2022 has been a weird year for me. The biggest change technically took place in the fall of 2021 in which I got married and moved in with my wife. The months following were an obvious adjustment period of moving in, buying all the things that don’t come with a house, getting comfortable living together, balancing time together with house projects and time with friends and family. It took a month or two before I started finding the right rhythm for playing video games regularly again and figuring out how many at a time I could juggle now. Marriage means I’m kinda perpetually behind on most things. And that’s kind of okay? I’d rather be caught up on my wife’s life than on media. But the real kicker was near Christmas time last year when I realized my graphics card was really kind of at its wits end in terms of supporting modern video games. Halo Infinite came out and my PC just would not run it. In 2021 and going into 2022, NFTs and market shortages meant upgrading my graphics card was a financially unsound decision. So I waited. Besides, I had just gotten married, bought a house, spare money needed to go elsewhere.
Buying a newer-gen GPU across last year and this year were just a statistical stupidity from where I sat. For starters, NFT scalpers were keeping GPU availability scarce. Then, when the market on NFTs crashed, Russia decided to invade Ukraine and the world placed sanctions on Russia, shrinking market access to specific resources important to the development of computer chips. This is coming after a year-long supply chain shortage in 2021 that came about due to the pandemic. Meanwhile AMD and nVidia decided to take advantage of how hard acquisition for customers was in the NFT craze. So instead of the next series of GPU cards being announced like most years, AMD released a “step-up” group of cards that have slight improvements over the ones that came out last year, akin to a PS4 Pro. This meant that 2020’s RX 6000 series remained a higher average price around $400 because step-up cards don’t really dwindle the price of a GPU that’s two years old. For me, it was stupid. Manufacturers made their money with the NFT craze, it just didn’t go to the customers that actually wanted to play games with the cards. So instead of spend time building the next series that would significantly drop the 2020 GPU price like usual, this step-up design of 6x50 cards just ensured AMD would get “new-esque” profits on a 2020 GPU for an entire extra year. That was too much. I could shell out $400 fairly easily but it was the principal of the matter that stopped me. “I’m not gonna buy a GPU for the same price I could buy a console at,” I would say.
So I doubled my payment and bought a PS5 late into the summer instead. Go figure.
It was a long time coming honestly. I was somewhat interested in nabbing the new console for the upcoming sequels, the SSD performance, and the new controller. I bought the PS4 primarily for the exclusives like so many others. Bloodborne and Horizon: Zero Dawn were well worth the price of entry for me, and throwing in Spider-Man and God of War (2018) felt like a bonus. I really wound up loving my time with Zero Dawn, it was one of the first open world games to bring me back into the genre in quite some time. The kicker turned out that it was a world and tale I fell in love with. I just wanted to play the hunting game with a cool setting and robot dinosaurs. I didn’t anticipate to be taken by the game so much.
So by the time the sequel came out right around the same time as Elden Ring (seriously Sony, stop it), I was already waiting and waiting for the PS5 to become available. It took me until August to finally get my hands on a bundle and I’ve been playing Horizon: Forbidden West ever since.
I like the game, well and truly. The gameplay improvements over the first are vast and it’s clear Guerilla Games listened to criticism about conversations and animations from the first game. Forbidden West has conversations I have worked my way through that rarely got stale because of the unique and considered animations. The story isn’t quite as good as the first one, but there were always going to be some overlooked complexities with new Horizon games when considering the setup and revelations of the first entry. What this game does make up for is in creating a sense of scope and exploration in its story and world. Your capacity to go places and explore still has its limits but Guerilla definitely saw players struggling to go up mountain sides in Zero Dawn and so they added in a climbing system for most rock faces so long as it’s not a world-edge. The combat designs are now taking further lessons from Monster Hunter and have stashes you can use to refill your inventory (including core crafting items). Story-wise you get to see Aloy really start learning how to accept the people around her as part of a team and you start building a base together that you return to after major critical missions. All the key quests involving those characters (main or side) I’ve found to be the most memorable and exciting parts of the game’s story. It’s a clear cut case of “here’s lessons learned from the last game applied to a sequel with more of what came before and some new stuff layered throughout” and I’m totally here for it. The game even has a robot fighting arena where you earn a currency that can go towards unique gear.
But I’m not here to write a full review of Forbidden West. I finished it and I’d recommend the game, but I have had something else on my mind for quite a while now. You see I want to analyze maybe the game’s worst part (arguably).
