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Once upon a time, Ubisoft's library was simple: it made platformers starring , and roughly 17,000 Tom Clancy tie-ins. But over the last decade, Ubi has muscled in on the genre that GTA made famous, building huge worlds spanning radically different time periods. Regardless of whether you’re controlling a historical hitman or a coma-bound cop, though, Ubisoft’s sandboxes love to borrow mechanics from other Ubi games.
Join us as we look back at the history of the Ubisoft's open world games, to see just how these sprawling sandboxes have evolved (and grown more and more alike).
Ubisoft first began to dabble in the sandbox space with 2007’s Assassin’s Creed. Skip back a decade, and you’d never guess the seismic scope the franchise would reach. Before the 2D spin-offs, books, and shitty Michael Fassbender films could wear us all down, there was just this ambitious (more than a bit broken) sandbox that spawned many of the features open world games still cling to in 2017.
Chances are you don’t remember much about the original Assassin’s Creed. You probably recall moping around ancient Jerusalem stabbing folk as a dude in a hoodie. Perhaps you have a dim recollection of eavesdropping on NPCs chatting away on benches. Maybe you even remember that early .
The one thing you’ll definitely recall is Ubisoft’s obsession with making players scale super lofty buildings. That all started in Altaïr’s adventure. To fully scope out all of the Holy Land’s side activities, you had to climb the tops of the tallest structures across Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus. Doing so gives you a very literal eagle’s eye view of the sprawling mass of humanity hundreds of feet below; a bird of prey swooping around the building when you reach its summit.
These vertigo-bating landmarks birthed Ubi’s most infamous open world feature: gradually filling up a map with mission markers.
Assassin’s Creed may have introduced us to the idea of big-ass buildings that revealed points of interest when climbed, but it was 2012’s Far Cry 3 that really cemented the feature. Jason Brody’s leopard-punching, pirate-blasting, tattoo-inking tropical holiday had the sort of wide reaching influence on the open world genre its two predecessors could only have sweaty night terrors about… mainly because its predecessor .
Surprisingly, Far Cry 2’s obsession with making you stuff pills down your throat to keep mosquito-borne diseases away never caught on—nor did its love of . Far Cry 3 ditched the annoying obstructions in favour of features that kept you itching to explore.
Far Cry 3’s antenna towers undoubtedly cast the longest shadow on almost every Ubi open world that followed. Scaling these rickety structures—which often feel like they’re being kept up by little more than prayers and a few loose screws—helps Brody fill his map up with all manner of side distractions. Haphazardly jumping, swinging and climbing your way between the crooked layers of the towers in Far Cry 3 isn’t just a hoot in and of itself, it also makes tracking the series of wildlife hunts, enemy encampments, treasure chests and races spread throughout the densely packed archipelago a lot easier.
Also, animals. An ark's worth of animals. Brief hunting escapades may have popped up a few months prior in Assassin’s Creed 3, but it was Far Cry 3 that really took the pelt-collecting ball and ran with it. Forget quietly ruminating on the unspoken majesty of the animal kingdom: Ubi’s critter-obsessed shooters just want to make you shoot endangered species in their furry faces.
Not that the trend Far Cry 3 kicked off (which seemed heavily inspired by Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption) entirely revolves around needless slaughter. Hunting down and skinning animals allows Brody to use pelts to craft ever larger ammo bags and other weapon-focused accessories.
The creature carnage in Far Cry 4 takes things even further, with attacks coming from land, sea and air—lord are that game’s ultra aggressive eagles ever jerks. The Himalayan sandbox would also introduce rideable beasts in the form of rampaging elephants, which the prehistoric follow-up would go nuts with.
Last year’s Far Cry Primal makes the toothy, tusked inhabitants of its ancient world the stars of the show. Far Cry 3 may have let you punch sharks, but next to Primal’s wild encounters, that's positively tame. When you can train sabertooth tigers, command jaguars to stealth kill fellow cavemen, and use an owl as a sort of feathered, Mesolithic drone to tag enemies—a feature both Watch Dogs 2 and Ghost Recon: Wildlands would quickly reskin—bopping Jaws’ cousin on the nose ain’t no thang.
Ubisoft has since pushed more animals into Assassin's Creed: Origins. Even Watch Dogs 2 depicts San Francisco's Pier 39 with a rookery of slovenly seals leisurely sunning themselves on gangplanks.
Stealth has also played a large role in many of Ubi’s open world games, regardless of the setting, era or enemy type. It started with players blending into crowds with the ‘social stealth’ gameplay of the original Assassin’s Creed. It was an innovative feature for its time—after all, most stealth games up to that point forced their characters to either hide in the shadows or a cardboard box.
