A love letter to open worlds

Video games have the unique ability compared to any media to truly put us in other worlds. While books and movies can do more than adequate jobs at showing us a world wholly alien to our own, they are unable to match the immersion granted by video games to players through their agency and influence in the happenings of the game itself.

And few games give players the freedom and depth to their worlds as open-world games. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you already have an idea of your favorite open-world game going through your head right now. Whether it be Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption 2, or Breath of the Wild, you more likely than not have plenty of memories of exploring and familiarizing yourself with a captivating world. As you play through it you become familiar with its sights and scenes, its rules and restrictions, and perhaps most importantly, the people and forces at play in it.

It is this familiarity that quite often makes open worlds so enticing. Spending dozens of hours in Lordran until you have explored and know every nook and cranny like the back of your hand is an entirely rewarding experience in its own right. Discovering the cultures and politics of the land of Skyrim allows our minds to run wild with potential stories and conflicts that are waiting to unfold. Immersing ourselves in Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige rewards us players with introducing us to a colorful cast of characters, each with their own fleshed out agendas, motivations, and arcs for us to familiarize ourselves with and explore.

There are dozens of great examples of open worlds out there for us to look at and explore, but before getting into what types of open worlds are out there, as well as why they work as well as they do, we first need to look at what makes an open world work. 

What Makes Open Worlds Work

Like many aspects of video games, there is a lot that can go wrong with open worlds. There are plenty of examples out there, but as this piece is intended to be a celebration of open worlds rather than a critique of failures throughout the industry, I say this only to emphasize the praise that games deserve when they pull off the feat of an open world well. So just what do open worlds need to accomplish to be successful?

Firstly, open worlds need to lend themselves well to a player’s immersion. One of the largest charms of an open world is the player’s ability to explore the world at their own whim and exist within the setting. If the world of the game constantly takes the player out of their immersion, whether it be through jankiness, glitches, a lack of interest, etc., it will only do the game disservice. Freely exploring an entire world should empower the player to invest themselves into the game further and if an open world does the opposite it is difficult for it to offer much else to experience.

This is typically supported by the second aspect of what makes open worlds work: interaction. Exploring an open world that does little to influence the gameplay or experience of actually playing the game quickly becomes boring. This is especially important when it comes to how interacting with the world integrates with the core gameplay loop being offered. Being able to trade with merchants at Whiterun or clearing out bandit camps in Velen would feel more like chores than anything else if it did not have a tangible influence on the player’s progression. Of course, this is typically accomplished through RPG mechanics and skill trees, but that is a subject for a different love letter. 

The success of an open world also hinges on the third and final aspect we’ll look at here: the world’s character and rules. These two aspects of an open world may be the most critical. A world without a solid identity or internally consistent rules for a player to learn and flourish within is one that will seem unpolished or underbaked. A world’s character is what distinguishes the high fantasy hopeful world of Middle-Earth from the low fantasy destitute world of Westeros. Without consistent and engaging character, the world will fail to retain players to invest the hours necessary to play through the game.

These three aspects all come together through the work of talented artists and engineers to bring together the game’s art direction, assets, writing, and nearly every other part of the game to coalesce. But if executed well, the open world quickly pays dividends. I now want to heap some praise on not only four different approaches to successful open worlds, but an example or two for each one that shows just how well they can work out.

The Livable World

For any gamers looking to submerge themselves in a new world as much as possible, these games are great options. With a focus on immersion and interaction, games like Skyrim and the Fable series offer a level of immersion rivaled only by real life. Enabling players to build homesteads, have an impact on the local economies, settle down with a wife, and just about anything else that one could wish for.

This level of immersion is also supported by world building that feels as natural and real as any other. Supported by a dense and intricate lore, these games highlight the day-to-day happenings of NPCs going through various schedules and interactions every single in-game day. Allowing the player to hang up their adventuring gear and take mundane jobs, talk with anybody they come across, or simply immerse themselves in the world gives these games credibility and a real feeling that would make many other game worlds jealous.