The 30 minute breakdown starts here
The biggest problem plaguing Horizon: Forbidden West is in its quest system. You can’t see this, but if you’ve ever seen an organization chart, a flowchart, or can envision a linear set of drawn squares you can imagine how many video games manage main and side quests. Mass Effect 2 is a fantastic example of one way Forbidden West could have unlocked its various quests but can’t. Mass Effect 2 is a fairly linear story told from one beginning to one end. The game’s primary story involves squad building and a mission to stop a threat unrolling as you play. The squad building aspect involves traveling to various planets, finding prospective hires, and after doing a quest to hire them, performing a mission to resolve something in their life to gain loyalty from them. The way BioWare masterfully laid out the story was this: Imagine a long hallway of rooms separated by one door keeping you from each next room. Each room you enter is wide and circular but the doorway is narrow. Your progression across Mass Effect 2 is shaped out by entering the first doorway, followed by the first wide room. The first doorway is the game’s opening sequences, followed by the wide room being your first opportunity to do missions as you please. You’re free to do these missions in any order you want. You can recruit team members in this wide room. You can find smaller planetary missions unrelated to the main plot in this wide room. You’ll get loyalty quests that you can do, all while in this wide room. After you recruit some team members, the door at the other end of the room will unlock and you’ll be pushed towards it. You’ll do another quest on that new narrow doorway and then be granted with another wide room with more missions, recruits, loyalty quests, etc. You can even go backwards to a previous wide room if you want and do more quests from back there. Mass Effect 2’s quest system is this series of wider rooms of play where you can choose what to do next (if at all) separated by linear doorways that act as progression points in the story. You could just do the doorways if you want for the most part, but it’d end poorly. You can’t experience the doorways again but you can do anything you find in those rooms at any time after the room is unlocked, once. Only once. You can’t explore beyond the walls of the rooms, the game only has forms of storytelling to offer you in these rooms and doorways. Eventually the game has a point of no return (but technically that’s not true), for the sake of keeping this discussion simple, we’ll ignore that. Mass Effect 2 unlocks and provides more to do for the players across your time with the game while ensuring you cannot experience some quests too early and no quests repeat. It’s a linear series of quests that are unlocked, with main quests serving as choke points in the game, while other quests can be discovered, chosen, and completed in a more fluid order along the path of beginning to end. There’s a script, but some parts of it can be read whenever you want so long as you’re not in the doorways. The way the doorways stop things from happening too early is the important point to remember here.
Forbidden West, taking some of the best notes from “open world” games available, seemingly can’t provide quests the same way Mass Effect 2 does because the game allows players to do more at once as part of its core design. The best long sentence summary of Forbidden West’s quest problem is this: Horizon: Forbidden West unlocks and provides a lot of interesting main and side quests across your time with the game while failing to manage the player’s pace and growth with those experiences. I’ll have to get back to this, but it’s important to note that this design is intentional. It’s a choice to be an open world game. The results of the design, however, are not always intentional. The best way to envision Forbidden West’s quest design is to imagine a large pond or a smaller lake. I’ve provided an awful picture below while I illustrate this lake. You are not allowed to go around the lake but need to get to the other side to complete the game’s story. There are several small islands arranged in a dotted square fashion in several rows after leaving shore, followed by a singular large island, and then followed by a similar arrangement of dotted square small islands. This pattern continues until you reach the other side of the shore. The small islands have trees on them. Some of the trees have fruit that will endlessly replenish, while other trees have fruit that you can only consume once. Much like Mass Effect 2, you can move forwards and backwards across these islands. You can traverse to any of the small islands at almost any time, except you’re heavily encouraged to always visit the large island when trying to go from one set of small islands to the next. This is what it’s like to play Horizon: Forbidden West. The small islands represent a large variety of side quests you will find across the map. The trees and their fruit determine whether or not the encounter is something that can be repeated or not. The large islands represent main quests, acting as less-secure choke points that you can and should progress the story to traverse to more islands. Technically speaking the game’s main quests naturally guide the players from east to west across a sprawling map, taking lessons from their previous game’s fantastic synchronous design that married scale, player familiarity, and Aloy’s growth as a character. You may be thinking “but it’s an open world game to some extent, how did that work out?” The short answer is that it worked better in the first game. While technically there are several interlinking things that ultimately made this quest system the worst part of the game for me, it’s never on the level of Mass Effect 3. I’ve written about that problem extensively but in short Mass Effect 3’s quests system won’t even tell players where to go and you unwillingly enroll in quests by simply hearing about them. With Forbidden West, it’s just a problem of content being spread out in a system that demanded maybe too wide a spread of delicious delicious fruit. (and I’m not kidding, it IS delicious) Technically speaking players could explore the smaller islands and their trees in other regions before visiting the large islands that separate the regions. You CAN swim past the large islands that are meant to introduce you to certain regions in the game as you move westwards across the map. But you shouldn’t, for reasons.