Sneaking mechanics were quickly shoved into most of its games following Assassin’s Creed's success. Who cares if these stalking scenarios were often absurd: they make for easy mission design, dammit!
Diving underwater, then pulling pirates into the drink as you clear out enemy strongholds in Far Cry 3. Slipping between cover to slap a chokehold on Watch Dogs’ various shortsighted guards. Poking Edward Kenway’s head out of Assassin’s Creed 4’s suspiciously plentiful patches of long grass. Using a tiny, extra voyeuristic RC car to infiltrate the offices of a tech startup in Watch Dogs 2, then zapping any security personnel that get too curious. Solid Snake and Sam Fisher have a lot to answer for.
Whether you’re whacking religious zealots in the time of the Crusades or putting San Francisco office workers to sleep with a taser gun, over the years Ubisoft has proven there’s no open world setting it can’t crowbar a stealth section into.
Tagging enemies is another prominent feature most Ubi games have turned to over the last few years. This actually predates Ubisoft's open worlds, in games like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and Rainbow Six: Vegas, but it's since become a vital part of their sandboxes as well.
Placing markers down to keep track of your foes’ positions popped up in Far Cry 3, with Brody’s super useful set of pirate-tagging binoculars. Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, and Ghost Recon have all subsequently borrowed this eagle-eyed feature, while even the likes of Metal Gear Solid V have benefited hugely from Jason’s peeping Tom bouts of recon making tagging an open world staple.
Oh, and almost every one of those games lets you perform stealth takedowns, too. Because of course any self respecting hipster hacker/out of his depth fratboy/neanderthal can neutralise foes with the quiet, deadly efficiency of a Navy SEAL team.
This is the big one. More than any of the above crossover features, one recurring element has helped prop up Ubi’s increasingly sophisticated sandboxes this past decade: collectibles. ALL the collectibles.
Eagle feathers in Assassin’s Creed; lost letters and spirit totems in Far Cry; Watch Dogs’ key data caches; Kingslayer files in Ghost Recon: Wildlands; even crystalline shards in the otherwise wonderfully nonconformist Grow Home, and its sequel Grow Up. Grand Theft Auto 3 may have introduced the world to sandbox collectibles with its fiendishly placed hidden packages, but we doubt Rockstar envisioned game worlds rammed full of bird feathers, PC files and statue heads.
Hell, Ubisoft has even managed to cram several garages full of collectibles into its vehicled-based sandboxes. 2011’s brilliantly offbeat Driver San Francisco has 130 movie tokens to hoover up as you bomb around the Golden City while you mind-jack cars in gaming’s most exciting coma. The Crew wouldn’t miss this OCD party for the world, either. The flawed 2014 racer scatters 20 Wreck Parts in each of the five sections that make up its vast North American sandbox of endless highways.
It’s almost as if Ubisoft doesn’t trust you enough to leave you to your own devices for five minutes. A good thing, too. Why take your time admiring the painstakingly recreated canal networks of Renaissance era Venice in Assassin’s Creed 2, when your inner completionist could be making Ezio ruin his shins by scampering up rooftops for mangy bird feathers?
There’s no question Ubisoft’s open worlds have evolved drastically over the last ten years. Place the original Assassin’s Creed next to the upcoming Beyond Good & Evil 2 (Michel Ancel’s long awaited sequel lets you explore entire galaxies), and you may as well be comparing a kid’s crayon scribbles to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Still, there’s no question Ubi’s plethora of internal studios love to crib concepts from each other’s games.
So whether its a slightly out of place stealth mission, wads of XP to splurge on increasingly convoluted skill trees, or vaulting up towers to open up that fog covered map, you should probably expect Ubisoft open worlds to continue to share crossover features as they continue to evolve. Darwin would be delighted. Probably.
Ranking the games in the Far Cry series isn't an especially easy task given that for the most part it's been a widely varied collection of shooters: Far Cry 1, 2, and 3 were all distinctly different from one another, and while Far Cry 4, Far Cry 5, and Blood Dragon were quite similar to Far Cry 3, Primal threw us a curve and plopped us in the Stone Age. Another issue with ranking them: the Far Cry games are all pretty good! There are no stinkers in the series, meaning there's no one to really dump on. This makes things harder.
But just because something isn't easy doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. Below we've cobbled together a highly-unscientific ranking of the Far Cry series (sans Instincts, which only appeared on console). As with all of our rankings, this list is iron-clad and inarguable, so we expect nothing but collective head-nods of sycophantic agreement in the comments.
Here they are, the Far Cry games listed from worst to first.
Developed: Ubisoft Published: Ubisoft2013
Samuel: Blood Dragon is a pleasingly concentrated and beautiful slice of Far Cry 3, wrapped in a joke that maybe wears a bit too thin. It essentially offers everything the main game does, but in a sillier and more explosive framework, designed as it is to poke fun at '80s movies and games in general—the latter of which is a contentious point for some.
