While Myst is not an online game, the above stands true with MMOs, where the seemingly open environments aren't actually that at all, they are enclosed spaces. Georgia Leigh McGregor expands on this idea in her paper, Architecture, Space and Gameplay in World of Warcraft and Battle for Middle Earth 2:
"Landforms are barriers to the player's forces and their enemies alike, influencing the fight but never actively taking part. A hill or river operates as a wall, creating a no go zone and dividing the map into distinct and sharply separated areas of access and denial."
These areas of access and denial are often sharply pronounced as cliffs, mountains or oceans. Things that we view in the real world as barriers to our own ability to travel from one place to the next, will allow players in games to easily identify with the same ideas, but truthfully they could just as easily end the zone with an endless black.
In World of Warcraft, they attempt to simulate a personal sense of real environments, in such that the zones don't have a load screen to separate them line in most online games, but they flow freely from one into the next (with a few minor exceptions of course). But, there are often mountains, cliffs or oceans surrounding the area, there are only a few entrances into the zone on foot, and perhaps one or two more using flight paths, and in rare occasions a boat or zeppelin to allow you to cross to a different continent. This limits the sense of the environment, back to the idea of a large room, and the creatures themselves are bound to the room, although they can leave the room when a player does, after a certain pre-set distance from their regular haunt, they will simply give up chasing the character and turn around.
In games like Final Fantasy XI, the zones are separated with load screens, and only have two or three specific entrances and exits, and the creatures within can never leave the room. It is because of the creatures inability to leave the room that players who are facing a challenge to great will often run to the 'zone' (note, the different usage of the term here) to 'zone-out' or leave the area, which will reset the creature back to it's normal path. This is a much more contained room than the open ones in games like WoW, where nothing can leave the room without the games express permission.
Players can interact with their environments, but only minimally, often only able to partake in a specific set of activities. You can attack creatures, or perform a number of set tasks, like fishing, harvesting raw materials, or in some games even dig up treasure. Beyond that, interacting with the environment is simply done by moving through it, you can't build a house, or burn down a tree, or write your name in the snow. Though there are cases where players are able to change the environment, such as in the MMO Second Life, where players are able to build houses, monuments, plant flowers or do any number of activities. I believe this is the way that games will have to move in the future if they are to survive.
By allowing the players to interact with their surroundings you are changing the nature of the environment. By allowing a player to build a tower so tall he can see far off into the distance, you have removed one of the walls around the room. By allowing a player to blast a hole in the mountains, you have changed the nature of the environment itself, as it is no longer a room, and has actually become landscape, that can be molded and changed as the players see fit.
With a few exceptions, most players in any online game spend more time out in the environment than they do in the cities. Oftentimes however, they are the most constraining parts of a game, where from the moment you enter a zone you are simply following a set of instructions until you have outgrown the area. Like the starting areas in most games, where your hand is held, ushering you from one task to the next, until you are strong enough to go through the guarded exit into the next zone. For the most part we simply repeat this process over and over.
It is because of this I think players should be able to change their environments, because it adds a certain dynamic to the environments, an unexpected twist. Say someone built a wall across an entire zone, save for a gate and decides to exact a toll upon anyone who wants to cross the zone to complete their quests. The players could either choose to pay the toll, or band together and tear down the wall. At that point the wall builder could give up, or raise an army of his own, and build a keep inside the wall, and add towers and parapets. Then you are not only dealing with the environment as it is presented to us but the environment as the fellow players would like it to be. Certainly this is not a fool-proof system and there would have to be a certain set of checks and balances, and policing to have the system function properly, but I think it would certainly alter the game play.
No longer would we simply be marching across a chess board, it would actually become an environment.
Next week, in the final part to this series I will be taking a look at Instanced Zones, Dungeons and Raid environments, and wrapping up everything I have gone over for the past four weeks.