On some level, this design is relatively sound. Players have the freedom if they wish to explore other sections of the map and see more of the world in the time they want to. Kinda like Breath of the Wild. Unfortunately, Breath of the Wild tells a story more suited to this design. That game has a flatter narrative that lets the regions create layers of difficulty the players can choose to overcome if they so wish. Simultaneously, the world in that game levels with the player. More on leveling later. Forbidden West tells a more sequential story while wanting to give players the freedom of a vaster map and the ability to explore and discover freely. I think many developers want to do this and are using strange methods to accomplish it. This is the first of three design decision cruxes that entangle and complicate Forbidden West’s quest system terribly.
Design Decision Crux #1
What kind of experience do you want your players to have with your open world video game: A sandbox to play in, a deep core gameplay loop that has a sense of progression, or a story to tell? I think in most cases, you can get away with two of these and have a good game, but not all three. The third one may be present, but it’ll suffer. I can’t think of an open world that really focused on just one of these aspects really hard so the jury is still out on whether or not a truly incredible open world game exists (don’t hate me, it’s just my opinion). Breath of the Wild gets away with two of these choices while letting the story suffer. Forbidden West also goes for two while letting the sandbox element suffer instead. However, I’m being cruel to a fantastic video game when I say this, most open world games (including Forbidden West and Breath of the Wild) are ultimately committing design decision self-harm by answering that question with “all of the above is what we’re going to actually try”. Most games refuse to reject one of those pillars outright, and whichever third pillar is the weakest is the one that seems to be the thing people latch onto in terms of complaints leveled against the game. It’s a commonality open world games can’t seem to escape. And maybe they never really can. Those that have played Breath of the Wild know it’s called a true sandbox because it will put practically no barrier on letting the players choose to go a direction. But most can complain there’s not much of a story there. I just think there’s something to explore there in the scale of “how much story do we really need in this world?” I also believe the fact that so few games actually have “Sandbox” as one of its core pillars is a large deal of why people love Breath of the Wild so much. The first Horizon game came out a week before Breath of the Wild and most people immediately compared the two games. While Horizon: Zero Dawn did have a lot of cool original ideas, being a true sandbox wasn’t one of them and so immediately everyone complained that it’s not a true open world. Well, that and it’s a Nintendo game. But you’ll never hear someone complain much about how Zero Dawn’s story or gameplay aren’t well designed for the large, semi-open world it takes place in. If anything, Breath of the Wild’s success isn’t a knock on Zero Dawn, it’s a knock on open world games in general. Breath of the Wild even helps players accomplish this freedom by ensuring that players have a set number of tools to play with once they leave the tutorial area. Those tools are then given free reign in the wider world to make for unique gameplay experiences. Surprisingly, just traversing and exploring is maybe the greatest achievement Breath of the Wild reaches. Forbidden West has these elements, but fails to let all of them be at the players’ disposal after its opening hours (despite having a lengthy enough opening section that should allow players to play that way).
