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As games have gotten bigger and bigger over time, there has been a tendency toward making gigantic open spaces that players can explore. Primarily these kinds of games are Role-Playing Games, though the idea of having these open worlds is definitely not exclusive to the genre. This tendency is particularly common for large-scale developers, since making a big map and populating it with characters and things to do takes a lot of work, which requires things like money, time, and employees.
You may well be familiar with the most prominent examples: the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, the Witcher, Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, and a recent entry is Ghost of Tsushima. There are a lot more, and these are in no way a new phenomenon. Open world games stretch back to old RPG days: Ultima, Might and Magic, and even to some extent the Zelda games (going all the way back to the first entry) can be included on the list.
In talking about open world games here, I want to look at the strange tension that these games face, which can make them at the same time appealing and yet – when done wrong – incredibly dull.
Why Play in these Worlds?
The first thing we might ask ourselves is what makes these open worlds appealing to players. To which we can answer that there are several things that can hook players.
The first, at least in theory, is the sheer amount of content available. Not everyone likes to have a big game with tons of things to do (some might perceive the game as bloated, and sometimes open world games can feel that way). But for a lot of players, the more content that’s in the game, the longer they can play it. In an age where a lot of games are measured by their playtime and how many hours of content they can offer, open world games can offer what you might think of as the best bang for your buck: the most content hours compared to the price of the game.
The second is the amount of freedom allowed to the player. Games in general allow for players to build their own experience, determining how much or how little time they wish to devote to the game itself. Open world games in turn work by giving the player numerous choices: side quests, power-ups, random encounters, etc. And all of that variability allows for players to essentially craft their own version of the game. Do you try to explore everything and complete all side content? Do you try to just run from main quest to main quest, seeing how far a minimalist playthrough can get you? Do you pick and choose which side content you want to do? Open world games give players a degree of choice that is often not available in more linear games.
Thirdly, there is an element of “tourism” involved. One value to open world games is that players can quite literally explore the world given to them, whether it is real or imagined. You might think of running around the world in Skyrim, climbing mountains, crossing rivers, searching caves. Perhaps you might choose to run to a vista to survey the world, taking in the horizon. Or in another context, there can occasionally be a literal or historical tourism, giving players an opportunity to experience real places as they exist now, as they existed in the past, or as they might exist in the future or in an alternative world. You find examples in games like Fallout 3 and 4 (with their portrayals of post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. and Boston), Assassin’s Creed (which are commonly set in detailed historical cities or regions), or L.A. Noire (set in a meticulously recreated Los Angeles from the mid 20th century). This tourism is not strictly unique to open world games, but the ability to thoroughly explore these spaces is what sets them apart. Linear games can still allow for amazing set pieces or be set in historical areas, but they often take on the role of something to be seen, without necessarily being a space to be in.
The Tensions in Open World Games
All games have to overcome hurdles that are merely part and parcel of the creative process in general. Constructing a playable space, designing mechanics, writing stories, and all of those things are common problems for designers. There are also problems that are specific to particular types of games. Games that try to offer choices have to deal with the ramifications of those choices and branching narratives. Games designed around multiplayer have to not only be sufficiently interesting for players to pick up, but incentivize continued play over time.
Open world games face their own set of problems. I now want to examine some of those particular hurdles that need to be overcome, and see how games can potentially fall short in achieving the goals that a designer might hope to accomplish.
An open world ultimately needs to be explored. That is, to a large extent, why the open world is made and so much time is spent creating it. But exploration for its own sake is hard to justify, or more appropriately, can only be justified for so long. You might want to run around just for fun, looking at the leaves on the trees and other little details. But at some point that kind of exploration is going to become boring for a majority of players, and so a designer needs to populate the world with things to do to keep players entertained.
There are plenty of options for the content that can grab a player’s attention. Combat is often the simplest way, though too much of it can get exhausting. Side quests are a common method to help fill out the game’s world in various ways. It is also common to come across dungeons of some form that can be explored for loot and experience. Developers may also put in collectibles, little extras designed to be gathered for the sake of some reward, or sometimes merely for the sake of gathering them. And sometimes developers will put in little random events to spice up the player’s life.
Yet an open world game must navigate a very narrow line between having too much and having too little. Too much, and getting through the content can begin to feel more like a chore than a fun experience. Too little, and there’s no incentive for players to run around the world and explore.
