Many popular open world games feature “towns” (or villages/settlements/hubs) where the player can rest, buy items, and so on. For open world games set in rural or wilderness settings, these towns often serve as big points of interest, with exponentially more detail, activity and opportunities than the surrounding world.
To give a few examples: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Witcher 3, Ghost of Tsushima and both Red Dead Redemption games fit this mold. (This is less applicable to Cyberpunk, GTA games or Spider-Man, where the whole city is the world.)
The problem? To me, the initial promise of the town tends to fade very quickly, and the towns quickly become glorified “merchant hubs.” After your first few visits, you start fast traveling in and out merely to upgrade a piece of armor or buy a new weapon. It’s fine. But it feels shallow. Like a missed opportunity.
Naturally, some games do this better than others. Red Dead Redemption 2 packs lots of mini games and “slice of life” activities (play cards, get a haircut) into its towns, and it definitely helps. The Witcher 3 has Gwent and some emergent quest opportunities.
But I still wish these towns would do more. And I don’t just mean “even more RDR2-type mini games!” For instance, here are some things I think would make for better towns in open world games. Note that I don’t think every game needs to do all of these, and I acknowledge some of these would not be easy to implement: – Give players a palpable sense of relief upon arriving at the town, perhaps because of a greater contrast between the danger of the surrounding wilderness vs. comfort of the town’s resources (think of the feeling you get when discovering a new bonfire in a Souls game). – Make the player feel reluctance to leave the town, given how inviting/restful/interesting it is. – Provide some sort of incentive to not always fast travel in and out, so as to make the process of coming and going more absorbing. – Give the town a few mysteries that take several visits to unravel. More hidden areas, shortcuts, etc. (something the modern Hitman games do pretty well) – Make a few NPCs a little more interesting. (I know many games have tried this, but to mixed effect.) It’s also probably better if you flesh out 3-4 people in really cool ways than trying to give all 27 inhabitants a super complicated daily routine that winds up feeling robotic. – Play up the lore and world building where you can…maybe one town can’t stand another one down the road. – Change the town over the course of the game in some way (access to a house that was previously locked? combat encounter that burns part of the town down?)
I know a lot of this stuff isn’t easy to design and develop. I’m sure there are tons of trade offs involved, and you can’t always have both an intricately crafted town system and a vibrant open world with great combat + progression.
But I still think open world towns could do more, aspiring to be more than merchant/upgrade hubs.
What do you think? Do you feel underwhelmed by towns in these types of games? Or are they already pretty cool and this is more of a personal issue I have? And which games do it best as of today?
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