Now if you’ll let me use an egregious example for the industry norm that serves as opposite to Breath of the Wild: Far Cry 3 instead decides to try and tell a linear story in a video game with an open world of gameplay loops that players can discover. They tie these gameplay loops to player progression. There’s animals to fight so you can upgrade your gear, towers to climb and uncover more of the map, enemy encampments to overcome and control a greater region of the map, stashes to find oftentimes hidden away on the map requiring traversal to get there, scenic vistas to appreciate by following a marker on a map until you find said scenic vista, and maybe the one I hate the most, high-monetary items to find in stashes that are tucked away behind mechanical barriers that you can’t get past until you unlock a different tool or ability later in the game. Far Cry 3 is an older game now at nine years of age and since open world games of that scale were a little newer at the time I’d be willing to give the game some slack for not thinking of better ways to make an open world engaging. But here in 2022, as a self-described critic who wants to challenge developers and video games in general, what I really should say is that someone should’ve sorted out by now that the best way to make an open world game is to strip away these systems and let players feel out what’s interesting on their own. Y’know, like Breath of the Wild did. Anyone who has played a game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl or Call of Pripyat also would’ve seen this by now. I’m even willing to argue that the younger version of myself that was weirdly just in love with how stupidly violent Fallout 3 is experienced a better version of this design than the current person I am because I was just content to play a 3D Fallout game on a big map while listening to early 1900s music blowing things up with a dog next to me. Give players a map to run around in, fill it with cool things to experience, don’t make that thing you can experience a quest to check off or a part of a map marker that hasn’t been locked or blocked off yet. Just let players go experience it. Unfortunately most of the industry has learned the opposite lessons these experiences found in Breath of the Wild, Shadow of Chernobyl, and the heyday of Bethesda games taught. Forbidden West is just as guilty of these flaws as most open world games you can buy on the market today, right there alongside whatever latest Batman or Ubisoft title is coming out. And yet Guerilla Games has managed to make me not care every time I pick up the controller, twice. And I think it’s because they always make the process of checking the box off interesting or fun. And if they’re not doing that, then much like Witcher 3, it’s hard to look away when you’ve not experienced a world quite like this that its creators so fiercely put together.
That was a rather “going around the lake instead of swimming through it” way of expressing that while Forbidden West is in many ways “yet another open world game that’s not really a true open world game”, it’s maybe the best game out there that’ll make you not really care you’re not playing Breath of the Wild right now. So many other games like this one will bore you right away. This is a wider issue with an industry obsessed with high detail video games that are so pretty players can’t even tell what they’re supposed to be looking for anymore, having to rely on quest markers and AR interfaces and quest logs to manage everything you’re doing in a game now. In so many other open world games I’ve played this has felt like a job. In Horizon: Forbidden West and a slim few others, I almost never care every time I load it up. I think that’s a big testament to the world Guerilla crafted, the other lessons they took from many other video games before it, and their resolve to make something that truly feels unique among an industry that’s still pumping out competitive twitch shooters and obsessed with the idea of “time to complete” as the only factor driving value. I have to admit that they are bad approaches. If Horizon isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll probably bounce off of it like an Ubisoft game. Maybe it’s the genuinely interesting protagonist, the actually unique setting that manages to make a post-post apocalypse something I want to learn more about. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the main and side quests are at least telling some stories like Witcher 3 does. Maybe it’s the robot dinosaurs, I don’t know. I just found that I don’t care much that this game is still following some bad approaches to open world games.
Except whenever I look at the quest system.
Let’s go back to my lake metaphor. If we consider this setup, there aren’t many problems you’d actually encounter with it and you can even use the answers to that earlier design decision question to inform how you’re going to adjust the lake setup as you go. You want a game that focuses on a rich world and engaging story? Okay, then you want to arrange the smaller islands in a way that ensure you don’t put any smaller islands out of order in context with each other and the larger islands. After all, the large islands are linear in this big lake. So for example if there’s a mission you can’t accomplish until you’ve actually completed the second large island, you place that small island just past it. Players might be technically allowed to swim over to it but the point of the large island placement is so players naturally think that they should cross the large island if they want to do the side missions beyond it. This ensures the developers are still technically allowing the open world design that means players can find quests out of intended order while still keeping focused on that story design decision. How would you keep this from happening? What about the core gameplay loop with a sense of progression? How do these things affect the landscape of the game? This design decision that includes “a core gameplay loop with a sense of progression” brings up yet another game design crux that has to be decided.
Design Decision Crux #2
How are you going to create a sense of challenge for your players? Unfortunately, to answer that, we’re going to take another detour. In 2006 Bethesda released The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Anyone who knows enough about the game immediately knows where I’m going but for the uninitiated, Oblivion is an open world game in which players can practically go anywhere right after the tutorial. The game is populated with a variety of NPCs of different species (human and elf and various others, to name a few) as well as naturally occurring creatures like wolves and rock elementals and demon-like creatures from a mythical world called Oblivion that’s breaking into our reality (or into Cyrodiil, the stand-in for Earth). The point of the game is this massive sense of world to explore, places to discover, and to enter into, fight in, and close numerous Oblivion gates across the game. The design decisions informing Oblivion meant Bethesda would go on to decide to make the enemies mostly level up with the player. On the surface this is a sound plan but the longer people played the game the more the flaws of this decision revealed itself. The stronger players got, the more the health and damage output of the enemies grew as well. This resulted in the players never really feeling like they were getting truly stronger because that relatively weak enemy bear you fought twenty hours ago that used to required three or four swings of an axe to kill now requires ten or twenty swings of a swing of an axe to kill. You would get better gear to slightly solve this problem, but the problem remained that players were fighting enemies that simply had a larger health pool and damage output than before, making fights last longer for even the simplest of enemy encounters.