And so a lot of open world games can run into the problem of bloating. They put in a lot of stuff to try and keep attention in some way. It’s not necessarily expected that many players will seek out all of it, but the idea in some part is to provide enough raw material to keep players hooked for some period of time. Players can drop out of games for a wide variety of reasons, and so trying to maintain their attention for long enough can become a serious problem that needs to be solved.
The issue with bloating, though, is that it can also serve to turn off players, especially those more interested in staying for the long haul. When open world games become bloated, completing any particular piece of content – regardless of the scope of that content or the reward offered – can feel tedious. Players then feel no incentive to continue exploring, because the prospect of finding a new quest, or a collectible, or stumbling upon a random event no longer promises any kind of excitement. Ironically, bloating the game results in the very thing that the bloating was attempting to avoid: robbing the player of any real reason to explore new areas in the provided world.
The exact point at which a game can feel “bloated” is hazy. To a large extent, it’s going to depend on a few things about the basic elements of the game itself.
One important component is the basic gameplay. The more intriguing the game can be on its own terms, the more appealing additional content will be. The idea is to allow the side content to be an excuse to play more of a game that is already being enjoyed, as opposed to having the side content be something to be enjoyed on its own. Bloat occurs when the side content is essentially the driving force: players are pursuing the side content merely because it’s there, even if the actual act of getting to that content and playing through it don’t feel all that good or interesting.
Another component is the variety of the content. Most games have a few main staples for side content that are then spread around the world in various ways. But the more of a given staple there is, the less valuable each particular instance of it is going to feel. A hundred small quests that are all the same will become tedious, but ten sets of ten quests that are more unique will be better able to retain attention, even if the exact same amount of time would be spent by the player in both cases.
To help explain this point about filling out the world and bloating, I think it might be useful to examine a couple of examples.
For a game with too little, I think an excellent example is L.A. Noire. The game has an open world, and yet the actual content of the game is fairly self-contained, to the point that there is very little incentive to actually go out and explore the world. The game absolutely has side content. There are brief side cases the player can complete, and a several collectibles. Yet the value of all of this side content is minimal. Some of them provide “experience” used for the game’s hint system. Some of them provide an outfit that might have some benefit (most of them not being all that useful), but several give no benefit at all beyond a trophy/achievement. The end result is that there’s not really any point to collecting these things, and therefore exploring the city, beyond doing it for its own sake. But as I mentioned above, for many players that prospect isn’t going to feel very inviting, or at least not for very long.
As for a game with too much, or too much in the wrong way, I think of Bethesda’s open world games, particularly Skyrim and the Fallout games. Bethesda often has these large worlds that the player can get around fairly easily, and while the games are often chock full of side quests and enemies and dungeons, the value of exploring an additional dungeon or taking on an additional side quest diminishes over time. After a certain point, only certain pieces of side content feel all that useful or interesting. You can keep exploring and doing stuff, and you’ll get rewards for it, but as you keep going those rewards become less and less valuable. After a certain point, there’s not even an incentive to find new dungeons unless they’re specifically attached to a quest, because the individual dungeons feel so similar and have so little value on their own that they might as well be skipped.
As I play more and more open world games, I begin to feel that when developers try to straddle the line between too much and too little, they err on the side of putting too much.
But I think it is better to err on the side of having too little. There are, of course, ways to make the amount of content stand out more, as I’ve already mentioned about variety. But even putting in a large amount of varied content can still leave the game feeling bloated. And so I would argue there is a virtue to making the content that’s in there feel more special, both in its actual execution and in its rarity.
To some extent, the world should be interesting in its own regard. The more a player can feel that the world wants to be explored, and the player wants to explore it, the better the overall experience will ultimately be. The problem with “content” is that it can detract from these qualities. Arguably, the best way to accomplish this task would be to focus on the details of the world itself so that the game can appeal to the “tourism” aspect of a player’s enjoyment.
Big open worlds create a particular problem of getting around that world. The bigger the world, the longer it takes for a player to get from one point to another, which means exploration can take up a huge amount of time. Sometimes having this space can be useful for helping players feel invested in the game, but it is ultimately a double-edged sword: a large amount of the “playtime” estimates will inevitably come from just trying to get to your next objective.
Fast travel is the way that games try to meet in the middle. Players are given the opportunity to open up a map and teleport to an area that has been previously visited. Different games utilize different methods for determining which landmarks can be used for fast traveling, or how fast traveling is accessed.
