apart from that, I found myself drawn to the game's setting. The city felt like a real place, with memorable and believable features. The skate park where the demo took place was a favourite place of mine. It felt like a real skate park and it was very well designed too. The city felt like home, like I was actually a real skater who lived in that place. It felt like it was somewhere that was real, and that it was more than just a videogame level created using polygons and textures.

Just couldn't move me.

But the sequels lacked this feeling. Their worlds weren't badly designed by any means, and they were in fact pretty similar to that of the first, but I couldn't help but feel there was something missing. The second game was actually set in the same city as the first, but with changes made to several areas. One of which was the removal of the skate park from the original's demo! But nevertheless, it was still mostly the same place, yet it just didn't feel right to me. I could never get invested in the game, and I gave up on it shortly after getting it. It was a pretty big disappointment. The third game has a similar problem, although I'm finding it's not affecting me as much. Maybe it's because the game is actually set in a new city this time, or maybe I've just gotten more used to game worlds disappointing me, but it still feels very much like a videogame level, and not an actual place that I would be happy to call home.

This is a trend I've been noticing more and more with games in recent years, and there are no shortage of examples. You don't have to look very far away from Skate to see many of those either. Black Box, the studio behind the Skate series, has also been responsible for a large portion of the Need for Speed series, including both games at its peak, and its lowest point. I have quite a long history with that series, and seeing its downfall has been painful, and the uninspiring settings have been a part of that.

Turns out it's pretty hard to find good screenshots for this game.

Back when the NFS series first tried to do open-world games, they hit the nail right on the head on their first try. Bayview, the city in which NFS Underground 2 was set, was a great place with which I have a lot of memories. I know that city inside out. I know every street corner, and every landmark. Every place holds memories of exciting races, and has its own personality. I grew very attached to that place, and it began to feel like home. It felt like Bayview was a real place, one that exists somewhere in reality, whether I played the game or not. And every time I go back to the game, it feels just as familiar as it always did. It feels like going back home after a long time away. I don't have to try and relive old memories, because just playing the game and experiencing its setting feels like I'm creating even more.

The game that came after NFSU2, the original Most Wanted, holds many similar memories. MW's city, Rockport, was another brilliantly designed city that didn't feel like it was designed. I have just as many memories with that place, and it has just as much personality as Bayview. I can still go back to that game as well, and have a similar experience with it.

Even harder for this one.

But with Carbon, that feeling started to wear off. Much like with many aspects of the game, the signs were showing that it was the beginning of the end. I still have a certain fondness of Palmont, the setting for this particular game, but it's nothing like the love I have for the previous two, and it certainly feels like it has less personality than them. It still has more of a soul than the setting of the latter two Skate games, and the setting for Criterion's take on Hot Pursuit for example, but it was just the first point of a very long fall for the series.

And now we come to the lowest point that the NFS series fell to. Skipping ProStreet, since it was not open-world, we come to Undercover. That game was awful in almost every single way. The thing was though, that the area the game was set in, the “Tri-City” area, had potential to it. It had a pretty unique layout, it was just terribly realised. It felt empty and artificial, but with a healthy layer of dull, grainy brown over everything to make sure nothing which could possibly have any personality could stand out. In fact I feel as if at this point the Skate series was also partially responsible for the fall from grace of the NFS games. Not only were Black Box under pressure to create a new game every single year, and creating an entire new engine for Undercover for some reason, they also had the Skate games to create as well. They were spread far too thin and given far too little time to do what they had been tasked with. So, typical business practice from EA there.

Yet more screenshot woes.

The Skate series also brings to mind another example. I've been playing another game from a certain series recently, with which I've had an almost identical experience. That series being Saints Row. Much like with Skate, I recently picked up the third instalment, long after its initial release, despite playing the original two from day one. I'm also feeling the setting of The Third lacking personality, and a sense of vitality and reality to it, as well as feeling like it still does a better job than the second, which was set in the same city as the first game.

