World building with intention
The living world in these settlements is a complex character of its own. Every detail establishes credibility, creating an authentic environment through visual storytelling. For example, the Nora live in relative solitude in the isolated valley of the Sacred Land, making it difficult for them to communicate with the outside world. As a result, they are less technologically advanced than other tribes, and more wary of outsiders. Their settlements are made of wood and rope, featuring minimal furnishings other than what is needed for daily life. Food and resources are obtained through hunting and gathering, so there’ll be pelts, baskets, or sheaths full of arrows lying around. All the objects and people within such a settlement feel like they belong, and more so: like they’ve always been there.
With hours and hours of exploration in the Forbidden West, how do you create a lush and thriving world filled with activities, but without overwhelming people, or detracting from the overarching story? Espen Sogn, Lead Living World Designer at Guerrilla, explains how his team is central to this very question.
Clarity on those intentions comes from collaboration with the narrative team. “At the start of a project, we put a lot of thought into every tribe we’re going to encounter,” says Annie Kitain, Senior Writer at Guerrilla. “What their conflicts are, how they fit into the story, and how they interact with the world around them. Take the Tenakth, for instance. Many of their beliefs are influenced by the ancient ruins of the Forbidden West, and unlike other tribes, they’re comprised of three distinct clans. Their shared history, convictions, disputes – all of that is important to developing the characters that Aloy will meet on her journey.”
“When you walk through the Forbidden West, ii everything should feel like it belongs there. The Living World team at Guerrilla works on aspects of the game that make the world feel authentic and alive: the tribes, the settlements, and the people within them. There’s an intention behind everything we place within the world.”
Our main challenge is translating this narrative framework into visuals that are integral to the world itself,” says Espen. “For example, the Tenakth are known to be competitive and combat-focused, but so are other tribes. So how do we distinguish them, and how do we communicate that visually?”
‘It then becomes all about the details, the animations, and the behaviors. Within their settlements, you’ll see the Tenakth working out, readying themselves for battle. They’re often younger because they need to be capable warriors. Their base is an ancient ruin, from which they’ve picked up certain Old World gestures that they may not fully understand – like using a military salute to say hello.’
‘Ultimately, our goal is to make sure NPCs feel connected to where they live, and we work closely with other internal teams, such as Narrative, Quest, and Environment, to make sure that every location feels authentic.”
“The Living World team does a fantastic job, and it’s so great to see it all come together,” says Annie. “Each tribe starts as a bunch of ideas, then is translated into these amazing settlements. Like the Utaru, who were imagined as an agrarian society that’s deeply connected to the land around them. Once the tribe is in-game and the Living World team has done their magic, you’re walking around the Utaru’s fields, interacting with them, and you think, ‘whoa, they nailed it.’ Now this tribe feels real.” Authenticity through behavior
With a world as vast as the Forbidden West, it was important for the team to maintain the level of authenticity that was achieved in Horizon Zero Dawn. “Every non-combat NPC in Horizon Forbidden West is part of a crowd system,” says Espen. “Within that system, you can create rules such as reactions, walking paths, and other animations. We then also have the attitude system, which determines a personality. This means we can create unique people who behave like individuals within the world.’ We are constantly adding layers of authenticity within the world through animations and behaviors. When members of a tribe are in their settlement, their safe spaces, they can act like themselves. The Oseram are a social and historically patriarchal tribe, so their animations are more about shoulder punches and high fives. The Utaru, on the other hand, are laid back, so they will often sit down together and be a bit more touchy-feely. As the player moves around, these are potential subconscious hints that will help you visualize where in the world you are.’
‘All of this happens within the game’s narrative framework. You should be able to identify from a distance which tribe you’re looking at. The way that different tribes hold or transport water: the strong Tenakth will carry it on their shoulders; the peaceful Utaru will hug it closely; and the crafty Oseram will carry it with their hands.”