As examples, some games might allow players to travel to any previously accessed landmark at any point in time. Some games might allow the player to travel from the map, but only to specific areas such as major settlements. Other games might only allow the player to travel to and from designated fast travel points, which then serve as anchor points for exploration.
Figuring out the problem of which fast travel system to use depends largely on the size of the map. The larger it is, the more (potential) open space, and thus the more time the player needs to spend just getting around.
The double-edged nature comes from trying to again find a sweet spot. When fast travel points are too plentiful, exploring the world begins to have no value on its own, but instead becomes a method to find more fast travel points so that the world doesn’t need to be explored any more. On the other hand, when fast travel points are too few and far between, exploring the world can feel like a chore, as every action can raise questions of what needs to be done: if I hunt this animal, I will have to return to a camp or settlement to turn in whatever I get from it, so is it really worth it? But this creates a strange situation where the player is analyzing whether they want to play the game.
This marks on of the weird problems I had with Red Dead Redemption 2. For all of the amazing work that Rockstar did in making the game, the commitment to realism made the task of traveling around the world feel like a chore. All sorts of tasks that were important parts of the side content – such as hunting and fishing – left me feeling tethered to particular parts of the map, because so many of the mechanics would disincentivize straying too far away from camps or settlements, and at the same time straying too far from those points would mean needing to ride all the way back. And while the game has a fast travel system, it is only accessible from a few particular points on the map, meaning that the primary method of navigation is riding around on your horse. For all the interesting things in the game that were put in, especially small surprise missions that you would have to stumble upon, exploration continually felt like a chore to get out of the way, rather than some enjoyable in its own right. Put another way, the game has anchoring points for exploration, but those points are too few and too far between, and the mechanics make the anchors too “strong,” so that there are powerful incentives to try to stay close to those anchor points.
But games like Skyrim, which allow the player to travel to any location that has already been discovered, seem to undermine the value of the open world itself. However, it is unclear to what extent this is a problem of fast travel itself, or a problem of the type of content, which returns to the previous point about bloat. A useful counterexample to Skyrim here is Ghost of Tsushima, which also allows players to fast travel to any discovered location, but varies the content in such a way that there is still an incentive to keep discovering new locations.
However, perhaps the more important factor for all of this is making the world appealing on its own terms. When the world is dull, traveling doesn’t feel all that interesting, and so long stretches of getting around leave players feeling unsatisfied. When the world is beautiful and interesting, journeying has its own value independent of the destination, and so the player can more easily take joy in getting around. But this task is admittedly harder than it sounds, as it’s more than just having good graphics or a few vistas which provide amazing views. It’s about finding little ways to catch the player’s eye in a more continual manner, without boring them. Threading that particular needle is going to be much more difficult.
If the world can be made interesting to actually see and explore, then the fast travel system question becomes somewhat solved of its own accord. When the game can successfully invite a player to move around the world and seek new locations, even a very generous fast travel system doesn’t detract from the overall value of the game.
And so when it comes to erring on one side or the other, I think it is ultimately better to go for being generous. The more players have to travel, the more likely players are to feel like traveling is a way of padding out the game, without contributing anything interesting to the overall experience. By at least giving players options and hinting to them the value of exploration in other ways, players can more effectively decide their own experience (which was mentioned before as one of the values of these open world games), and also feel like their enjoyment is coming out of their own choices.
Many, if not all, games that tell the player a story tend to run into some kind of problem where the player’s actions conflict with the narrative. These problems can be the result of the player not playing the game “as intended,” or poor framing by the designer, or any number of other issues. You might be familiar with the concept of “ludonarrative dissonance” as a way of describing ways in which the message of the gameplay conflicts with the message of the narrative. Many games can run into similar issues, even if not all issues can be categorized under this particular form of dissonance.
Open world games, as mentioned before, are built around giving players a great deal of choice, and that choice can lead to a number of problems. When the game has to take into account an almost infinite number of possible variations, things can get tangled easily. So it is much easier to just section off side content, treating it as narratively distinct from the main questline.
However, this sectioning can lead to a different narrative issue. When the player has the opportunity to explore the world in an open fashion, they also have the opportunity to learn about the world and what’s going on in it. So they might be able to see the cracks in the cheerful façade of authoritarian rule, or the suffering of everyday people in a war-torn country, or get some hint about the potential treachery of a major character. The exploration and collectibles that the player can find can all hint at broader lessons that a normal person would incorporate into their worldview.