But it's so clearly enjoyable for what it is. Neon versions of Far Cry 3's creatures wander the landscape, and it's refreshingly streamlined, with no crafting and simpler progression systems. Throw a cyber heart to lure a Blood Dragon, watch the beast turn up to wreak some havoc, then move onto the next outpost. If the 20+ hours of game waiting in Far Cry 3 or 4 seems daunting, this is a pleasingly complete microcosm of the Far Cry experience.
Developed: Ubisoft Published: Ubisoft2016
Chris: Cranking back the clock—way back, to 10,000 BC—would seem a good way to take the series in an entirely new direction. There are no guns in Primal, of course. No cars, no aircraft, and absolutely no radio towers (thankfully). In some ways, it's pretty amazing that the familiar gameplay of Far Cry fits so well in an environment without automatic weapons and off-road vehicles.
The flip side is that Primal feels too familiar to really stand out. Stone Age or not, it's still unmistakably a Far Cry game and never really feels like a fresh experience. The ability to tame animals to fight alongside you is new, and while combat restricts you to bows, clubs, and spears (there is, enjoyably, a bee-filled pouch that acts as a grenade), the hunting and crafting you spend much of your time doing isn't any sort of departure from the series. Despite sending you thousands of years into the past, Primal winds up feeling a little too similar to Far Cry 3 and 4.
Developed: Ubisoft Published: Ubisoft2018
Chris: Far Cry 5 is built on the foundation of 3 and 4 with only a few tweaks on the established formula. The small changes are welcome, though: there's no skill tree, so you can unlock perks in any order you want, giving you the freedom to build your character to fit your playstyle. The crafting system of the earlier games has been trimmed down, too, so you unlock additional weapon slots and ammo bags through perks instead of having to hunt specific animals. Far Cry 5 wants you to get into the beautiful and chaotic open world of Montana with as few roadblocks as possible.
But flying in the face of all the freedom you're given is the unpleasant habit the game's bosses have for kidnapping you. They'll routinely drag you from your open world adventures and force you to listen to their long, rambling monologues. Worse, the villains are bland and forgettable, with gimmicky battles required to beat them.
Far Cry 5 is still a fun and ridiculous sandbox of mayhem and destruction, but better bosses, and better writing, could have given it a higher ranking on our list.
Developed: Ubisoft Published: Ubisoft2008
Chris: Far Cry 2 is the favorite of several of the PC Gamer staff, but favorite doesn't automatically mean best*, and loving something doesn't mean you need to be blind to its flaws. From crippling you with malaria before you even manage to escape the intro, to restricting your sprinting to a few steps before running out of stamina, to roadside checkpoints that repopulate with suicidal bad guys the moment you glance in another direction, traveling the map can quickly become an exhausting and frustrating affair.
Making up for that, however, is everything else. The location, a sun-scorched province in Africa, is one of the most convincing environments a shooter has ever visited. The fire system is still fantastic, better even than the ones in later games, where flames spread through dry grass, up into trees, and across buildings, useful for flushing out and trapping enemies, but also often requiring the player to scramble to safety. The story is refreshingly nihilistic and bleak, the sprawling map leads into another, bigger one halfway through the game, and the gunplay (provided you're using guns you bought, as the ones you pick up off the ground are garbage) is fantastic.
*Note: I do really think it's the best, but we held a staff vote and I'll abide by the results.
Samuel: I appreciate the ambition of the story and the presentation of the world, though it's not particularly enjoyable next to the more recent games. I know that's an unpopular answer: Far Cry 2 is a favourite among game design academics, and fair enough. But sometimes you want to ride an elephant into a base, and that's okay.
I too appreciate Far Cry 2's fire and buddy system. Another touch I love about this game, that I assume Firewatch later borrowed, was the idea of the map being an object you hold in your hand. I haven't played the game in years, but I'll always remember that as a clever way of heightening the reality of that world.
Developed: Ubisoft Published: Ubisoft2012
Chris: Rather than casting you as an ex-Green Beret or hired merc, Far Cry 3's Jason Brody was supposed to be just some random bro who finds himself in way over his head. Naturally, you're still completely capable of killing hundreds of people, flying wingsuits around, and doing everything else the trained killers from the previous games could, but for at least an hour or two Brody yammers on about how he's just a bro who doesn't know what he's doing. It's not especially convincing.
This game also served as Far Cry's dive into crafting, which was largely baffling: having to hunt multiple animals to make a wallet that could hold more money, for instance. Far Cry 3's animals are much more fun when they're the ones doing the hunting, leaping out of the jungle to attack goons and rebels alike, who are often already in the process of attacking one another. The whole island is like a explosive set of dominos, where tipping one leaves a chaotic mess in its wake. There are times when just watching the carnage is as enjoyable as participating in it.
