The “empty retreat” problem in Open world games!!

Article puts light on the problem of re-traversal in side quests design of the open-world Games.

Open world adventures are one of my favorite game types. I like talking about RPGs whenever I get a chance. Open world games always tap into essence of human tendency of exploration and discovery of new things. The curiosity drives and makes us push the bounds and keep getting more knowledge of what is alien.

This case is also true with the games having “open world” world element in them. Exploration is the main ingredient of many of spices we see in adventure games. Different games we see have radical approaches of constructing a world which in turn changes a face of the game which is presented to player.

Most of these open world games contain secret dungeons and caves to be explored, which brings us to the point of what this article is about. The designers put a lot of effort in making a good level which will be gripping and engaging throughout the session of gameplay. But there is sometimes a problem in proper approach of the implementation.

Couple of weeks before nostalgia kicked in and I was playing Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, the great old times. If you have played the game, you will know there are hidden life upgrades in this game which you can get through a secret passage to upgrade your health. That time while playing typically these life upgrade levels I felt like addressing this problem. This issue can be called as problem of “empty retreat”.

To know this better let’s consider a scenario:

You are playing a game in which you happen to exploring the mystical caves. These caves are full of puzzle paths, which unlock if you solve the environmental challenges presented to you. You have to solve these tricky puzzles and make your way to end. While on your way, you even meet lot of minions guarding these caves. You have to hack and slash, full action packed and make the way till you reach the dead end. Seems pretty interesting till here, right?


Now this can be anything. Say you are going to get a hard rugged armor and a sword with high damage points or any other collectible like chest of money or may be a health upgrade, damn it can be anything.

Most people will play it for the love of exploration and/or solving these interesting puzzles as it is their forte.

Okay, you now successfully reach the dead end, and your goal is met. The problem typically starts from here. The action packed adventure you had till now, is there until you reach the objective which is getting to end where it is not further explorable. When you reach there, you now have to traverse all the way back to carry on your adventure. This is really very very boring and I personally feel players may simply lose the grip of engagement. This also will have a negative impact on pacing of the gameplay.

Many times, this exploring a cave, a dungeon or any underground tunnels does not come under the main story mission, but just a side quest. So this means players have to explore this leaving their normal route of story progression. If this cave or whatever is small, backtracking is fine but what if it is really long way? Player has to return back from the dead end point where everything (meaning minions and all) is cleared and nothing interesting to be done or solved on the way back.

How do games solve this problem:

Here in case of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, when we have to get health upgrade, observe how we go through the series of obstacles by dodging all the blades and traps. After we finally reach the end and get it, we just have to pretty much traverse back with nothing really left to do. All the traps magically disappear and we have to go back to the point where we started. Typically in this game, the distance fortunately is not too much to travel. But if it were the case, it would surely have taken toll on the pacing of game.

Let’s see how other games provide solution to this problem:

You will see similar situation in the Assassin’s Creed 2 game. When we visit the catacombs, we get challenged by series of action puzzle. Ones when you finally reach your goal and interact it, a secret door opens.

Observe here how game tries to solve the problem of backtracking. As soon as we get the collectible, a secret door opens, which directly shoots us to outside world where we can further continue our adventure.

This is fine as far as solution to our problem is concerned, it is kind of good but there is a feeling of missing out something. This doesn’t really give the sense of completion, or we can say reduces it by 30%. This I think may happen because we don’t see the entry door again. We exit from the different portal, hence have a loop missing here, which leads to feeling of reduced sense of completion. I will further explain this but first let’s see another better option.

The apt solution in my opinion is provided by the game Witcher 2: Assassins of the King.

If you’ve played it, you’ll definitely remember this mission “The mines of Vergen” in the dwarf’s town.

Let me show you the map to have a clear idea about it.

All the red crosses you see in map are the dead ends. The area is pretty big and player has to cover lot of distance going in and then traversing back.

I won’t explain the mission here. My point here is, ones we are done with the mission inside these mines, we are pretty much left with nothing, literally. All the monsters slashed, all collectibles collected. Now all we have to do is traverse back to the door.

Here the game gives us the option to either traverse the area, or just poof back to the entrance. This is a good way to deal the problem. If you like to explore, the game gives you freedom to do so. If not, simply fast travel out! This seems a good way as the level of independence to player is more here.

Though the third option is the better in approaching this problem, I feel designers still could have done it better. If we observe the map of the mines carefully, we can notice that this level is pretty much circular. Now all they had to do is arrange the events in such a way that it loops around circularly. In this way, player starts at the gates, and eventually ends at same gate. Thus it gives a proper sense of completion.

This I believe could have been more better solution than present. To explain it properly, let’s take our daily life example. Our goal here is to run some errands.

We open the door of our home, step into outside world, get the job done and get back to home. This gives us a sense of completion.

Now consider a scenario where after your job is done, poof, u disappear from market and emerge directly in home where you started. How does it feel?

Now consider another scenario where you are done with what needs to be done, but now, from market, you get in the door and end up appearing in neighbor’s home! Does it give feel of completion?

This problem is very easy to solve yet some games still fail to address it. There are many ways it can be approached. But taking into mind the scenarios of the game, designers need iterate a lot until it gives an apt impression of closure. A clever level design, wise placement of events in the world and many other factors can work as charm and solve the issue.

I hope you enjoyed the read. Please let me know your take on this. Thank you very much for reading.

This is a repost from my personal blog. If you like what you read, please read my other blog articles.

Until then see you next time.

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