What Even Is an Open World Game Anymore?


What does open world mean, anyway? Austin, Rob, and Patrick use Patty's recent story about Red Dead Redemption 2's world and systems feeling largely meaningless as a launching pad to work out their larger feelings on open world games, from what we ask and demand of them to where they should go in the future.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/pa5jmb/what-even-is-an-open-world-game-anymore


A miserable pile of secrets!


See that mountain? You can go there.


I like how this joke works on multiple levels. Well done. (tasteful applause)


Imagine if Red Dead Redemption 2’s camp had an occurrences table like Cecil Howe’s Do Not Let Us Die In The Dark Night of This Cold Winter. If you don’t know what that is, it’s one of the games Austin ran on this season of Friends at the Table, Spring in Hieron. (I can’t add a link on mobile.) It’s a survival tabletop game with mechanics for collecting food, fuel, and medicine - and every turn, it’s possible for things to go totally awry or totally awesome. In an act of desperation, a group of villagers might burn all your fuel at high noon. The snow might cave in the roof of your storehouse and spoil your food. A new face might show up bearing a gift of medicine. Invaders, wildlife, storms, riches, they all have their place on the table.

And, man, what if all of that work to create a variable world full of surprising encounters ever engaged with anyone but Arthur Morgan.


Yeah, as much as I played the hell out of Red Dead I was so disappointed by how poorly the open world stuff integrated with the rest of the game. For me I spent a ton of time doing hunting stuff and challenges and the like and it kind of ended up ruining the story for me. I was disconnected from what had been going on in the story missions, and it didn’t help that Dutch was becoming more and more of an asshole and I just felt more and more like being anywhere but where that dude wanted me to be.

I wanted to care more about the camp, but the range of interactions there was limited enough that if I spent more than about ten minutes there it seemed kind of dull. I really think it’s time to either eliminate the ridiculously huge open world in favor of more compact, authored experiences or to heavily revise them in some way.




One thing I couldn’t shake while listening to this is that, just maybe, there is no such thing as a good open world game…

I have SO many fond memories of OW games as a kid, San Andreas and Oblivion probably would have topped my list in high school. When I actually think about it though, I realize I’m forgetting the absolute agony and frustration those games caused when I hit a glitch, or when something happened that broke immersion. I really think my fondness stems from those rare moments when the game systems aligned with my own sense of roleplaying and discovery, and those moments really only occurred by chance. It seems like the recent trend is for games to force those moments, or to guide players into them, which always comes off feeling artificial.

Really, what should we even be asking of open world games? Especially given that the experience is so widely shaped by what the player is bringing to the table, and by what elements might or might not line up in certain way?


Be exactly like Yakuza.

Seriously, that’s all you have to do to make a good open world game. Just. Be Yakuza.

Smaller maps, but a ton more stuff to do. Yakuza 6’s new engine basically destroys the line between battles and free roaming, so the series is a true open world experience from here on.


It’s easy to run into bugs and wonky immersion breaking or clashing systems when dealing with a large sprawling map; spreading the design and bug testing so thin will do that, which is why I’m willing to defend Bethesda’s development house when Jeff Gerstmann dug into Fallout 4’s persisting bugs on that year’s GOTY deliberations, funky stuff is just bound to happen at some point in such a large systemic game.

Contrary to yourself though that stuff doesn’t bother me, breaking immersion doesn’t automatically make it bad, and for me the moments that work, when I stumble upon an interesting location, find a new piece of gear in a tucked away place, or interact with npc’s the way I imagine my character would, it makes up for the potential jank.

It’s probably unfair because it’s Nintendo and they have money and time to spare, but Breath of the Wild exemplified the potential of open world games and was a great reminder to me of what makes open world games special.
Which just makes it a little disappointing that RDR2 is this big industry focal point while just kind of being the same old, admittedly with a great attention to realistic detail, when such a refreshing take on the open world genre came out just the year prior.

(I also agree with @JKDarkSide about Yakuza and games with smaller, denser open world spaces, which I think the industry just needs to consider more often.)


Er… Hmm…

Go to this map marker or read the flavor text in your journal for directions. Do… things?

And it’s four times the size of Fallout 4.


I agree - I think moving forward it would be wise for OW games to commit early on to a level of expanse and density, and I think both Yakuza and BotW are good benchmarks for either choice.

I’m in the minority here, but did anyone else have issues with BotW in terms of its design philosophy? Don’t get me wrong, I loved it, but I regularly entered a frustrating loop where I would see something cool in the distance, spend an hour or so getting there, and find… a korok? The lack of meaningful treasure or npcs made my experience occasionally feel lonely and unrewarding. I’m excited to see developers emulate and improve on that model.


This is basically exactly why I gave up on BotW not long after activating my first Divine Beast. All the exploration everybody had been telling me was the thing they loved about the game just started grating on me after I realized that the only thing that would be waiting for me at the next landmark was, usually, a barren ruin with a little money in a chest or a korok or one of the ~3 enemy designs. I didn’t love it, to be honest. It felt like a great skeleton that somebody had forgotten to put content into.

I get that maybe it’s not my kind of open world game, but I just got really disconnected by the emptiness of BotW after a while. I missed exploring to find cool new characters with interesting stories or some kind of…something at the next destination, rather than just “hey here’s a korok” or, well, “here’s nothing.” If the game hadn’t been so huge it might not have bothered me as much, I suppose - it’s very very pretty but once I had spent hours crossing empty fields to find the pretty views I just wished I didn’t have to walk/ride so dang much.


I’m not sure what the breakdown is on this, but I felt this occasionally. And every time I did I just reminded myself to forget about the in game rewards. I had the best time when I climbed a mountain because I wanted to climb the mountain as an activity rather than an objective with a reward at the end. Because inevitably I’d climb the mountain and find a korok under a rock (or maybe not even that). I wanted my response then to not be “Is that all” but instead to just look out at the view and down back the way I came, followed by jumping off and gliding on to some other curious looking thing.

I’d hope that there can be more done with this kind of intrinsic reward, where the world itself is enough motivation. Because I tire much quicker of games that give me extrinsic rewards like equipment, special powers or even explicit narrative stuff (because too often the good writing in a game runs out so fast).


Of course, Breath of the Wild DOES also have some truly legendary secrets tucked away. I remember the first time I saw the glow of Satori Mountain, or the first time I saw one of the three dragons, or the first time I found those Dark Woods over sixty hours into my play. Eventide Island is probably the most popular early examples.


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.