I know I'm not working on GTA. In fact, two big things bug me about that game: the first is how it gets false props for being one of the first open ended games evar(?!); but the second is how its sleazy nihilism seems so lauded. Debates on violence and whatever aside, I consider the latter a corrosive example of a "negative game".
But where does that leave a supposedly positive game? Is it supposed to be filled with hearts and flowers and Sims you seek to drown in a pool? If your game has violence or conflict, is it automatically negative?
I've twisted myself into knots over this and the best I can think of is that it is the lack of consequences that make a game positive or negative. If you genocide some helpless race in a 4X game and the galaxy responds with kudos, that's not positive. (Although, tough luck explaining that nuance to Senator Clintion).
The title of this post highlights my hopes for making planets and other locations much more interesting.
I break the problem into two categories: How to make uninhabitated locations interesting, and how to make settled areas feel alive.
Uninhabited Worlds: An Awful Waste of Space
Maybe its the case that a realistic cosmos is filled with dead, lifeless worlds. But as a character said in the movie Contact, "It would be an awful waste of space."
So let's instead imagine a galaxy whose worlds have been left with the muddy bootprint of thousands of intelligent species, most of which have gone extinct in the 13 billion-odd years of the universe's existence. Some have flourished into galactic empires, others have never left their cradle.
I'll use this scenario to reason three types of uninhabited (by intelligence, anyway) worlds: There are what I'll call the "Utility Worlds," the "Wildlife Worlds" and the "Ruined Worlds."
Utility Worlds have something that's continuously useful, such as minerals or control stations that can boost warp travel. They often form some sort of strategic lynchpin, either at the company, faction or empire level. Storywise, they're uninhabited because they've been lost in fallen empires, or by periodic attacks by Siegers, or when the galactic wormhole network has from time to time reconfigured itself.
Wildlife Worlds are filled with plants and animals. This will be a mix and match affair of life that's been cross-polinated through the wormholes that connect the many worlds. Unfortunately for hapless colonists (and fortunately for the player), many of these creatures will be the most aggressive and deadly mixes that have managed to survive. Although the shapes of creatures can only have so many forms, I'd like to create a huge variance on the stats and abilities.
Ruined Worlds are those with riches and traps, some of them exceptionally powerful and dangerous. Ships might, for instance, find the equivalent worlds they can land on but not leave until solving a puzzle, or ones where automatic defenses left over from a million year old war shoot them out of the sky. From these worlds, technology can be mined and brought back to help one's own empire/faction.
(btw, I'm calling these "worlds" but technically they can be mixed and matched. You could, for instance, have a Ruined Island on a Wildlife World.)
Inhabited worlds take on a totally different flavor. In these locations, I'd like people to be more important than machines. Ultimately, this boils down to your weath and access to equipment or ships (or "stargate" equivalents) being linked to helping and impressing the right people.
I think the key to doing this is using stats and status effects, and setting up NPCs to be somewhat like puzzles. I also think its critical that NPCs actually move around in the universe, particularly so that they can either find and confront the player or interfere with the areas that the player has touched.
I've got a bunch more to say on this, but this post is already a bit too long, so I'll reserve the rest for the next time...