Luckily, you can break from the extended and often not-great story missions (you're trying to rescue your friends and repair the boat to escape, despite having access to lots of working boats, but whatever) and do whatever the heck you want. And, it solved one of the big issues with Far Cry 2: once you took over an outpost, it was yours. Enemies didn't repopulate, and they certainly didn't repopulate the moment you drove off-screen.
Tim: My memory is so shot to pieces now that the two main things I recall about Far Cry 3 are that 1) it was my favourite Far Cry, largely because it ditched the whole "having malaria as a gameplay mechanic" thing, and 2) what I loved most about the game was its . For some reason I found collecting each of these—from the meaty Bull shotgun to the deranged Shredder SMG—absolutely compelling.
Unlocking them required an arduous amount of macguffin collection (this being a game that routinely tasks you with skinning 10 mongeese to craft a new wallet), but the chase for these white whale weapons was what drove me to keep going. Once I had them all my interest flamed out fast. An itch/scratch relationship I recognise only too well from my exotic weapon collection in Destiny. Actually, the other thing I remember about Far Cry 3 is that it genuinely felt like going on holiday. A ridiculous, action movie holiday accompanied by assholes, but a sunshine break nonetheless.
Developed: Crytek Published: Ubisoft2004
Chris: It's hard to say how the original Far Cry holds up after a decade—we haven't played it in nearly that long—but at its release it was almost shockingly good. While it demanded a lot of our hardware at the time (it was a Crytek game, after all), it at least had some flexibility in graphical settings and still looked pretty great even on mid-range PCs.
James: The original Far Cry stood out for its massive open environments and the aggressive AI soldiers within. Firefights didn’t take place in a tightly scripted series of corridors—thick vegetation and a rudimentary stealth system turned encounters into an improvisational game of cat and cat and cat and cat and mouse (you). A few hours in, monsters get thrown into the jungle combat stew, and suddenly the enemy mercs are no longer sitting comfortably at the top of the food chain—not that they’re eating the monsters or you, I hope. Luring men to monsters and then hiding in a bush became the new headshot, an early push towards testing more skills than how quickly a player can point and click.
By today’s standards, Far Cry’s take on sneaky open arena combat feels noticeably dated, with enemies that have acute senses and preternatural aim anyone would envy. This is also before the era of elaborate back-stab animations, so stealth takes more patience and guesswork than it should, but even so, it’s easy to appreciate Far Cry for its obvious influence on open-ended island-hopping FPS design.
Developed: Ubisoft Published: Ubisoft2014
Chris: For a series that had been reinventing itself with each release—Far Cry 1, 2, and 3 were all markedly different from one another—Far Cry 4 was a noticeable departure. It built on the gameplay of the previous entry without completely reimagining it. Coming just two years after Far Cry 3, Far Cry 4 felt incredibly familiar, but the changes it did bring were all for the better.
Rather than the overly vocal Jason Brody, protagonist Ajay Ghale is more subdued and quiet, letting the player fill in the blanks of his personality. Instead of simple bad luck stranding him among scores of warring soldiers and freedom fighters, Ajay has a real reason for being in the region of Kyrat: he's returned to scatter his mother's ashes, and the region's rebels are a military group founded by his father. What's more, Pagan Min, the colorful and charismatic baddie, once had an affair with Ajay's mother, making Ajay's appearance in Kyrat a personal one in several respects.
Kyrat itself is a wonderful and chaotic playground, sprawling and mountainous and with plenty of new ways to get around in it, like gyrocopters and a grappling hook, plus the familiar wingsuit that this time can be accessed almost immediately. The insanely aggressive wildlife makes a return, allowing us to unleash them on unsuspecting enemies and providing no small amount of random, ridiculous carnage. Plus, you can ride elephants, bowling over vehicles and tossing enemies into the air.
Alongside the scripted story missions, outpost takeovers once again comprise the most enjoyable part of the game, freeform assaults that can be accomplished any way you like. Outposts are bolstered by the addition of strongholds: massive and well-protected forts that are even tougher and more fun to liberate. This being a Ubisoft game, the map is littered with all sorts of other activities, challenges, and points of interest. They don't all really add much but, but they do ensure there's something to do just about everywhere you roam. Throw in co-op (except for story missions) and Far Cry 4 is a heavily packed and gloriously fun sandbox of destruction.
