Verisimilitude, while hard to spell (and say), is nonetheless one of my favorite words in game design.
Simply put, it is the appearance of being real.
In game maps, verisimilitude is the feeling (or, rather, the illusion) of a world feeling like a real place.
While one can drill down into a ton of minutiae to create this realness, much verisimilitude is gained from how the world map operates. Let’s take a look at some basic ways in which to lay out a game world, and see how “real” it feels to the player.
Method 1: Linear Level Progression (Call of Duty campaigns, Star Wars Battlefront 2, most older games, etc.)
The least amount of verisimilitude. Not necessarily because of the linear progression through levels, but because you visit an area, complete it, and do not go back. It’s hard to get that true sense of space when you simply leave behind each environment. Of course, you gain other things, but we’re not talking about those things in this post!
Method 2: Hub and Spokes, Warping Between Levels (Many RPGs such as Xenoblade Chronicles, Hyperdimension Neptunia, etc.)
We can move freely in between levels, and the levels themselves are large enough, in most cases, to contain multiple missions or stories. You can usually go back any time you’d like. This is also used in online games like Warframe to great effect, allowing a non-linear but easy to update world structure. So we gain some verisimilitude here, but lose a little because we can’t physically traverse through the game from area to area. Still, this is an effective approach.
Method 3: Small(er) and Fully Open (Just Cause series, Yakuza series, Dragon’s Dogma)
You can move freely through the areas of the game, or at least significant portions of them (some games in this category, like Yakuza, have several cities that one must load into, but these cities are larger than the “spokes” in the Hub and Spokes world map structure). In theory, these types of games should have more realism than the previous examples, however, the world has to be properly prepared. If there isn’t enough thoughtful world design (such as event density, detail, interaction, and so forth), these games can feel less real than a well executed hub and spokes model. Maybe my favorite example of a well done small but open world is Dragon’s Dogma, which is seems to have just the right amount of towns, dungeons, caves, castles, and special events. An example of a game that is well done (and a personal favorite of mine), yet doesn’t achieve the same feelings of verisimilitude is Batman: Arkham City. Mainly because the city does not feel truly alive, like a living, breathing Arkham City (this is, however, part of that game’s plot).
Method 4: Big Open Worlds! (Grand Theft Auto Series, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Metal Gear Solid V, many other AAA titles)
The same as method 3, in that large open worlds do not achieve verisimilitude if they aren’t filled with enough interest and design. For example, Metal Gear Solid V’s open world is masterfully paced. At even intervals, Konami’s designers place outposts, towns, and fortresses. Too many enemy forts, and the game wouldn’t allow the appropriate amount of free exploration and rest (remember: this is a stealth based game, so rest is important). Too little, and there isn’t enough there to make the world feel real.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has become mildly controversial for the size of its open world versus its things to do. True, it eschews the typical design conventions of classical open world design: it doesn’t actually include very many towns, and there are few traditional enemy strongholds. However, in my view, the open world succeeds and presents tremendous verisimilitude. The world includes fascinating ruins, thoughtful detail throughout, and a supporting game design that (especially the climbing mechanic) creates a constant low level thrum of engagement. I do wish they’d include a few more enemy strongholds however!
I’m personally fascinated with the small, open designs, since these are within the scope of smaller studios or even indies. Perhaps an individual indie developer, using the kits available on the market, could create a compelling small open world!