Indie Game Lessons in a Flash: Open Worlds

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Posted March 17, 2011 - By Rob Manuel

Indie Game Lessons in a Flash: Open Worlds

Open world games have been around since the days of pen, paper, and a couple of dice. It’s a way to truly create and immerse a player into a world through exploration and a feeling of freedom. Of course, freedom doesn’t come without a price. By giving the player the ability to do whatever they want, you’re also giving them the ability to completely ignore any story elements or directions you’ve set within the world. How then do you get players to follow your quests or move in any sort of direction? With good old-fashioned trickery, of course. 

For me, it started after I got lost in the woods. It's the kind of place where the ten feet behind you looks exactly like the ten feet in front of you. Alone, young, and scared; I found a strange opening inside one of the trees. A man was waiting for me there with a sword and a simple message: I needed to find her. A girl who I've never seen but her survival rested in my hands. As the doors parted and sunlight blinded my eyes, I found myself once again lost but now with a purpose. For me that was my first open world game, The Legend of Zelda. With only 8-bits and a handful of colors, Miyamoto created a world both terrifying and wondrous.

Keep reading to enter the exciting, and scary, realm of open worlds that exist indie games.

If you are even the slightest bit curious how games work, indie games let you take on a whole game in a single sitting. Instead of having to ride through all of Mexico again or make your way through the galaxy, all you need is a little time and an open mind. Think of it as being able to get away with studying the Cliff Notes instead of reading War and Peace. We’re going to look at three open world flash games that you can play right now for free. So go get an old shirt and hand me the scalpel. This is going to be bloody.

Indie Game Lessons in a Flash: Open Worlds

Where We Remain

Whenever I start up this game, I like to think that a plane just crash-landed off the coast.  The whole island has that LOST vibe coming off of it – mostly because so many strange things are happening. You’ll run into ghostly versions of yourself, tornados, and lots of flowers. As the protagonist, you must find your love somewhere on the island by collecting items to evade enemies. It sounds like your typical Zelda-fare but the twist comes from not knowing about the meaning of certain items. It’s that significance that creates the story. Understanding the purpose of one object or how it saves your ass puts it into a much larger perspective for the story.  

Death is an excellent way to motivate players. Where We Remain tempers exploration with survival. If you want to see every part of the island, the player needs to start explosing the mechanics of the game. Though there are only a couple of impassable areas, hazards and the fear of death provide enough motivation to keep players on track. And since the elements of the story tie into the mechanics, you have essentially created a way to deliver that story directly to the player. All it took was putting a gun to their head – well, a virtual one.

Second Course: Small Worlds – explore an entire alien planet one pixel at a time.

Indie Game Lessons in a Flash: Open Worlds


There are no small adventures; only small adventurers. As a dwarf just trying to get back home, you’ll need to explore the world around you to find a way to return. In the traditional Metroidvania style, new items grant you access to new areas. A scuba tank lets you breathe underwater. A snug pair of spiked boots lets you grip onto surfaces without slipping off. Your other main mechanic comes in the form of a stamina meter. Gripping, running, and jumping from ledge to ledge slowly depletes the meter. By grabbing fruit growing throughout the world, you can lengthen the time you can hang or move around before sending your little body crashing to the Earth.

Endeavor moves the player by putting points of interests in hard to reach places. There’s really nothing that ticks off a gamer more than placing something just out of reach. Make it too easy to reach an item and it loses all value. Place the item off-screen and the player loses the motivation to move. It’s that delicate balance of keeping the item visible yet inaccessible that creates motivation. Even when the item is out of sight, other characters in the world mention them and where they can be found. Again, the game directs the player through challenges instead of resorting to simply telling them what to do. 

Second Course: Elephant Quest – an elephant never forgets … vengeance!

Indie Game Lessons in a Flash: Open Worlds

Level Up!

There seem to be more ways now than ever to meet people – online dating, speed dating, Chatroulette, etc.. In this game, you’re a girl who meets a guy who’s fallen out of the sky. I wouldn’t say that it’s raining men, but it’s certainly a strong drizzle. Of course, such luck doesn’t come without its drawbacks and you must set forth to help find all the pieces of this hapless boy’s spaceship before the end of the day. Once your day is done, it’s off to bed to face your nightmare. Like Endeavor, we see the same system in place where you build your abilities to access new areas. The difference here is that you lose all your abilities when you go to sleep. Everything from jumping to dodging to even the idle animation can level with use and are wiped as soon as you turn in for the night. Only items you buy during each of the days remain.

Curiosity killed the cat but it can also drive players along the routes you want them to take. The mechanic of starting back at square one each day allows the player to make moderate progression by using the same space with each additional try. Since you know how long it will take the player to move from one spot to the next, starting areas branch out to funnel players onto different paths. It’s not until the player has gone through all the paths that they finally see how set each one is as they loop in on themselves or with other branches. Of course by the time they figure that all out, it will be the end of another day. 

Second Course: Zombies Took My Daughter– This one is rather self-explanatory.

Are you playing any open world indie games? What are they? And of course if you haven't, try these out.

Indie Game Lessons in a Flash: Open Worlds


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