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E3 2011: Skyrim and open game worlds are the last great frontier

Despite critical acclaim and commercial success, games that attempt to build what we call "open worlds" are few and far between.


LOS ANGELES--One of the most common questions you hear from nongamers as they watch someone playing a game is some variation on, "Hey, can you go over there?" Usually, that refers to being able to open a door in a building, get in a car on the street, or walk down a winding mountain path going off into infinity. For gamers familiar with the visual language of interactive entertainment, it's a silly question, there are simply places you're meant to go, and places you're not. For a casual observer not as familiar with the limitations of virtual game worlds, it seems like a matter of common sense; if there's a shop in the middle of the street, why can't I open the door and walk in? If there's a car next to me, why can't I drive away in it?

For example, the recent game L.A. Noireaddresses the issue with a bit of visual shorthand that makes perfect sense to gamers, but is honestly ridiculous if you stop to think about it: only doors with golden doorknobs can be opened. Everything else is shut tight, essentially facades painted on wooden fronts, like a video game version of a Potemkin village.

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Few games dare to deal with the demands of creating a truly open sandbox-style world, which surprises me in a way, as the few times it has been done, it has been done to great success and critical acclaim. The best example is Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series, the latest of which, Skyrim, is on display at E3 this week. Like its predecessors, Oblivion (2005) and Morrowind (2002), Skyrim takes on the considerable challenge of letting players inhabit a virtual world so complete that nearly every door can be opened and every computer-controlled character spoken with--a level of interaction many times greater than sandbox-lite games such as Grand Theft Auto (or the previously mentioned L.A. Noire). Perhaps the closest cousin is online games such as Second Life, where the basic rules and building blocks are laid out, and it's up to participants to decide how to use them.

That's a big fence to swing for, so its not surprising that these rare efforts at open worlds can have some edges. The previous Elder Scrolls games, for example, seemed to have a very strict building code, as nearly every store, tavern, or home closely resembled each other. And most of the people populating the cities and towns didn't have much to say beyond a few stock phrases, often delivered by the same voice actors. The sneak peek of the Skyrim we saw, which will be available in November, didn't feature much dialogue, but had an impressive variety to the environments, from lush forests to snowy mountains. A producer for the game focused on a far-off mountain range, and pointed out that because this was an open-world environment, players could trek over to it and climb to the very top, if they chose to do so.

The wait for Skyrim has been a long one (the previous game was an Xbox 360 launch title), but it has had very little competition in the open-world space since (one example is Fallout 3, from the same game publisher). But as visual fidelity in new games such as the Battlefield 3 and Gears of War 3 increases, there is also a need to increased experiential fidelity, in the form of games that mainstream audiences can pick up and play without having to learn the secret code of game limitations, and learning to follow the subtle clues to figure out which doors are real, and which are just painted onto the virtual plywood.