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Game Design Essentials: 20 Open World Games
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Game Design Essentials: 20 Open World Games

September 26, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 9 of 11 Next

15. Grand Theft Auto series

Start with Zelda, then add dozens of independent agents hanging around, each doing their own thing. You can affect them, and they can affect you.

Published by Take Two

Developed by Rockstar North

Platform: Playstation 2, Windows, Xbox, Xbox 360

Length: Long

Of Note:

My favorite thing to do when playing these is to forget about the plot, find a hack somewhere, and run fares. So I like Crazy Taxi, so sue me. But there's far more to do here than just that. There's so much to do in a GTA city that the storyline seems uninteresting by comparison.

The Game:

Ocarina of Time was a breakthrough in many ways, and direct sequel Majora's Mask succeeded admirably in making the player feel like a participant in a world in which things were happening whether he was directly involved in them or not. But after that, what? While Wind Waker went towards bigness, secret hunting and navigation challenges, and Twilight Princess went towards being Ocarina of Time DX, it feels like the true evolution of the ideas from the first two 3D Zeldas came not from Japan, but from Scotland.

Basically, the Grand Theft Auto games feel like urban Zelda, with full realization of what that implies. It means a multitude of actors all with their own behavior and movement. It means realistic traffic, as either obstacle to be overcome or opportunity to be taken advantage of. It means traffic patterns they obey even if you don't have to. It means all this going on while you have your own missions to accomplish, with the two intersecting in completely unplanned ways. It means just-for-fun subgames that take advantage of the patterns. It means, in brief, something that looks like applied chaos theory.

Chaos theory. That's the branch of math that describes systems that look random but are in fact built off of many interacting, non-random systems, producing behavior so complex that it looks random to us. Of course GTA does contain random elements so the comparison isn't precisely apt. But it seems quite suggestive of it to these eyes. It's really a tremendous shame much of the media has latched onto the series as an example of all that's depraved in gaming since the series provides so many awesome ideas... but then, it can't be said the developers haven't invited the controversy.

Design Lessons:

The GTA games work as standard open world games, sure, with rooftops, warehouses, side roads and coastline to explore, and in the Zelda style there are rewards scattered around for this kind of searching. But there are other, more profound, types of exploration here too. Exploring the answers to questions like, how much property damage could I do here within a time limit?

To get back to the general theme of the rest of the series, while the games lock off portions of the city until the player has advanced somewhat in the game's story, the games are generally exhilarating in how open they are. There are refreshingly few artificial barriers to the player's wanderlust within the city. None of this collecting of High Jump Boots and Varia Suits here, nossir.

Wikipedia (series)


Speed Demos Archive (GTA III)

16. The Goonies II

Coming out shortly after Metroid, and containing both side-scrolling "action" scenes and first-person "adventure" scenes that, in fact, play like adventure games. The mixture provides for an odd, yet undeniably unique, game.

Developed by Konami

Platform: Famicom, NES

Length: Medium

Of Note:

Some of the characters in the adventure scenes don't like it when you use the "hit" command on them and refuse to help you any more, but at least one must be hit five times before he gives up his treasure. How would one find this out without a strategy guide? I have no idea. Also noteworthy, the game contains no bosses, but one doesn't generally notice this during play. Combat is thus de-emphasized, making for a game that offers unusually pure exploration.

The Game:

The Goonies II was a semi-popular game from the early days of the NES, but what ever happened to "The Goonies I?" It was released only in Japan and on U.S. Playchoice arcade machines. I've played through all of the original The Goonies and can say it is an unreasonably difficult game. The sequel tones down the difficulty considerably, adds kinda out-of-place "adventure scenes," and is structured as an open world game, instead of as a bunch of levels.

One of the interesting things about it is that the player gets a map right from the start, but it's split into two halves, "front" and "back." I've played through this game several times by now, and while I can understand in principle how the front and back maps are supposed to fit together, I've still yet to ever make use of that information in any real way. It doesn't help that the game contains "warp zones" that can send the player clear across the map regardless of how the rooms might connect spatially. One of the items the player might find, the Detectors, exist only to point out on the map the location of the Goonies the player is trying to save, but the player will probably find them just as well by searching everywhere they can.

The strangest feature of the game has to be the "adventure scenes," which are like mini adventure games contained within each of the doors. The adventure scenes don't really work that well, they just produce a lot of make-work and arbitrary stuff for the player to do or else get screwed. Sometimes a door only appears if you hit the wall in the center, or the floor or ceiling, so the player ends up hitting the walls in every room. Sometimes a door (or floor or ceiling hole) only appears if the wall is hit with the hammer, so that ends up being done too. Also, doors sometimes are on the back wall of a room, "behind" the player, so the player must also try to move backward from many rooms in case he misses a door that way. The effect is less that of solving a puzzle and more of a list of things to try in each and every adventure room or else risk missing the essential passage needed to move on.

The relation between the Action and Adventure scenes is a little more coupled than they may seem at first. Most of the major powerups, like jumping shoes and slingshots, are found in Adventure scenes, but can only be obtained with keys. Keys are usually found in Action scenes, dropped by defeated enemies. I can't help but think that must make the game torture for speedrunners, being so beholden to keys dropped randomly by random monsters.

There are a number of fairly inventive obstacles in the game, far more inventive generally than other games at the time. The forest region uses background animation to produce gushing torrents of water that can harm the player and knock him off platforms, and the effect is rather striking for a NES game of the time. The suspension bridge is only one small area of the game, but it has unique graphics and even a special enemy that appears there that doesn't do any damage, but eats one of the player's weapons! Midway through the player even finds a wet-suit and is able to swim in underwater areas.

The object of the game is to rescue six Goonies, then go and rescue Annie the Artistic License Mermaid. The door she's hidden behind is awesome: a unique, gigantic steel portal that implies through its very imposingness "open me to win the game."

Design Lessons:

One very strange thing about the game gets back to what I was talking about earlier about significant voids. There are a number of rooms in the game that can only be found by bombing specific places, or pressing "up" in unmarked places to enter a hidden door. Usually they contain Konami Man who offers a health refill, or an extra life. Once contains a helpful optional item. None of them are required to find to win the game.

The thing is, there are no explicit clues to finding any of these rooms, but sometimes there are implicit clues, like an enclosed bit of an area with nothing inside, or a moving platform that leads by a waterfall that doesn't seem to go anywhere. They are probably hidden a little too well, since players who had never played the original Goonies (most people in the U.S.) would never think about finding doors with bombs, and making doors invisible just feels like cheating on the game's behalf.

Still, think about the reaction of the player the unlikely event he does happen upon one randomly. Wouldn't that seem like the most awesome thing in the world? The key to hiding them is to do it in a place where he would ordinarily do the thing that would make it appear anyway, so it appears by accident. Once he's found one, he'll be on the lookout for other significant places later. But if the player is given no clue they exist, then the game basically requires a strategy guide to finish. Which is, in case you must be reminded, a bad thing.




Hardcore Gaming 101

Article Start Previous Page 9 of 11 Next

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