Video games often employ the use of open worlds to create a better sense of immersion. Developers will sometimes spend a ton of their resources on creating large fantastic worlds for players to traverse and games such as Skyrim and Infamous have benefited from creating these massive cities and countries for the players to explore and get lost in. However, like all popular game elements, eventually other developers start to implement these large game worlds without thinking of a reason for why they should have one. Action games are brought to a halt because of pointless traveling and soon the only reason for doing anything is just so the game can progress. It all eventually falls apart into a tedious mess and worst of all, it becomes a boring game at best, and a bad game at worst.
So first, we need to determine what the purpose of wide open sandbox is. Obviously, Bethesda does this right and are the kings of creating large open worlds, but what exactly do they do that some other games don’t to keep their worlds interesting. Well, one reason developers incorporate large open worlds is for the exploration and to be able to explore a world totally different than our own or from a new incredible perspective is one of the key reasons video games can be so addicting. Scattered throughout the land of Skyrim for example are forts and castles, towns and caves, monuments and dungeons, and well you get the idea, all of which have some sort of secret to hide or story to tell. Even games like Minecraft have capitalized on exploration and made it the main selling point of the game. Every world is randomized, there are tons of caves and massive landscapes to explore that it’s only weakness is that you can get a pretty good idea of what you’ll find, nothing like a giant castle or ancient ruins. If a developer was to incorporate an open world, then it needs to allow the player to go off a beaten path and craft an adventure of their own.
Mechanically though, open worlds also provide players a chance to maintain and improve vital skills required to progress through the game. My first thought is Pokemon, where even though the game has a very linear trail you’re suppose to follow, wild pokemon and trainers are how you level up your Pokemon for the gym leaders and rival battles. Another example would be the Metroid Prime series, which has open worlds but forces the player to follow a certain linear path, blocking them off from certain areas until they have they have the right upgrade, constantly reinforcing the ideas of using the right beam, what each upgrade is used for, etc. so that bosses can be more complex without players having to stumble their way through them. The problem is that the same thing could be accomplished using linear levels. Afterall, Half-Life 2 and Uncharted don’t have open worlds but still manage to reinforce skills and even teach important mechanics. In Uncharted 2, the final boss may seem impossible, but players have already learned that the blue sap explodes and with that knowledge they are able to figure out Zoran’s weakness pretty quickly.
What separates Metroid Prime and Uncharted is that Metroid Prime uses a technical reason for using an open world, which is to allow developer’s to reuse resources. By having an open world that encourages back tracking and using new powers to discover new passage ways, a single room in Metroid Prime can be used to accomplish many different goals. A room with a locked door requiring the right beam to open can serve as a hallway for one encounter, and then as a junction point for several rooms later on. Enemies in one room might provide a challenging fight at one point, but later, going into the room doesn’t phase the player at all because of all the powers they have acquired, which not only ensures that the player is using their new power correctly, but instills a positive reinforcement and a sense of progress for them.
However, opens worlds run the high risk of stopping the action flow of the game, creating long periods where nothing happens and is ultimately padding to make a game seem longer than it actually is. A good example of this can be found in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. While sailing from island to island might accomplish the same kind of goals that Metroid Prime and Skyrim, sailing from island to another feels mostly pointless. You see, as Scott Rogers says in his excellent book “Level Up”: “Walking is not gameplay”. That is to say, that if a developer wants to have 40 hours of gameplay, they have to exclude all the time it takes for a player to get from point A to point B because that isn’t playing a game. It’s like waiting in line to play the game. A particular jarring example of this is Kingdom Hearts 2. Despite being a really fun game, it’s fun because of the boss battles, combat, and storyline, because aside from that a majority of the game is just going from area to another to get the next cutscene.
Ways that you can tell when an open world is pointless is when exploration is not an emphasized point. This can lead to monotony. For example, in Batman Arkham City, the open world created a cool sense of flying through the rooftops as the Dark Knight, but most of it was to from point A to point B. There were side quests, but most of them felt like they were just things that would happen while going to point B. While the actual levels and bosses were interesting, filled with intense combat situations and some interesting puzzles, there was no reason to explore the streets of Arkham City, as well as nothing creating a sense of progress since you start off with everything you need to explore, and any positive reinforcements you get from beating up mooks is lost since you get the same exact feeling in the individual levels.
You can compare Arkham City to another game that involves running around city rooftops and fighting supervillains, Infamous, which handled exploring the big city a lot better. For example, you don’t start off with everything you need to make traveling easy. You get this sense of becoming a stronger person because you gain abilities like hovering or electric grinding that helps you move around faster. Also, the state of the city was tied directly to your actions. If you were good Cole and did the good sidequests, then that area of the city would change with citizens liking you and enemies becoming less frequent (or vise-versa if you are bad Cole). Also the game’s narrative always put Cole into one part of the city, so despite being a large world, you only had to deal with parts of it one at a time which eased the feeling of padding since the game would almost never ask you to travel across the entire map.
My hope is that the unnecessary open world fades away and encourages developers to think of reasons why a game should offer an open world. Right now I’m playing through Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii and despite having good combat, the open world is driving me nuts because it is really expansive but still very linear and after an hour of walking from one city to the next, I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished much. If you look back to franchises like the 3D Sonic games, Sonic Adventure had a open world system that sort of served a purpose but was mostly pointless. The three areas were just hub worlds that padded out the story and were mostly uninteresting. That’s why all subsequent games dropped the open world for a more streamlined approach (except Sonic 06…). Another Wii hit, No More Heroes also featured an open world that consisted mainly of going from one place to another. The sequel removed it and while at first I think it was to really establish Santa Destroy as a character in the game as much as Travis, it didn’t work. Open worlds for the sake of having an open world only succeeds in providing a really boring and aggravating experience, but by doing it right, you can have a really addictive, really immersive game.