The blacksmith’s name is Wagner. This isn’t information I had to research, nor is it useful to know, it’s just a fact about the city of Mondstadt in Genshin Impact. At a very basic level, I know there’s a blacksmith because I need to use a blacksmith to play the game. Everyone in Mondstadt knows Wagner, though—the knights and guards go to him for their weapons, the food stall owners run into him at work, random residents see him hammering away near the gates—and as a result they bring him up in conversation now and then, or ask me to go speak to him while I’m doing a side quest about ghosts or potato supplies. Rather than being just a faceless NPC, he exists; Wagner is a three-dimensional piece of the Genshin universe.
Everything in the game follows this philosophy, a desire to make sure each person, object, concept, god or piece of fruit has a place to be and a role to play in the ecosystem (literally or figuratively). Often when players enter an open world playground they’re presented with a thousand disparate pieces, shiny characters and places that serve their purpose and then step politely back to make room for the next piece. Go here and find this item, speak to the man at the corner to get a quest about the old shack on the hill, climb a tower and search for the next man on the next corner. In the world of Teyvat (where Genshin Impact is set), all things are part of the greater clockwork of the universe, because that’s how it works in the real world, more or less. Genshin achieves this not with one silver bullet solution, but by using myriad mechanics and writing tricks to draw the player in and constantly feed them more information about—and empathy for—the world.
Through ordinary gameplay and dialogue, Genshin is constantly reassuring you about the continuity of the world, and making sure to organically merge the two sides. Upgrade materials include all sorts of flowers, rocks, plants and seeds from around the map, but these aren’t just items to be collected; characters frequently reference the fictional fruits, flora and fauna in quest dialogue and friendly exchanges, reinforcing the idea that this is a real world you’re living in, not just a sandbox for video game adventures. When characters talk about their favourite food, or discuss going out to eat as part of their interactions and quests, the food they mention always exists as a recipe the player can obtain and make themselves. There’s a constant flow of practical and narrative information, back and forth, keeping you from losing that belief in the reality around you.
It brings to mind the potions and mutagens of The Witcher’s universe, where Geralt calmly discusses the ingredients he will need to do his job, but now writ large over an entire open world ecosystem. You can easily imagine NPCs being able to direct you to the crafting ingredients you need if you could simply ask, without the need for layers of abstraction.
Let’s not forget about Wagner, though, or any of the random denizens of Teyvat. Characters are where Genshin Impact really shines, and, while they might not be blisteringly clever portrayals fit to put the stars of classic literature to shame, they manage to feel more like real people than most other games in the same space. Again, this comes down to respecting the ecosystem of the universe. Wagner forges weapons for many folks around town, including Noelle, one of the potential playable characters and a maid-slash-assistant to the Knights of Favonius. His weapons keep getting broken by Noelle and he eventually works out it’s because she’s ridiculously strong and basically shattering them with her raw anime girl power. Every quest you pick up, or piece of dialogue you scroll through, is full of these kinds of connections. One quest for Venti, the bard, involves him inventing a pair of goggles that let you see people’s imaginary friends, which leads you on a merry adventure around different NPCs, but makes one stop at the local pub to watch two of the male characters—Diluc and Kaeya—have one of their many sassy exchanges. This adds nothing to the quest itself beyond the satisfaction of knowing who these people are and enjoying the interaction. The value is in the context.
Genshin Impact fosters these connections to its characters by treating the players’ relationships with them as an ever-evolving, dynamic thing. Unlike in many open world titles, where NPCs primarily exist in their piece of the story, as part of their quests and narrative moments, before fading out of view, Genshin characters are always being constructed from several perspectives at once. When you unlock a character as playable and put them in your squad, they begin accumulating Friendship Rank, which is essentially a measurement of how much you’ve used them while playing. Higher ranks mean accessing more voice lines and backstory details, so you gradually get to know that person better, and they slowly become more well-rounded characters, even without any emotional dialogue scenes or dramatic moments. This slow-burn method of unveiling the details of a character feels truer to the way an open world game flows than simply dumping information into cutscenes; building a relationship with someone over the course of a journey feels more natural in a game than passively watching them in cutscenes.
As of the 1.4 update, Genshin added Hangout Events, which are essentially small outings you can go on with specific characters that have dialogue choices and multiple endings. Hangouts turn the game briefly into a dating sim of sorts, and they offer another way to get to know characters outside of a traditional quest. Also, crucially, while they do have multiple endings, the endings aren’t exactly mutually exclusive; rather than providing a series of what-if scenarios where you decide what might have happened if you said the right or wrong thing, the hangout stories play more like a set of possibilities that are all equally true. That means replaying them is less like creating an alternate universe and more like just learning more about your date. When singing deaconess Barbara meets you in the forest, it is equally plausible that you helped her chase off an over-eager fan and that you shared a quiet moment learning her recipe for alcoholic chilli. Both of these adventures happened. It’s another excellent example of how Genshin Impact takes advantage of the specific advantages of telling a story inside a game, where continuity is optional and time has no real power.
Now you can even invite your companions (unlocked playable characters) into your teapot for a nice, relaxing afternoon. At a certain point in Genshin, in case you’re confused, the main character is given a magic teapot, inside which exists a pocket dimension that the player can decorate like a tiny private estate. The 1.6 update added the ability to invite a couple of your friend in, and then wander over to speak to them about how they feel, or what they think of the magic teapot universe you filled with fruit stands.
How much they have to say while they’re visiting is tied to their Friendship Rank, and you can get into some reasonably meaty conversations with your favourite people. It speaks to the overall feeling you get while in the world of Genshin that this is a living space with characters you can spend time with, learn from, build relationships with. These aren’t simply cardboard cut-outs here to dispense sob stories and adventure hooks, they’re part of the same cities and stories and universe as you, they have agency and dreams, they have more to show you if you just take the time to pay attention.
That’s what sets it apart, really, that respect for the passage of time and how it interacts with a gaming experience. An open world game in particular is designed to be a leisurely experience full of discovery and immersion, but many games in the genre treat the concept as more of an excuse to checklist a bunch of cool experiences that have very little to do with one another. Genshin is a set of strings on a board, all connected to one another, and when you pull on one of the strings it shakes everything else just a little bit. The end result is a very satisfying experience, because it rewards players who invest in the world with more of the world they already love. Quests get easier because you understand the environment, stories become more engaging because you’re motivated to be engaged, not just for this piece of narrative but for all those in the future. Genshin Impact is a true open world, rather than a sandbox. And Wagner is going to keep being rude to me for a long time yet; that’s honestly so like him.