Two years later Bethesda released Fallout 3 and made a really smart design decision that ensured the game wouldn’t have the same problem that plagued Oblivion. Fallout 3 instead had a regionally based enemy placement with an emphasis on a believable health and damage output based on the NPC itself. In short, the deadliest creature in the game, Deathclaws, would have a set health pool and damage output that wouldn’t change regardless of what the player’s level was. Players would start the game roughly around the middle of the map and areas around the edges of the map would be where the more dangerous enemies in the game would be placed. You could basically put a giant marker to the west and north of your starting area and write “Deathclaws be out there somewhere”. The main quest of the game would slowly and naturally move players towards the southeast end of the map where the more common enemy type Super Mutants would be fighting the Brotherhood of Steel. From here players would normally be at a level high enough to explore the edges of the map more freely because they’ll have acquired strong enough weapons and leveled up by then to keep exploring the map. This design decision proved really successful as players who wanted to find a really high challenge early could go west and north and find all sorts of dangerous enemies, while others could generally follow the path the game was gently laying out for them. Incidentally, Breath of the Wild used a similar progression system to that of Oblivion but instead of letting an enemy scale, Breath of the WIld layered higher-leveled variants of enemies on top of the less-leveled variants of enemies the more the player progressed. I won’t go much deeper into that subject matter, I just found it interesting as I played Breath of the Wild that it actually utilizes an approach to player progression that most people seemed to agree was a mistake but makes it bearable through a variety of other design elements at play. With all this considered, Forbidden West’s core gameplay loop with a sense of progression should be a shoe-in, right? The game has you literally traveling from the east end of a map to the west. You can just up the difficulty the more west you go and call it a day, right? Well…not exactly. Because the questing system in this game involves giving quests and enemies a level.
Design Decision Crux #3
What’s the right level…? I don’t understand why this game needs levels for enemies and quests. It breaks everything in my opinion. Enemies in Horizon: Forbidden West are one of the game’s strongest features. The development team found robot dinosaurs one of the most gripping and exciting things about the game when they were first exploring its post-post apocalypse concepts. There are a wide variety of machines that take after various creatures we know on Earth to exist or to maybe at one point have existed. Meanwhile the players utilize a wide variety of tools to damage or break off various parts from said machines while having to craft ammo, traps, and potions to support yourself through the-It’s Monster Hunter. The Horizon games use a core gameplay loop heavily inspired by Monster Hunter mixed with the crafting systems you find in games like Tomb Raider (2013) and the Monster Hunter series set in an open world. It’s Monster Hunter fighting on robot steroids with a big story and I love it. Forbidden West took this idea they executed on in the first game and made it even more dynamic and fun by making sure the various creatures that spawn across the game’s massive map have different versions. So now your standard watcher enemy type might have strong fire defense or maybe a pack of Raptor-like machines might have some with acid attacks while the other half are actually doing frost attacks and you have to try and bring the right assortment of traps, armor, weapons and ammo types to the entire fight or swap things in the process. There’s even extra-strong variants of each machine called the “Apex” type that are resistant to almost every element to make sure the game can still bring out some punches every now and then. And yet the game still thinks it needs levels on enemies. When it comes to using a level system in this game, I can think of two reasons it might be tied to quests. The first is for creating that sense of progression and challenging enemies since the game has so much variety. This way the developers can use whatever monsters they want in a quest and have those enemies at a level that matches the quest, not restricting any enemy to a certain challenge level. There’s something that might be useful here. But the other reason for tying levels to quests is to create barriers around the player’s supposed freedom.
