I’ve been replaying Conan Exiles, and I’d like to highlight (again) its most sophisticated feature: the utter lack of quest handholding. E.g., take this body:
I discovered it randomly near the Nameless City. (Which has a name, by the way. It’s called “Nameless City”.) The little bag next to him is a manuscript; the dead dude explains that he’s going to jump to get away from the undead and it may kill him, but he’s left some treasure nearby.
Now, in almost every other game, you’d get something like this.
- There is a board where people post quests. Despite there being hundreds of people in-world, you are the only one who ever reads the board and accepts them.
- One quest is about finding someone’s cousin or friend or whatever.
- A marker appears on your map, pointing you to precisely the location of the cousin’s corpse. (In really advanced games: it only points you to a 20-meter circle containing the corpse; but the corpse is highlighted in detective vision.)
- You go find the corpse, read the note. There is now a marker to the treasure.
- You go find the treasure. This may involve some platforming or monster-killing, but you can easily see where the goal is at all times.
- You go back to the board and hand in the treasure, receiving a new weapon or something.
Unless it’s Skyrim, in which the quest inevitably involves going into a dungeon and killing everything in it.
Now, I’m only mildly mocking the idea of waypoints and handholding. I’m not saying it’s wrong, only that the Exiles approach is very different. There is no quest journal, no waypoints to follow, no indication that this is a quest at all. You randomly run across the corpse or you don’t. If you do, you may or may not find the treasure.
And this is only one instance of a general design philosophy. There are dungeons, boss monsters, high-level weapon recipes, a few rare friendly NPCs, Conan himself, and an entire main quest in the game… and there is no UI to point you to them. You could spend your whole time fairly enjoyably in the game, near the river, building castles and defeating the local cannibals, and never realize that these things are there. The only thing that can drive you is curiosity: what are those weird ruins over there? where does the river go? can I climb these mountains instead of avoiding them?
There are hints here and there, but even they are hidden. E.g. there’s a rare friendly NPC you can find by the river, and he’ll mention a city of relic hunters “up north”. Sure enough, you can go find it: a fairly large city where, strangely, not everyone is trying to kill you. Of course, eventually you realize that you get massive XP by discovering things, and strike out in new directions just to see what’s there.
Again, I don’t want to get all Dark Souls on you and tell you that this is way better or more realistic or more immersive or whatever. I do think it can be a good model, however. An open world where every item of interest is highlighted is just railroading in a different form. One where you can discover things just by exploring feels more like a real world, and it makes the player feel like they’re doing things, not being led along on a leash.
Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas sometimes come near to using this approach, though only in their early stages. E.g., in Fallout 3 you come out of the vault and no one tells you where to go. The level design nudges you to the nearest city, and it’s hard not to find Megaton, but you feel like you’re discovering them, not being pointed at them. Similarly, I still remember seeing the giant statue in FNV and going toward it just to see what it was. But both games soon become far more railroaded. (FNV almost fatally so; in the last hours you can hear nothing but the creaking of plot points.)
The main quest in the Dishonored games is railroaded, but it still gives you an unusual amount of leeway. Its levels are small, but you really can traverse them very freely, obstacles can be circumvented in three or four ways, and the ultimate target can be dispatched in many ways. Plus, a good deal of story is conveyed by runes and other things you have to hunt for.
For instance, here’s Mindy Blanchard:
This tough-looking dame calls you over if you’re near the Black Market in the first Karnaca mission, and asks you to steal a body. “Don’t worry, it’s already dead,” she assures you. She wants you to steal it from the Overseers’ outpost nearby.
Well, it’s on the way to where you’re going, and choking Overseers is always a good time, so you go find her friend. He turns out to be a tattoo artist– the Overseers have a broad definition of heresy, and it includes tattooing. You carry the body over to Mindy, who’s been digging a grave. There are a couple of dead Overseers in the basement she’s in. She declines to explain a thing, but does do a favor for you.
You can find out just a bit more, by exploring. You can find the dude’s apartment, with a note from Mindy. You can find the Overseers’ notes on torturing him to death. (Have I mentioned that the Overseers are nasty people? And what that implies for you, the Empress?) In a later mission you can find Mindy’s tattoo parlor, as well as a photography studio where she apparently has a habit of having pictures taken and never paying for them.
It’s a neat little vignette, though I have questions, like why Mindy couldn’t do this task herself, and why she was so confident that a stranger would do it that she hung out in the cellar digging a grave. But I like that fact that much of the story is implied rather than told. Mindy cares about this tattooist for some reason, and the story tells us indirectly about the totalitarian callousness of the Overseers more than simply finding a dead body in a room.
I should add that a game had better decide if it’s going to be exploratory or railroady and not mix it up too much. Not knowing what to do is unpleasant, and all the more so if you’re in an open world rather than a level you can explore exhaustively.
Oh, another nice thing about Conan Exiles: it’s a seemingly rare example of a big company which used the Early Access model and made it work. It was quite playable even at the start, but the final game had three times the territory, filled out that hidden main quest, added a nice climbing mechanic and a much better map, and greatly improved combat. Other games, like Anthem and Destiny 2, have instead crunched their way to a major release without really, y’know, being done.