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I am working on a natural, fairly small, grassland like environment/level. I have a few natural, minimally intrusive paths (something like this) throughout it to help guide players to the main weenies but other than this the environment is kept very open so that a player has good visibility from where ever they are.

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(not the actual level just an example for a bit of context)

I would like to add some hidden/secret areas which the player cannot simply walk to easily, and needs to take a specific path to get to, and of coarse work out what that specific paths is. This doesn't mean that they cannot see the secret/hidden area, it is more so that they need to work out how to get there. Also the barriers/obstacles may not necessarily have to be hard barriers, they could simply just make traversal so tedious that it makes more sense to go the intended way.

I have read through the answers in this question, however the majority don't apply as in this case the environment is not a giant open world, and secondly since we are talking about inner barriers/obstacles I cannot simply turn part of the environment into islands, or strategically place mountains or walls of trees around, since as mentioned this would hinder visibility (glass mountains and trees need not apply please).

Some of the ideas I have come up with so far:

  1. Using bodies of water where the player either cannot enter, or traversing through is so slow that any player would usually give up and go around
  • The main issue with this is that in a small environment this would be limited to ponds and streams which a player may be able to jump over and bypass completely
  1. An annoying NPC positioned at any shortcuts, which when getting close starts automatically talking to you and explains why you cannot go that way
  • The issue being that I can't think of a way to not make this annoying and contrived, clearly every player is going to hate this NPC
  1. A natural enemy such as an animal protecting it's nest/den positioned at any shortcuts and when getting close it attacks/chases the player away
  • The only risk I can foresee here is having too many nests/dens everywhere, this would most likely need to be combined with one of the above or another alternative to not break immersion

I am happy to accept more general answers to be more useful to other users but I think the use case is pretty common enough as is.

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This reminded me of Hidden and Dangerous 2 mission 1 where player can go through swamp, but only with guide knowing the route otherwise you die.

As I understand it, this is not exactly your point 1 where you are blocking access with water and target is behind water, instead you are blocking access with swamp and your target is inside swamp. Swamp could still be small, but you simply cannot go around it, since you want to go inside. You could maybe jump between different paths inside swamp if you know where to jump in the first place.

Instead of swamp and instant death you can make variations to achieve what fits best:

  • swamp where you really slow down in high mud, go shoeless or sacrifice shoe or two in the process
  • minefield, deadly
  • old barbed wire or similar plant everywhere, hurts you in the process

This could also provide for a minigame where you are testing where to go next - with metal detector, large stick, ...

As for the hiding, tall grass and small bushes should not block much vision but can be effective in hiding a treasure (as used in Fortnite for example to hide chests).

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    \$\begingroup\$ The same could be achieved with a desert and quicksand (there could still be a big sand pit in a gras land) \$\endgroup\$
    – Zibelas
    Commented Apr 29 at 9:28
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Cliffs.

You can place an object on top off a cliff to make it visible to the player, but not make it immediately obvious how to get there. Scaling a cliff might be a jumping/climbing challenge or a rather long and narrow windig path with a hard to find beginning. Or the path from the bottom to the top might lead through a cave.

You can also use ravines as dividers between sections of the game world as an alternative to rivers.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Ravines (or similar hole in the ground solutions) would definitely work, and there's a bit of flexibility with the size and shape. I feel though it wouldn't be as flexible as water since having too many or too often would make the land look very earthquake prone. Cliffs/mountains wouldn't work unfortunately as they impede vision. \$\endgroup\$
    – FrontEnd
    Commented May 16 at 10:30

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