I have crawled through interviews and documentaries about Horizon: Zero Dawn to learn more about how the world was designed with quests and enemies in mind. Guerilla Games learned a lot while making Zero Dawn and so they shared a lot of what they learned with the world at large. I found out they hand-placed what machines are where on the map for Zero Dawn, so I’m assuming they used the same principal in Forbidden West as it avoids having the hardest machine types show up near the start of the game (not to mention some machines are regionally-based). I can understand how the game would assign machines a level that’s slightly similar to the player (think of the Oblivion scaling). Guerilla can and do enhance the sense of progression in this game because certain machines that are not regionally based can scale while machines that are not regionally based won’t scale as much. So your Watcher enemy type will always be fairly easy to fight, not be too high leveled, but can be in many parts of the game’s map. Meanwhile certain bird machine types will only show up on mountainous terrains and pending on far west the player is, they will be a higher level compared to ones that are more eastwards on the map. This is all fine and dandy except when you have to ask how you keep players from exploring so far that they hit a challenge wall. Having enemies that are a much higher level than you is one way but some players might really grind hard and not care as much. Meanwhile some of the game’s quests have “island locks”. The main quests in the game can sometimes have equipment that players acquire on that quest that enable players to complete side quests. This locks the player from trying to do some quests before it’s time. (see the map below for color-coded island locks). Weirdly though, rarely are these island locks used to prevent players from trying a side quest that’s too challenging early on or even from playing out a side quest that would mess with the story too early on. It’s more about exploration and resource gathering than anything; keeping players from getting too many resources too fast. In my experience, it didn’t work. I had way too much stuff by hour 20 (but never the next thing I wanted to find, I always had to progress to find those things). However, you’ll still find these island-locked locations and quests and they’ll go into your log as you explore more and more, even if you can’t unlock them yet. I had a level 22–23 quest that I could easily complete challenge-wise but my path in the game hadn’t yet finished a story quest that was level 17 so I didn’t have the necessary gear. I had that level 17 quest all the way until I was nearly level 40 in the game because I just kept finding interesting things to do on the way to the next main quest. That alone should make some warning bells go off in your head in regards to a problematic quest system. But it gets worse. I’m not sure which came first with Forbidden West: Quest level assignment or quest writing. Considering how games work, the writing possibly came after the level assignment and I have more reason to back that up in the coming section. You may have noticed that I ended the last section considering why the game has quest levels and at first I figured it was guidance for the engaging gameplay, and the second reason was to create barriers around the player’s freedom. It makes sense that the developers would want to carefully limit player freedom so that players can more likely have the experience being sculpted. And the island locks do exist as a barrier around the player freedom, but they aren’t effective enough. You can’t actually see the barrier until you’ve butted your head into one and realize you have to progress the story first or just come back later to take the fruit on any given small island that has an island lock. So the game uses “levels” as a means of suggesting you should come back to this point of the map or do this quest later if you’re under leveled. Or, technically: If you haven’t done all main quests below the level of the quest you’re trying to do right now. You can imagine how well people would listen to this logic. I certainly didn’t. Despite a quest system filled with numbers, quest levels always feel arbitrary.
If you’re going to assign quest levels to try and ease the player in a certain direction first, you encounter the third design decision crux: What’s the right level to put all these islands at? Do you tailor the quest levels to players who are mainlining the story, or players that are exploring the game? You know you want the game to focus story and a core gameplay loop more, that’s cool. You know you’re going to create a sense of progression with geographic enemy assignments that slightly scale as you also upgrade your gear and level up, that’s also fine. But you have to decide at some point if you want to assign quest levels based on players pushing straight through the game, or for players who are taking their time more. Unfortunately Horizon is an expensive game and Guerilla need it to succeed. Since most players don’t finish games, they made the rational choice to design the quest levels in a way that assumes players are mostly sticking to the main quest. But we’re playing an open world game, we expressed earlier players can go to other small islands and take the fruit from the trees there. Some of the fruit replenishes endlessly! So running on the assumption the players that want to experience beyond the main quest, the quest levels are unparalleled with each other. Main quests are on their own expectation of your level compared to that of side quests. Our lake metaphor winds up looking more like what’s below in terms of how to assign quest levels. This contradicts a design that says “you really should be this level to go here and see what’s on this small island” because some players may get around to it sooner or later and pending on if it’s a main quest (which has to be done in order) or a side quest (which doesn’t), you might find yourself going places the game didn’t really want you to yet with too many barriers in the way (over/underleveled, need to complete a main quest first, etc.) Like I said much earlier, a sandbox that I really like is being sacrificed for an engaging story and core gameplay loop that I also really like. And you can literally see how Guerilla Games unintentionally built barriers between which thing the players wanted to focus most: Sandbox and side quests, or the main plot.