Poor Ubisoft. They crafted this enormous open-world icon-riddled niche of their own, trod it into the ground while flogging it to death, and then other people came along, borrowed their ideas, and built superior games with them. In the last year, despite decent showings from Far Cry Primal, The Division, Watch Dogs 2, and Wildlands, players and critics were beginning to weary of yet another open map of odd jobs. None was particularly at fault, but we were experiencing perhaps the sense of diminishing returns, and certainly the weariness of fatigue. And then this year we got Zelda: Breath Of The Wild from Nintendo and Horizon Zero Dawn from Sony. Pow. Two platform-pushing monoliths that schooled Ubisoft at their own games.
After seven years, Far Cry 4 director Alex Hutchinson has left Ubisoft. The veteran developer announced his departure on Twitter, while simultaneously revealing the name of a new studio he's founded with some fellow developers including former Warner Bros. and EA executive producer Reid Schneider.
"Extremely proud of all we achieved on Far Cry and Assassin's, but very excited to build something new," Hutchinson wrote. "Myself, [Reid Schneider], and some other wonderful people have founded a brand new company: Typhoon Studios.
"Probably won't have much to announce in the near future as we hire, build our studio, buy a coffee machine, and build Ikea furniture, but... we are hard at work imagining a brand new world to inflict on all of you, so stay tuned."
First off, it's a good thing Hutchinson is planning to buy a coffee machine because a day before this announcement, he microwaved a coffee, which even he admits is a drastic decision. Secondly, you can check out Typhoon Studios' logo on its official website, and it looks quite a bit like Ubisoft's logo—I find that very funny. Thirdly, Far Cry 4 is one of the best action games from the past few years, so I'm excited to see what Hutchinson and his new studio are up to.
At Ubisoft, Hutchinson also directed Assassin's Creed III, but prior to that, he worked at EA on games such as Spore, The Sims 2, and Army of Two: The 40th Day.
We'll be sure to keep up on Hutchinson and Typhoon Studios and report back when its first game is announced.
It s one thing to pull a still from a movie that accurately represents how the final cut will look and feel, but videogames are another matter. Trailers and screenshots are put out well before the game is complete, which means they re inevitably going to need visual band-aids here and there, and communicating everything the game is trying to achieve systems, story, style in a single frame is difficult. Enter the bullshot.To make their games look as good as can be, some publishers pose characters and snap screenshots with a free camera, sometimes even downsampling from high resolutions to reduce aliasing, or using Photoshop to make them pop just a little more. While these marketing screens convey key information and look nice, . We ve gathered a few of the worst offenders in recent years in part because they re funny, but also because it s a practice that should be called out. We d much rather see what a game actually looks like to play, especially when these screenshots appear on a store page. Leave it to us to take the unrealistic screenshots after release, because .
Even our favorite games aren t excused from bullshot shame. The Witcher 3 is a damn good-looking game, but to get shots resembling this quality we which we doubt many players can do at a playable framerate using a mod to enable a free camera and console commands. Also, who the hell is that horse because it sure isn t Roach. Impostor resolution, impostor horse get out of my computer.
This screen wouldn t be a huge offender if not for the clearly posed gang of pirates. Each has their own stance. I like pointing guy on the far left. What s he trying to do? Buddy, you re at the rear of the pirate pack and all your dudes already know where the assassin you somehow just spotted is. But maybe he s just a stickler for photo balance, a guy who can t help but obey the rule of threes. That s some good AI.
Racing games tend to be the biggest bullshot culprits. Take Split Second for instance. It s a great looking game most racing games nowadays are but this shot looks like someone just discovered Instagram filters. I love a good filter, but this one turns up the warm colors and vignettes with reckless abandon. Look both ways before you cross the street because it s blurred to hell.
Gearbox tends to eliminate aliasing by taking the shots at a super high resolution, but to really make their images pop, contrast is turned way up. It makes the comic book stylings much more apparent, especially because detailed textures are used throughout the entire image, no matter how far objects are in the distance. With everything in such clear focus, it makes the image look flat.
I m not sure what kind of holy light exists just offscreen in every other bullshot, but it s not working well to bring out this central locust s best features. It makes even less sense when you notice that the blinding light is coming from the hole in the ground at the bottom right. Besides the awkward blur and focus muddying half the picture, I can t figure out what s going through that locust s head. Is Marcus holding it up with a light grip on the shoulder? Impressive. Is that shock or rage or is that just how their jaws always are? These are the questions Gears of War 4 needs to answer.
This one s a toughie. This shot from No Man s Sky isn t touched up, but it uses assets that aren t representative of what the final game produces. In my experience, the creatures look like remixes of a handful of variables and characteristics after 10 or so hours in, and vegetation can t grow that tall . It s not entirely surprising that in the UK, even if players are still enjoying it for what it is.