But this exploration leads to a thing called “dramatic irony.” Dramatic irony is a very old concept, and its usage dates back to the early days of theater (including Ancient Greece). The idea behind dramatic irony is that the structure of a work reveals information to the audience that a particular character might not be aware of, allowing the audience to have a greater knowledge about what’s going on. There are plenty of examples of this in action: an easy example is when a character reveals his intentions to the audience in a separate scene or through a soliloquy, allowing the audience to see into his mind without giving that same knowledge to other characters. Dramatic irony serves many purposes in narratives, and so there is nothing inherently wrong with it.
However, it does cause a problem in games. The reason dramatic irony can work in a play or a movie is that the audience is not a participant in the narrative. Characters and scenes are written so as to make sense about what information each character has at each point in time. But in video games, you as the player control a particular character and can control what information that character has. Which means when you decide to gather as much information as you can, you as the player can process it and internalize it, but often the character you’re controlling is completely unaware of it until that information must be revealed as part of the main narrative. At which point the character must be shocked, for this is the first time they are learning of it.
These kinds of dramatic irony can be incredibly frustrating as a player, because you can figure things out not because you’ve just made a lucky guess, but because you went out exploring and came across a journal (that was meant to be available to read) that spelled out or even just hinted about something important. And you as the player understand the implications of this, but the character you’re controlling never cares unless there is a specific reason for the character to care.
This problem is certainly not unique to open world games, but open world games run into particular problems because so many of these narratives revolve around classic storytelling elements that are undercut by the player’s exploration. So if part of the “Hero’s Journey” of a noble is to grow as a person by seeing how poor people have to scrape by just to live, and therefore learn to be compassionate, often the game doesn’t care if the player, through the character’s eyes, is able to already witness these things. Even if there are side quests specifically dedicated to helping out these people and having them explain their problems in a sympathetic way. The character often still needs to have these problems pointed out to them as part of a story sequence so that their eyes can be opened.
The main cause of this problem is that open world games tend to put main content and side content into two different buildings. Admittedly, many games do this. The two buildings are near one another, and you can even move stuff between those buildings, but they are still treated as distinct and separate.
That on its own ends up being okay, as long as the side content isn’t revealing any particular information that the narrative doesn’t want the player and main character to have. But it is common to see all of these little missteps as games end up revealing information that undercuts major plot developments and twists later on, often in attempts at foreshadowing.
Addressing this issue could involve trying to bring the two houses together. That would be awesome, but a monumentally difficult task. Because it would essentially require that the player, through their exploration, could happen upon knowledge that would allow them to change the game’s main narrative in radical ways. Such a project would not be impossible, just tough to pull off, especially when you start talking about making an open world game.
So it seems easier to think about what information a player, and as a consequence the main character, can learn through merely playing the game. If a player were to do all of the side quests, collect every journal, listen to chatter, and just run around and look at things, would they learn anything that might tip them off about something that’s about to happen? If yes, then it’s important to think about whether it’s a good idea to give the player that information or allow them to learn it too early. Because it’s not just the player that learns it, because the very nature of the game means that the main character has to learn these same things (that kind of learning can help the player to be immersed in the game by more readily identifying with the character they’re controlling).
I will of course exclude from this information given in cutscenes shown only to the player. Hopefully it is clear that my focus here is on information revealed through things that can be observed by the controlled character. Dramatic irony is fine on its own, though there is good reason to question its value in games, since players might then be able to use revealed information that the characters shouldn’t have. But the particular kind of dramatic irony I am criticizing is where the information isn’t even being hidden from the character in the first place.
There are a lot of ways that open world games can go wrong. Many of these ways are also ways that any game can go wrong. And there are plenty of criticisms that can be made against particular open world games. Ultimately, though, the best way to develop a feel for these things is to get more experience with them. Play various games to get a sense about how they do things right (what feels fun and engaging) and how they do things wrong (what feels dull and pointless).
My objective here has been to try to highlight some particular problems that are somewhat specific to these open world games. Because they offer all of these choices for exploration and are built to have a gigantic world for the player to wander around in, those mechanics can ultimately conflict with what the developer actually wants the player to do.
 Which is somewhat ironic, given that part of the point of the world was that an astounding amount of work was put in to make the game’s world accurately reflect the layout of Los Angeles at the time period.