Guerilla tried to address this problem by saying “Okay, so the quest levels will act as guidelines that pull players towards them. But what are the levels?” And here, at quest levels, is where it falls apart for me. I really enjoy this core gameplay loop a lot. Maybe too much. So I found myself grinding a fair amount while still mostly sticking to doing every side mission I encountered so long as I was the right level for it. This lead to some weird scenarios where I kept finding locations on the map I couldn’t quite explore yet due to not having progressed the story but I was definitely past the required level to do said quest. The large islands are so spaced out on the map you’ll find dozens of side quests on your way to one large island and those quests will actually be unrelated to the level of the main quest at hand. But considering this game is geographically well designed to synchronize with the player like the first game, you’d be forgiven for expecting it all to pace together.
My best example of all of this game’s quest problems is a quest called Burden of Command. At one point I was performing a series of side quests at a village called Scalding Spear. It’s this awesome village surrounding an old tower that sat in the midst of solar panels much like the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project. I did a series of side quests there that felt like a main quest (because the side quests in this game are just that good) and after finishing one quest with a character that made them the commander of Scalding Spear, I told them I’d find them back at the village. Upon returning there on foot, I found the character was now in a new location in the village. This wasn’t surprising as the character was now a leader so it stood to reason this character was now stationed where she would lead the local tribe. She offered me a quest (Burden of Command) in finding a child and said where to meet her to start the quest. I went to that location and then we conversed as we started looking for the child. The conversation played out weird to me as the character and Aloy were talking as if weeks or a month had passed, the commander in charge discussed how she’s struggling under her new leadership role and keeping followers. This seemed really strange but figured it was intended just a little later in the game (the story is written to take place over a few months). We found the child and then I was confronted with a Thunderjaw, one of the toughest enemies in both games. The fight was at level for me so I proceeded to give it my best shot and kept losing to it again and again and again. I think I fought this Thunderjaw for a solid 30–40 minutes, trying different strategies and target points and tools over and over. I finally had a really good run, getting the Thunderjaw to at least half health, and then a second machine joined the fight, at a much higher level. Confused as to how this could possibly last this long, I checked the quest level. I must’ve been level 19 or 20 at the time, but the quest level was 30.
The main quest I was slowly making my way towards at the time was level 17, and I still had a long way to go before I remotely got close to that place. This wouldn’t make sense, unless Guerilla made the decision to set the quests for the game at a level that presumes players are focusing on just the main story for the most part and skipping most side quests. Which meant they separately assumed side quests would run on their own level scaling as we saw in my above work of art. Despite not doing all of the more grind-focused tasks in this game, I suppose I love this game’s core loop too much to consider myself as someone who would just focus on the story or just the side quests, meaning I’m not who Guerilla targeted when it came to that design decision crux. But I still shouldn’t be getting quests far above my level or completely outside my reach either because some quests I couldn’t do for another ten or fifteen hours because I didn’t have the appropriate tools (see: island locks!). You’re not told you can’t do it either, you just find out when you try to. If I wasn’t given quests I couldn’t accomplish yet, I’d have focused on following the game’s roughly intended path a bit more. I never thought I’d write up about this game’s questing and level design so much until I found myself way overleveled for quests at one point. I was around level 40 finally able to do a level 23 quest because I had reached a story point that gave me new equipment that enabled underwater breathing. And there was still an ability to unlock much closer to the end of the game. I asked myself how many hours this game would take to beat on average and looked it up: About 60 hours for literally everything.
How many had I dumped into the game?
Yeah, the end result of this game’s quest system map (in my head) is ultimately just a mess. A hodgepodge of systems overlapping each other and not really working in beautiful synchronous design like the first game. That’s unfortunate and frustrating for the fans that put more time into the game, but not a deal breaker. I do have to admit this might mean more people will actually play through the game’s story from start to finish wheras Zero Dawn might have been ultimately just a harder game that pushed players into doing more of it to level up or adjust the difficult.
I do tend to play games slower and more thoroughly, and I’m half way past the story now but it’s insane to imagine how much more time I could spend grinding up upgrades in this game, exploring side islands on my way to the big islands, and still not be finished until hour 120. I clearly love playing this game a hair too much.