The biggest giveaway here (not that you need one) is what I ve dubbed the Holy Mammoth. Before the rise of modern religion, there was the One True Mammoth, from which all bloom lighting emitted. It seems to have blessed the screen with an abundance of golden light, impossibly smooth edges, and perfectly posed figures.
It s rare to find a racing game screenshot that wasn t taken at some forbidden, transcendent resolution, so I have to hand it to The Crew with this one. That said, this shot is posed beyond reprieve. Four cars, perfectly aligned to frame up nicely and balance out the shot with a lovely airplane cherry up top.
I won t be too harsh with Crysis since it s still the go-to for good-looking PC games in some respects, but the soldier getting lasered is impossible to ignore. It looks like he s waving hello to the tentacled aliens above, though I suppose his pose is meant to imply he s flying backwards due to the force of the white hot laser blasting a hole in his chest. Either way, Crysis isn t capable of such a believable ragdoll animation, but I suppose a twitching bundle of human appendages doesn t look so good in still life.
I think future soldiers will be smarter than this. I figured future war would entail guns that can fire from far away and not meeting in the middle of a short corridor for shootouts. Instead, we have two soldiers firing into a stoic mechanical man and another presumably about to kick their head in. My favorite detail? That explosion in the background lost in the shallow focus. While the Black Ops 3 might look this good, it s rarely this nonsensically positioned.
Here we have another checklist shot trying to show off as many systems and features as possible while still looking pretty. We ve got destructible walls, a shielded player, a shotgun firing, a grenade, some barbed wire in the bottom right, and some pretty detailed textures. Problem is, the final game doesn't look nearly as nice, and while the destruction is fairly granular, it s not to the level of detail expressed in this screen. Look at all those tiny individual perforations. If only.
I played this scene just over a week ago , but not like this. The scene glows an icy blue and the blacks are super deep. Someone turned up the contrast. Also, who s kicking up all that damn dust? It doesn t look natural, like it s being used to balance out the color and weight of the shot.
There s so much going on in this shot it feels like one of those hidden object pages from Highlights magazine. Let s see, we ve got a three-wheeled buggy thing, a dude with an easily readable expression shooting out the vehicle s side, we can see two bullets in the act of ricocheting off the soldier, a truck in the far right, a building on fire above, some gorgeous snowy mountains in the background, a remote detonator in the player character s hand and it s all in perfect focus. No jagged edges, some nice airbrush effects on the wheels to imply motion. This is an ascendant bullshot. This is art.
Ubisoft Toronto level design director Matt West will never approve a four-meter-high wall. Three-meter-high walls look scalable, he told me over the phone, and five-meter-high walls look unscalable, but four meters high? That s a confusing wall. You ve got to run up to it and mash a key to find out if you can climb it screw that, get rid of it.
West works on some of Ubisoft s big open world games, including Far Cry 4 and Far Cry Primal, which feature vast environments. At the same time, another level designer, Nina Freeman, is wondering what someone s bathroom might look like. Freeman started her career studying poetry in New York, where she developed an appreciation for 70s and 80s poets and vignettes about ordinary life and people s life experiences. She s now a level designer at Gone Home developer Fullbright, working on science fiction exploration game Tacoma, and thinking about how people live on a spaceship: What s on the dinner table? Who left a sock on the floor?
Freeman probably thinks about wall height too, but level design is such a broad pursuit that gunfights and Jeeps and mountain tops and stray socks exist in the same discipline. It involves psychology and storytelling and logic mechanisms and architecture and ecology. Rand Miller, one of the creators of Myst (along with his brother, Robyn Miller) and the recent Obduction, was designing levels nearly 30 years ago as black and white still frames, and says he still hasn t really figured it out yet completely.
I interviewed West, Freeman, and Miller as well as a couple other level designers over email looking for commonalities in their work. I wanted to see what sort of tricks they use to guide players. Putting a light at the end of a hallway, according to West, will nearly always attract the player s attention and that s the sort of thing I was after. But 10 wild and wacky tricks level designers use to totally Criss Angel mindfreak us didn t turn out to be exactly the story I found. What fascinated me is how much else these designers share in common, whether they re making a firefight or a puzzle or a crumpled note on a kitchen floor, and how they seek to gently guide us toward clever thoughts.
West describes level design as the practical counterpart to game design s theoretical art if a creative director decides what kinds of decisions and experiences should be in a game, the level designer creates specific decisions and experiences. Even on the practical side of game design I found that there s a lot of theory, but wall height is important too. In the practical work and testing, you see echoes of the big ideas.
When there are boundaries that aren t walls, for instance, Warframe s lead level designer Ben Edney tries to make them clear, but at the same time, not obvious through differences in materials and lighting. Before having heard that, I coincidentally asked Miller how he makes his obscure worlds, which hint at puzzle solutions, clear, but not obvious. He laughed and acted flustered. That s one of the challenges he s been experimenting with throughout his life.
