Really enjoyed the discussion in this episode, it helped crystallise some of my own feelings about open world games. I think as far as my enjoyment of these games go, there’s kind of two different sensibilities that I find really appealing.
I love games that focus on a small space that aim to make that space feel alive and dense through a number of interlocking systems. Immersive sims (as we’ve come to call them) do this really well. Warren Spector is oft cited as describing a desire for a game that takes place on a single city block that seeks to simulate all the people and experiences contained within it. I love exploring the environments of Deus Ex and Dishonored because despite the relatively small slice of geometry you’re navigating, so much is communicated through the environment and interactions that create a sense of a larger world you exist in. Or in the case of something like Hitman, where the world-building is less emphasised, the possibility space still feels huge.
That said, there is a part of me that still marvels at being dropped into a big environment. It’s the “see that mountain…” thing that should have gotten old years ago but still hasn’t as far as I’m concerned. Maybe it’s partly down to growing up in the countryside but I find enjoyment in walking around and exploring big, open spaces. There doesn’t even necessarily have to be much in the environment to interact with. The empty, subdued spaces of Shadow of the Colossus (an influence I can feel in Breath of the Wild) are largely meant to act as a cool down period between the climatic boss fights but I absolutely loved exploring them and taking in the sights. Similarly, I find when very little is happening in Red Dead 2 to be the time in which I enjoy it the most. Just me, my horse, and the dissipating mist as the sun rises for dawn. That atmosphere affects me more than any of the carefully scripted (but prone to breaking) sequences the open world throws at you.
I surprised that there was little mention of the walking sim genre in the discussion because that is where I think we’re seeing some of the most interesting explorations of what it means to be “open world”, but on a smaller scale. The likes of Gone Home and Tacoma showcase how you can make a small space and fill it full of interesting storytelling, whereas games like Firewatch and NaissanceE can create the feeling of a large, mysterious environment while keeping the player on a fairly linear path. Then there are things in the more survival sim-y genre that tend to feature a lot more interacting systems. AAA marketing is still chasing after scale & long lists of features and I think they could do to learn smaller ≠ less valuable.