Is there anything to learn from this? I think so. I’m going to say this with a caveat that I don’t make video games so my input should be easy to dismiss, this is just the input of someone who loves these games and has an idea to share. My idea combines things I’ve been talking about with other games already. The first thing I’m going to recommend is we take our large island lake picture and highlight every island that has content that you can find at any time that doesn’t rely on story progression at all. This typically correlates to the various hunting and fighting challenge arenas, upgrade quests, and many (but not all) side quests. Give any of these that really don’t need progression elsewhere to perform a quest level. This allows players to engage with the world, explore it, and have fun improving their capabilities. It also helps players know when they should stop grinding and go back to the story when the level has significantly jumped. We’re assuming a more robust synchronization of quest level to player level because I’m crazy. Meanwhile, the main quest and side quests don’t need quest levels, remove it. Players can burn through it at a reasonable pace. I don’t think there’s ever a point in Forbidden West where players will think “I haven’t played enough of the rest of the game to be capable to continue the story” because there’s just so much to do in it already. The quest level is truly unnecessary here. I realize the game has set levels for enemies and quests, thus potentially creating a difficulty problem, but let’s just presume the developers could maybe program the game to alter enemies in quests to be at a specific level. We’ve all played a Borderlands or Diablo before. If the players are overleveled, no adjustment is necessary. If the player is underleveled, see below.
Let’s take the quest progression lesson Chain of Command had earlier and apply it to our setup of “no quest levels for side quests” and ask ourselves what sort of problems this might create. For starters, we still have the problem where I was under leveled when playing this quest. Also, Chain of Command wants us to have played more of the game so that it feels like time has passed in the story of the quest. There are other quests in this game that presume you’ve been gone from a village for some time because a village might change physically or have more characters now. If writers are hoping the players have spent time progressing the story elsewhere, then the answer is to hide or lock out the next quest in a series until it is time. This may be a heavy generalization, but when playing Forbidden West and many other open world games, often I would try to finish all side quests in a region before moving towards my next main quest. If the game locks quests that want players to leave for a while and come back just long enough until the players complete the next main quest, it will create a reasonable sense of time passing in the game. You can also simply make a quest invisible until a player is the right level for the challenge at hand as some quests really require two things (right player level, enough story progression) before the player should start the quest. I feel most of this is doable too since some quests in the game say “Meet up with this character after you’ve traversed a large portion of the map and made your way through this place.” (paraphrase) That’s really putting the quest on hold but you can simply make these “locked for later” quests invisible until you want players to discover them and tie that discovery to the main quest in the background. After all, we want this game to be story focused, it’s not a true sandbox, right?
I know this presents another problem: Discovery. “This is a game that progressively moves players from east to west and the map can be customized to not show quest markers. How can we be sure players are going to discover the content?” I thought about this some and there’s not a perfect answer, but there’s an option or two aside from shoving checkboxes into your quest log. You could force the quest markers to be visible on the map when new quests are available, but players would probably hate that if they wanted the markers off (the map in these games is great, you can choose to not see lots of stuff so players can decide what to focus on). You could utilize the in-game system that has NPCs at campfires telling players about the newly available quest. I like this one since it feels fairly dynamic and real, but these NPCs in Forbidden West are at specific bonfires and give out specific types of quests. It might feel a bit unrealistic that the same person at a bonfire seems to know about every available quest across most of the map. Personally I think the nicest way to handle this is to make it so that if the player loads the game up from the game’s own main menu, then the players get one noticeable notification on screen stating “New quests are available at the following locations. Check your map to find out where to go.” The game should do this only once per load from the main menu, especially since players might quick load in and out of the game from the PlayStation’s home screen and other installed apps. Having this notification every time the players quick travel would be too constant. This ensures players are reminded to go back to a place they were at before but not reminded too much that they hate the reminder.
I think this suggested approach to quest levels and the sense of progression is a stretch better than what the game shipped with. It has become very clear Guerilla designed the quest levels with a story-focused player in mind, and that’s okay. Except upon realizing that the main quest level recommendations and all other quest level recommendations are really thought out separately. This means they both disregard what happens if players decide to do both and level up more than anticipated here. It’s also taking new steps to make an open world game something that naturally feels engaging while still prioritizing the story over the stuffing. I’m just cursed as a player who actually likes the story and the stuffing at the same time.
I’d still recommend either game though. Horizon is a success that’s routinely overlooked for being a game making perhaps the most interesting version of some very rote game design trends. Who knows, maybe you’ll find some fascinating design choices yourself and feel inspired. At the very least, I was able to spend too much time in the photo mode and make myself a bunch of new wallpapers. And even if you don’t find it a superb 10/10 Breath of the Wild experience, maybe you’ll find yourself thinking more about how video games are made than other games have. And for that I commend it.
LATE EDIT: I wound up beating the game after most of this writing was finished. It took me about 120 hours.