The first game that pulled open world gameplay off with blockbuster success was Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 3. When I first played it upon release in 2001, I was blown away with the freedom of movement and action available. GTA 3 marked a huge turning point in game design and has been emulated thousands of times. It’s proved so popular that it seems like every major franchise appears to be trying to shoehorn some open-world aspect into their game. Even Call of Duty: WW2 has its Headquarters semi-sandbox mode.
What used to be a fantastic experience for gamers, the freedom of action to go about playing through a game’s structure with almost infinite variations, seems to be more of a crutch than anything now. Instead of having an uninterrupted sequence of events and a cohesive plot, a lot of games depend on chaining a series of vignettes together within an open world.
Why care about the details when you can just put a big ol’ world for the player to traverse from mission giver to mission giver? There is so much collectible crap and items to pick up that by the time you get around to saving what’s-his-name, you forget that there was never any rising action between the scenes that make up the story.
When Open-World Goes Wrong
The Evil Within 2, a recent release from Bethesda, is a perfect example of where an open-world was utterly absurd. It’s a survival horror game that gives you several chapters within large sections of town that you can travel through at your leisure. Survivor horror traditionally works because of linear segments that funnel you from fright to fright. Part of what is so scary about them is that you don’t have the agency to make it out of the game without confronting whatever force is opposing you. Because of the linear nature, the game can keep items to a minimum to make you manage your inventory carefully. This adds to the feeling of helplessness in the face of whatever horrors you face.
Instead, The Evil Within 2 gives you quite a bit of room to sneak around danger is vast swaths of the game. Furthermore, if you’re an explorer, even on hard mode you’ll find enough items to where healing and ammo don’t become too much of an issue. There are linear parts of the game — which turned out to the best — but it lacks a lot of the atmosphere and terror of the first because it let you screw around too much.
Western Gaming Has Lost Its Open-World Edge
Oddly enough, the open-world design became popular primarily because of Western productions, but it’s the Japanese who seem to be doing the best with it so far. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (and according to early reports Super Mario Odyssey) embraced the sandbox structure with both arms for the first time in the three-decade-old franchise and became an instant classic. Final Fantasy XV was the first in the series to implement the open-world design fully, but used the lulls during side quests or traveling to deliver character development between Noctis and his entourage in a way that made their relationships with each other some of the most developed ever seen in the series.
As GameRevolution EIC Paul Tamburro wrote, big-name publishers are trying more and more to push multiplayer since they want to squeeze cash out of players until they can throw out the next game in the series. Open-world design is just another branch of the same idea. We’re expected to believe that single-player games aren’t feasible without spending hundreds of millions, and since gamers have come to prefer quantity instead of quality, there’s real incentive to pad out a game’s time-to-complete with a bunch of tedious collectibles and a big generic open world. In a way, an open-world design is just a cost-cutting measure now for a lot of studios as opposed to a vehicle for fun and unique gameplay.
Think of the good news though: Now that all games are slowly converging to the same idea with different skins, you can finally catch up on that backlog of games from back when publishers didn’t have the expectations to make the GDP of a small country with every single release,