Insomniac Games crafts compelling open world games, including both Sunset Overdrive and the newly released Marvel’s Spider-Man; and they accomplish this through movement, level design, and enemy AI.
Sunset Overdrive, the third-person locomotive shooter developed by Insomniac Games, might be the most underrated game from the Xbox One generation of games. The game takes place in an exaggerated punk rock metropolis wherein energy drink chugging mutants, called OD, have set the apocalypse in motion. Players utilize an armory of wacky, out-of-the-box weapons – the kind you’d expect from an Insomniac Game – alongside a free flowing move-set that enables grinds, jumps, wall-runs, and other parkour abilities. While I too was one of many who initially didn’t give the game a fair shake, I recently found myself craving an experience similar to Jet Set Radio or the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series, and it seemed like a great time to jump back into Sunset City.]
While it’s easy to praise the game for its creative weaponry, deep customization, and irreverent twist on the apocalypse, I don’t think those things are what truly makes Sunset Overdrive great. Those facets help the game to stand apart in a crowded market, but I’ve spent hours just parkouring around Sunset City, largely ignoring them. In my eyes, Insomniac Games crafts compelling open world games, including both Sunset Overdrive and the newly released Marvel’s Spider-Man; and they accomplish this through movement, level design, and enemy AI.
Insomniac knows exactly where the fun is. Similarly to games like Tony Hawk or Jet Set Radio, Sunset Overdrive is focused on keeping the player in a state of motion, whether they’re grinding on power-lines while blowing up enemies below or jumping from rooftop to rooftop as they freely explore Sunset City of their own accord. The OD, which are the main antagonists of the game, are designed to add pressure by swarming the player if they try to fight from the ground. Couple this with the player’s slow state while walking or running, and you’ll understand how they’re incentived to utilize the game’s parkour mechanics.
Furthermore, I think one of the reasons why movement in these games is so fun is in part due to the fact that the player’s movement abilities can progress and evolve as they delve further into each game, unlocking new modifications or expansions to their base move-sets as they go. In Sunset Overdrive, the air dash is eventually unlocked which can be utilized to chain together parkour abilities to uncover new paths and routes. Spider-Man on the other hand allows players to modify and expand the base move-set through the in-game skill tree, which unlocks new movement abilities like aerial tricks, recovery rolls, and point launch boosts which launch players into the air upon contact with a surface.
While Insomniac’s open worlds have plenty of activities to grab players’ attention, nothing is as fun as impulsively moving through each environment, exploring new areas, and unlocking new abilities to make the player’s base movement even more involved. It’s more about the journey than the destination.
It should be mentioned that neither game would be as fun without the playgrounds that are Sunset City and New York City. In Sunset, power lines, over-sized umbrellas, cars, street signs, air conditioners, and many more objects all serve as opportunities for players to execute joyful strings of locomotion. New York is filled with skyscrapers to swing between, buildings to scale, and incredible vistas to appreciate while web-slinging about the concrete jungle.
In an article on Gamasutra, Luke McMillan, PhD, Educator, and Ubisoft consultant states: “Greater line of sight also allows the possibilities for a larger amount of tactical options, as the player will have more time to plan and also a greater situational awareness. On the other hand, reducing the player’s line of sight will result in disadvantaging the player, as they will have less situational awareness and less time to act to certain problems.” Although Dr McMillan is predominantly addressing level design in first person shooters, I think his commentary regarding line of sight directly correlate with open world games like Spider-Man and Sunset Overdrive.
In both games, landmarks help to orient the player in the space and sight lines are typically long and wide, giving players enough time to select the optimum movement path so that they can continuously parkour, sling, and move around without interruption. Sunset Overdrive particularly stands out in this regard, as its interactable surfaces consistently stand out thanks to their color and shape, whereas Marvel’s Spider-Man can occasionally feel claustrophobic – but I guess that’s New York for you.
In light of Sunset Overdrive’s highly mobile protagonist, Insomniac had to get creative when it came to enemy AI. How does a team create a meaningful pseudo-skateboarding experience in a world filled with hordes of enemies, and make both movement and combat encounters engaging? I mean, combat wouldn’t be very fun if enemies couldn’t ever hurt you, and likewise movement wouldn’t be satisfying if the player was constantly hindered by opponents. In this GDC talk from Adam Noonchester, an AI Programmer on Sunset Overdrive, we learn how Insomniac Games managed to strike a balance through the use of Nav Clues.
Nav Clues are two annotated positions that are connected to a specific animation or action; and Insomniac Games used this tool to enable the monsters in Sunset Overdrive to traverse all sorts of different objects. While they can’t grind around on rails like the player can, they’re still able to keep up enough to make the overall experience challenging and involved.
From the outside looking in, Spider-Man seemingly takes a more simple approach, mixing together both close quarters and ranged enemies into every fight. The player not only has to dodge the physical attacks from adjacent opponents, but has to do so while taking fire from distant sharpshooters which are usually positioned on a neighboring rooftop or somewhere down the street. It poses a neat challenge that as a player is fun to solve.
So those are the specific design choices I think Insomniac has utilized in their games to make them fun and compelling. The movement systems, level design, and enemy AI all work together to make great open world game experiences.