However, area outside of the bustling cities is just as important. These games also require a well rendered world that functions within the restrictions of its own rules. Staying within the regulations that the worlds set for themselves helps ensure that a swamp forest filled with werewolves doesn’t feel unbelievable in the middle of Albion or that countless dungeons crawling with armies of draugr and still lit candles doesn’t feel absurd in the land of Skyrim.

These worlds incentivize exploration as much as they do side quests, and the world needs to be able to support that with enough engaging landmarks and interesting landscapes to keep players coming back for more.

The Curated Experience

Perhaps the most meticulous and time consuming approach to an open world, the curated experience can provide a realistic feel unlike any other in gaming. Few games have the resources to even attempt such an open world, but games such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Grand Theft Auto V are prime examples of its successes.

This approach to an open world focuses on delivering carefully pieced together and heavily edited experiences for the player to interact with. Every mission or quest has a well written plot arc that is satisfying all by itself, even if it needs to introduce a mechanic that is never used again. Every character is thought out and deeply written. The world is complicated and composed of many moving pieces with factions and political powers ebbing and flowing ceaselessly.

This is an approach where detail and quality are paramount. Without a consistent level of quality the world will feel jumbled and unbalanced, which is made all the more impressive with the sheer quantity of unique work that needs to be poured into these experiences. While not every part of the game may hold something for the player, such as some NPCs not being accessible to the player or some areas of the maps being regulated to character or story progression, the pay off of the content being so well developed and deep offers engaging experiences that combine the best of an open world structure with the more detailed story and beats of a linear campaign.

The Checklist

Meant with no negativity, the checklist approach to a video game open world is all about emphasizing the game aspect. Offering an abundance of quests, objectives, and collectibles, these games embrace the immense breadth possible in an open world, even if it requires sacrificing the depth of some of their competitors. Games such as Elite: Dangerous and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey boast playthrough times of hundreds of hours, with the former boasting a seemingly endless amount of content to engage with.

These games are all about a near constant feedback loop that is focused on keeping the player constantly interacting with the game and its world, regardless of how similar those interactions are to one another. It is a design that requires a lot of desirable rewards at the end of the dangling carrot and keeping players engaged for such a high amount of time can be very difficult to properly pull off, but the games that do it well promise an experience that has as much to give back as one is willing to put in and have an undeniable bang for your buck that few games can rival.

The Sandbox

These games are all about player expression and giving you the tools to customize the world around you however you see fit. Games like Minecraft, Terraria and Astroneer are all about players exploring a procedurally-generated world to make it unique to them. The moral quandaries of advanced terraforming aside, these games offer flexible sets of rules like no other. What they may be lacking in story content or carefully constructed moments they more than make up for with the emergent storytelling that only they can promise on this scale.

These games also offer an experience that is completely unavailable in any other media. The insane amount of control that players hold over the worlds of these games is something to be celebrated. Any quick look at the build tutorials, world tours, and seemingly infinite possibilities on display in thousands of Let’s Plays will show the endlessly amazing feats that are accomplished when players are given tools to explore with their creativity.

This approach to an open world also gives these games a seemingly endless amount of possible gameplay that is only limited by one’s own creativity and constitution for the game. If one wants an example, they merely need to look at the stalwart popularity of Minecraft and it’s impressive appeal that seemingly transcends age groups or target audiences. It is only a slight stretch to claim that this approach to an open world may be the most pure of them all, as its emphasis on player interaction with the world leads to an impressive level of immersion and its heavy reliance on self contained rules gives these games a deeply rooted character.

Regardless of your open world approach preference, there is clearly a lot of potential in the genre to offer unique experiences that can give players an entirely new world to experience and familiarize themselves with. There is a lot to love in what open-world games offer, and personally, they have given me some of my fondest memories in gaming and are more than worthy of celebration.