It s all experimental, as far as Miller is concerned. He got his start designing levels for children s games such as The Manhole. The advantage we had is it was just a mouse and one button, and we could sit a kid in front of it and watch what they do, and it was amazing how kids and adults did the same thing in front of those early games, said Miller. They d click on the same spot, you could entice them to click somewhere, entice them to go somewhere, and we had to figure out how to give them continuity, connect all the dots.
As a puzzle designer, Miller has a somewhat unique perspective he wants players to be stumped, at least for a little bit but the dots should all be there to see so we can connect them. At one point in Obduction, the player is asked to restore power to a building (aren t we always) and the solution is to look up, see a powerline, and follow it, a literal connection.
It s amazing how many people, though, walk out of that hut and don t see it, don t put that together," said Miller. "But at some level, then, it s not up to me anymore. We did our job.
In that case, the powerline was enough. But watching testers fumble to make sure they only fumble so much does often lead to changes. The week before Obduction was released, for instance, Miller and the team added a license plate to a desk. We put it there because we were seeing a lack of connection, and hearing it from some of our testers, and that small little change gives people, a lot of times, just the push it might even be subconscious a subconscious push to make a connection to something that was important in that space.
Aside from keeping players on track with well-placed license plates, I heard a few things that might be called tricks that Criss Angel headline isn t bad, so don t count it out for the future such as using enemy pathing to direct the player. But what I found more of were good old fashioned architectural principles, such as what Warframe s Edney calls hierarchy of space.
This is essentially designing our crazy sci-fi levels with the same considerations one might plan a new building in the real world, Edney wrote. Main through-paths are open, clear of obstacles, and generally inviting when first entering a room. Side rooms and access hallways are tighter, more defined in their usage and utilitarian.
The same goes for Freeman and Tacoma. She s concerned with spaces people live in, and how they re laid out in our world be it natural or cultural, it s what we already experience. Bedrooms are typically tucked away in the backs of houses, not the front. More fundamentally human, if you find a kitchen, you should probably find a bathroom somewhere in the same area. Granted, Tacoma takes place on a spaceship, so there s also room for set pieces that aren t going to be totally plausible but as long as they re plausible enough the player can get around with their already-learned understanding of architecture.
Good architecture is one aspect, but designers have to support the game design as well, and give players the opportunity for clever solutions a game where you can scale walls would suck if 90 percent of walls weren t scalable. And there s balance to find between complex mazes and stifling linearity.
Earlier in West s career he worked on Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which he describes as linear, but Splinter Cell linear meaning that there was always more than one way to approach a problem. There d be a center path, more brightly lit and obvious than the others, for instance, and contrasting paths to either side. Maybe one goes to the left and below and the other to the right and above. And all of them should feel like good choices.
In the world, there definitely are dead ends, and I ve had level designers kind of glibly inform me of that fact, said West. But in a game, it just takes the wind right out of your sails. The whole thing is about making players feel smart, making players feel like they re intuitively selecting good routes, but then smacking into a wall? That is a personal pet peeve of mine.
Now that he works on open world games, West has many more paths to think about than he did with Splinter Cell as many as the players want. Out there in the wild, big landmarks in the distance give guidance, and that s a major principle of Obduction s design as well: there s literally a big red beam on the horizon. You can t even see what the source is, said Miller. But we knew when we put it there that everyone would head over that direction, of course they do.
For West, open world level design is about getting out of the player s way, letting them tell their own story. It s almost like you re dressing kids to go play outside in the winter, he said, recalling a conversation with a recently-hired junior level designer. You re giving them scarves, hats, and boots and all that stuff, but eventually they re going to go outside and throw snowballs. So we re just preparing them so that they can do that stuff, but we re not telling them to throw exactly 13 snowballs and then take cover behind a tree.
He has another metaphor: a buffet table with all the different types of foods the player could want. The food is actually elements of the game design and different playstyles, of course so if the player wants to stealthily eat a banana, it s there. If they want to throw a steak at someone, that s an option as well. I might be mixing up his metaphors. The point is that West tells young designers to pull back on any urge to design specific action sequences.
The player is the best storyteller, said West. If I see this kind of elaborate set up, and the level designer is saying, Enemies are going to come in from here, and then there s going to be a big swinging scythe, and then you have to jump to this spot, and turn and fire, I will just turn around and tell her, No, we re not doing that. We re going to say the scythes can be there, and the enemies can be there, but there s got to be three or four or five ways to get out of this situation.
Miller also employs open areas and branching paths, and our conversation took West s thoughts about preparing players further. Miller compares games to trips to foreign countries, in that the unfamiliarity can be stressful at first.