In the first Saints Row I really felt at home. Not only did the city feel like an actual, living place that I could immerse myself in to, it also had an area I was particularly attached that. That place being the actual Saints Row. Yes, for those who might not be aware, originally the name of the series, and the name of the Third Street Saints, actually made sense. It's where they came from in the original game. It was a dirty little hovel, but it was home. Then in the sequel they decided to bulldoze the whole area (along with various other places), and I was left feeling alienated, and like the city had just become a collection of polygons and textures attempting to represent a city, with absolutely no heart to it. The Third felt a bit more fresh and different, but it still couldn't come close to how the original did, to me at least.

Home sweet home for the Saints.

I could list many more examples where this has happened. Where game worlds of sequels completely lacked the soul of their predecessors. Fable 2, the SSX reboot, and Crackdown 2, just to name a few.

But it's not so tragic all of the time. Often I find games where I can appreciate their settings, and even find them quite beautiful and appealing, but they still lack that feeling that they are more than a game world. That they are a place in which I could actually live. They exist in a strange middle ground.

One game where I have found this is part of a series I adore, primarily because of their worlds; The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim is a beautiful place, with stunning scenery and so much detail. It is truly a sight to behold seeing clouds form around the dramatic and rugged peaks of the North of Tamriel, or to see the auroras at night lighting up the sky. Or to just look around in the undergrowth and find insects bustling about among the plants that sway in the wind as the snow gently falls. But it just feels like it's missing something to me. It feels far more alive than the world of Saints Row 2 or Skate 3, but it just doesn't feel like a place which I can be a part of. I own several houses across Skyrim, which I furnish and fill with my trophies, but they never feel like homes. Skyrim feels like a game, not a place to me. It's a game with a great setting and vast world, but it's not my home away from home.

I like it a lot, but I don't love it.

Although Morrowind certainly had a lot of personality to it, Cyrodiil of Oblivion is the place I fell in love with. That's the place I call home. Even though some areas of Cyrodiil are starting to show their age, especially the Jerall Mountains in light of Skyrim showing a much better representation of mountainous terrain, I still feel as if it's much more of a real place than the setting of its successor. Anvil, Skingrad, Cheydinhal, Chorrol, and Leyawiin (props to Google Chrome for having all those names in its spellcheck dictionary) are all towns that feel like actual places to me, places that I and other characters of the game could easily call home. Skyrim just couldn't quite capture that, despite it still being a much richer world than other contemporary games.

Another game that fits in to this odd place is Sleeping Dogs. Unlike Skyrim, this is a game that I never really managed to get invested in. One of the strongest aspects of it is the setting, which certainly had a lot going for it, but I still never felt like it was a place I could really get immersed in and believe. It looked great and had a lot of detail, but it was just missing that special something.

It's the same story with many others, like The Faelands from Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Colorado from Forza Horizon, Paradise City from Burnout Paradise, Oahu and Ibiza from Test Drive Unlimited 2, Liberty City from GTA IV, San Francisco from Driver: San Francisco, and the worlds of both Darksiders games. Even more recent incarnations of Hyrule fit in to this category, even if they do rank above most others. I really like all these settings, but they just don't move me like others from older games did.

Pretty and colourful, but still missing something.

So why is this? Why can't I lose myself in these game worlds, and why do they feel as if they've lost their life and their soul? Perhaps it's something as simple as them not being modelled well enough. Their layout and features are maybe just uninspired. Maybe their renderings are below par, and they need better lighting and textures, etc. Or maybe it's got nothing to do with the world itself. Maybe it's music and audio design. I've always held the position that music and audio in games lend a whole lot more to the experience than we usually give them credit for. There are certainly a lot of games in which sound is a huge part of their atmosphere.

Or perhaps since this is something that seems to nebulous and incorporeal, it's just nothing more than nostalgia, and I've just grown jaded and cynical. If that's true, then how is it that I can go back to these old games that I love so much, and have the same experience I always did? I don't deny that I'm a cynical person, but why does my cynicism have no effect when I go back to the Nippon of Okami, the Hyrule and Termina of the N64 Zelda games or Wind Waker, The Forbidden Land of Shadow of the Colossus, or Kanto, Johto, or even Hoenn of the older Pokemon games? Is nostalgia really that strong? Can I really have that nostalgia for the games that are actually relatively recent?

Is this even something that other people have noticed in recent years? I've certainly not heard anyone bring it up.

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