The following article contains my Extended Thoughts on the idea of "Environmental Reuse" discussed in the Gameology podcast with my co-host Mathew Falvai. You can listen to the Podcast via RSS, on iTunes, Google Play Music, or watch the episode in video format:
For a number of reasons, be it conscious decision or a simple lack of budget, you'll see environments reused in games quite often, much to a gamer's dismay. I feel that the reason we dislike retreading ground in games stems from our experience retreading ground in our day to day lives. I think most people have some sort of routine where they take a familiar path to and from work every day, and when we play games we want a contrast from this monotony. We want an endlessly new and interesting world, and it's all too easy to call the developers lazy for not creating new environments for each new experience.
Environmental re-use is at its best when you can have a unique experience within a familiar environment.
Instead, our focus should be on unique play experiences. If a game is making you retread the same ground and perform the exact same task while nothing about that experience has changed, then yes, you have a right to call the devs on it.
But let's look at the example of playing as the wolf in the Twilight sections of the game. Your control scheme is familiar, but your means of traversal are different. You have a different objective then simply "get from point A to point B" as you do when you are a human. You are tasked with hunting down a number of insects which which hold the key to forward progress in the form of Tears of Light. True back-tracking (turning around and going back the way you came) is possible to allow for players to fully explore an area if they fear they've missed a Tear, but isn't mandatory. Upon finding the last one, you are granted instant passage back to the point where the Tears are redeemed. I think this is great design choice because even if the designers had taken care to make the return path an interesting one, it's so psychologically draining to have to "go all the way back". I think devs might be tempted to make the player leg it back to the start out of some distorted sense that this will help inflate play time and make people think they are getting more value out of the game.This is not at all the case. First of all, it's painfully obvious when a game is forcing you to back-track and everyone feels that immediately. Secondly, going backwards isn't really adding any value to the game. If it was well designed, back tracking should always be possible in the emergency sense discussed earlier, and therefore shouldn't be held up as something exceptional. It's aimless traversal at best, and a nightmarish grind at worst, like swimming up stream against a level which was designed to be played optimally in a single direction.
Back-tracking should be possible to allow the player to go back in case they missed an objective, but otherwise it feels like swimming up-stream, against the flow of the intended level design.
In the case of Twilight Princess, there are clearly some parts of the game that are "world" and some that are "level" and this is an important distinction. "Levels" are dungeons, temples, or any other part of the game you can expect to go through in a linear fashion. Re-treading these "levels" is the least fun because it can be difficult to create a vastly different experience within a space that was so tightly designed. On the other hand, the "world" includes locations like Hyrule Field and the Towns in the game; locals which are not hives of combat or puzzle solving, but open space that knit the levels together. Free-roaming is the name of the game in places such as these.
Certain zones serve a utility function within the world, like shops in towns, and we can expect to return to these areas as we explore the areas of the world around them.
Until the day when we can spawn complete experiences from our brains, environments will be re-used in games. Twilight Princess handles environmental re-use very elegantly because it always seeks to provide the player with a new experience within familiar environments.
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
With Twilight Princess being a great example of "environment reuse" done right, I wanted to turn a critical eye to PM:TTYD. I'll just quickly preface that this is one of my absolute favorite games of all time, and I've played through it about 6 times, on an average of 22 hours per file. If anyone has played the game anywhere as much as I have, there will be a few segments that probably stick out in your mind for having an inordinate amount of back-tracking.
Despite how much I love Paper Mario, there are several brutal instances of back-tracking in the game.
That being said, Paper Mario has a nearly flawless difficulty curve. When you enter a new area, you're always just around the right level to fight the enemies in that area. Cutting out all the back-tracking and subsequent enemies that you fight while back-tracking would mean you no longer have the experience necessary to be at the correct level. It'd be like playing Pokemon and dodging all the encounters with random trainers. Sure it feels like it's saving you time, but in the end you need that experience and it's only worth fighting those trainers when you first see them, otherwise you're too over-leveled.
So clearly Paper Mario is constructed around the back-tracking, but these are still parts of the game which I would gladly skip if given the choice because they aren't adding to the experience. There's nothing new or exciting about running back and forth four times between Twilight Town and the Ghostly Manor. In fact, in this part of the game there's a pretty strong implication that you should be fleeing every battle, but this feels awful as a player, and you can loose a lot of saved up coins.
Paper Mario, and lots of other games in similar situations, would have been objectively better games if they had cut down on the back-tracking.
On a back-of-the-envelope calculation, I estimated that you could crop out about 7 hours worth of back-tracking out of the game, and that would have left it a much tighter experience. Make sure you don't cave into people clamoring for "dollar per hour" game experiences. It's far better to keep your eye on your "awesome per second" ratio.