The Inevitable Open World Towers
Is this mechanic so good that even Nintendo open worlds can’t do without it?
When I joined Ubisoft in 2015, the ‘open-world towers’ cemented a large portion of the criticism of the flagship titles of the company. The latest releases, Watch Dogs & The Crew, were raising eyebrows with their questionable integration of that mechanic.
What was once the hallmark of Ubisoft’s massive worlds was now hurting the sense of novelty of the newer franchises. So, everybody seemed to agree that it was time to move on. The next batch of games dropped them entirely (Watch Dogs 2, Ghost Recon: Wildlands) or drastically reduced their importance, such as Assassin’s Creed Origins.
Then, something weird happened. Unlike QTEs and other over-used gaming clichés, towers didn’t fade away from the rest of the gaming landscape. On the contrary, the two most critically-acclaimed open worlds of 2017, Zelda Breath of the Wild & Horizon Zero Dawn, went against the general public sentiment and included the infamous towers.
It got me thinking: why are towers such a universal mechanic?
Even Disneyland has Towers
To begin our exploration of this topic, let’s focus purely on architecture: by definition, towers are taller buildings (or parts of a building, like in castles) that stand higher than surrounding areas.
In level design jargon, towers are ideal “landmarks”: they can be noticed from afar and thus, they help the player identify where they are and orientate themselves in the area.
Using tall buildings to guide people isn’t reserved for video games, of course. Disneyland theme parks, for instance, are notoriously built around landmarks. The most prominent is the central castle, visible from anywhere, while sub-areas (called “lands”) each have a taller major attraction (such as Space Moutain in Tomorrowland). This design is essential to help guide tourists throughout the park’s labyrinthic paths.
That being said, Disneyland never proposed what video games easily could: the possibility of climbing on the towers to get the best view from above. Seeing the entire city of Jerusalem was a technical prowess in the first Assassin’s Creed, and the team loved the design so much they included 91 towers in the game.
The appeal of gaming towers isn’t surprising given the popularity of real-life towers. Being able to view a city from above, trying to spot monuments & recognize places seem like a consistently enjoyable activities for those who don’t fear heights. Just think of the popularity of monuments that propose that experience (Eye of London, Eiffel Tower, etc.) or the thrill of watching through the plane window. Why would virtual worlds be different?
Exploration & Discovery Pacing
On the gameplay side, the overwhelming majority of towers serve one main purpose: to reveal the map around them and add icons to indicate interactive ingredients & activities. Some tried, but towers rarely let you pinpoint elements by yourself, which could turn tedious. Like many other game mechanics, towers simplify the essence of a concept to the extreme (“observation” here).
Game after game though, the idea of revealing icons became more important than having actual tall landmarks in the game world.
Why is this feature so important? As the size of open worlds increased faster than the amount of content, it became that much harder to come accross content on your own. I don’t blame developers for making bigger & emptier worlds, they had good reasons to do so (to accomodate for vehicles for instance, offer varied landscapes, etc.)
Still, mathematically, the density of interactive content diminished. Towers, even if they aren’t towers, are a convenient band-aid proxy to discovery: instead of searching for needles in a haystack, come to the designated place, and we’ll tell you where the good stuff is.
This routine is ideal for giving the game a good pacing and letting players absorb the game at their own rhythm, revealing side content in the regions they want whenever they want. It’s a simple and addictive game loop that compliments the ‘open buffet’ aspect of modern open-world design. You hate it when a map is bloated with 100 icons. But if you make players reveal 10 icons 10 times, it feels digestible—what a wonderful invention.
Risks of Exotic Gameplay
So, the mechanic can lose its initial identity (tall monuments) but it’s fine as long as it retains its primary purpose: the discovery. ‘Towers’ don’t have to be towers at all. Anything will do it, as long as the player engages in some exotic activity.
So, while climbing was part of the core fantasy of Assassin’s Creed, one would agree that the concept didn’t translate as well to the first-person shooting gameplay of Far Cry, but at the very least, climbing a tower was a welcome change of pace. Admittedly, the activity isn’t the most exciting or polished, but by virtue of being different from the combat/stealth loops of the game, it could feel refreshing. In these calmer moments, the player can breathe, enjoy the scenery and plan his next rambo moves.
That being said, the idea of using towers as pauses doesn’t always work. Whenever designing exotic gameplay, there is always a risk of creating gimmick mechanics which won’t play at all with the strengths of the core loop. In my opinion, one of the worst recent offenders would be Insomniac’s Spiderman with their wavelength mini-game; what a bizarre idea in a game whose movement is so exhilarating. Did it hurt the game’s reception, though? Not at all.
And so, one of the reasons developers still prefer including towers than not is probably because of the almost guaranteed value they provide for a (relatively) low effort. Think about it: you’ve got a ready-made template that is easy enough to replicate (perfect for a large team) and comes with a self-contained loop objective-challenge-reward. Dedicating more effort to it, for instance, making them iconic giant robot giraffes if you’d like, is a bonus: the simple form is good enough already.
It’s funny that no one found a more suitable name for the ‘towers, especially when the biggest criticism about the mechanic concerns games with no towers. But anyway, as many suspected, there was never a correlation between this feature and the experience’s quality; towers were more of a scapegoat for a world design philosophy showing its limits.
If anything, Breath of the Wild (and recently Elden Ring) have proven that making a world enjoyable to explore isn’t as much about inventing new mechanics as it is about creating a massive variety of content. These games are all about exploration though, and if they don’t become a new norm, it’s because most open worlds have a different focus (action loops, completionism, story, etc.) and for them, a good old tower suffices for the job.
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I always feel like the variety of content of an open world is a surface level solution to make it appealing, I think there's something deeper in the design of the world that makes or breaks it, but maybe it's just based on my own opinions & biased.
Shadow of the Colossus is the most iconic example of a basically empty open world that still hits right, but it's maybe less popular on the standard AAA open world RPG scene that most players expect?