We realized that providing people completely wide open space to start with, with options in every direction that you can just click anywhere and do anything is not a very reassuring way to start a game, he said. People don t respond well to that. They feel a little inhibited, they are uncomfortable with so many options.
As a result, Obduction begins in a cave which is very similar to Fallout 3 starting in a vault with only one direction to go. Outside of the cave, there s a canyon that begins to widen. (West also mentioned that widening paths attract players, while narrowing corridors do the opposite.) As the canyon widens, there s still only one way to go the world is expanding, but the player is still comfortably going in one direction and then a man gives you a goal: go to the house with the white picket fence.
It was very deliberate that we gave you the goal before we branched open the path, said Miller. Because now you have the assurances of, Well I have the white picket fence in my pocket, I know I can go there eventually, and you feel the freedom to start making some choices without anxiety. Now it s interesting to see what players do depending on their style, whether they re rebellious and like, Screw you, I m not going to the white house with the white picket fence, I m going over here to the second path that you didn t tell me to go on.
Well, they can act all rebellious but the fact of the matter is they re only doing that, they only have that rebellion in them, because they have the security of the little goal in the distance.
Freeman is less interested in how players might find their way through a canyon, and more interested in the little details of life. She loves the bar in the game Catherine, for instance, where the player can sit with friends, go to the bathroom and look at their phone, play an arcade game. It s all these little, little moments, and I like that stuff because that s just what I do every day, she said. And I think ordinary life is interesting and I like to see the ways in which these game designers are putting their characters into those situations, and what those spaces are like. I m always just like, Put more bars in your videogames!
Her focus on Tacoma is making spaces that feel lived-in, and it was her previous game, Cibele, that led her to Fullbright. The kind of level design I was doing on [Cibele] was, How do I design an in-game computer that feels plausible and feels lived in, very similar to how someone might design a bedroom in Gone Home or something, said Freeman. She had never designed a 3D level before joining Fullbright, but a penchant for designing around authentic stories was there. Tacoma is definitely about ordinary lives and people who feel like you could know them, like they could be your neighbor. That s what we share despite coming from different backgrounds.
While Freeman s focus is heavier on tasking players with putting together the remnants of an ordinary life connecting dots in a different way than in Obduction, or in Far Cry 4 all three designers share a desire to build plausible spaces.
"The puzzles have to fit the world as best as possible, at least the way we do it," said Miller. " loves to feature the puzzles, so his levels, the puzzles that are there just in some ways can be arbitrary, because the thing is the puzzle. But I think what we've done and what we've gotten to in our little niche, what we do, we're trying to balance all three of the legs that I think are interactive: the environment, the puzzles, or whatever the friction is, and the story."
He added later that it s a pain in the ass.
We have people who are in charge of those aspects. So the art guy may come up with a visually stunning looking piece of equipment, but the story guy goes, That doesn t make sense, that couldn t be in this world, and we have to figure that out. The same goes in any direction puzzles that don t fit the story, story that doesn t fit the art. It must be cohesive.
For West, a level design could start as a sketch on a soggy bar napkin (he actually once approved a bar napkin scrawl as an initial design) or an MS Paint drawing, but from there he believes collaboration with artists is vital so that they don t get handed this dodecahedron that s done in this gray flat texture and get told to turn it into a carousel. He wants to see plausible spaces, and he makes a point of saying that it s a team effort, that the best level designers are the ones who work well with their artists.
A typical level designer can be seen as a balancer of Miller s three legs environment, obstacles, and story which I prefer to call 'Miller's Pillars.' The other part of their challenge might best be summed up by that phrase I stumbled on earlier: be clear, but not obvious.
In Cibele, Freeman wants players to discover a folder of photos on a desktop, and later put together themselves why it s there and what it means to the character. Miller wants players to have a cognitive rush as they discover how his puzzles and worlds fit together, without ever telling them explicitly how it all works. West wants players to choose their own path and feel good about it without being guided too closely to know where to go, but to tell their own personal story on the way.
These level designers don't want to tell us what to do or think, but to guide us gently like good parents. I think it s telling that Miller delights that there s no difference between what adults and children click on, and West thinks of the player as a kid getting dressed to play in the snow.
It's a good principle, but of course these are hardly the only game design philosophies. Miller doesn't make puzzle games like Jonathan Blow makes them, for instance. A favorite game of mine, Lovely Planet, forces players to perfectly execute the designer s vision in an entirely implausible world a very strict parent in an abstract shapeland. West would never design a shooter like that. Miller would wonder if the planet could actually be three planets, connected by giant gears. Freeman would add a bar.
So there are methods but not rules, and every level designer brings their own experiences and ideas to the task. But however I'm guided toward a designer's conclusions, I like it best when I'm shown the way, but not told.