Gaming Editor Benjamin Oakden explores the history of open-world games and how they have developed over time
Open world video games have a dominant place in the industry. Companies are constantly striving for bigger, more expansive worlds, and franchises that had never previously utilised this style of gameplay have taken the plunge. Last year we saw FromSoftware’s hugely popular Souls series make the transition with the acclaimed Elden Ring, with historic franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokemon also adopting this gameplay style. No doubt open world games have the potential to be incredibly successful and fun, but how did they become what seems to be the default choice for making a new game? And is linearity really a bad thing?
Ever since the early days of the industry, pioneering video game developers have been trying to give more freedom of exploration to the player. The space-simulator Elite (1984) was a particular pioneer, featuring early 3D graphics and open-ended exploration. The Legend of Zelda (1986) brought that feeling of exploration to console gaming with its expensive overworlds, although the game would lose its non-linearity towards the end, with players often having to go to one specific point in the map to progress the game.
Although console gaming of the late 1980s to early 1990s was dominated by mostly linear platformers and RPGs, some innovative developers were still attempting to push non-linearity, such as the PC adventure game King’s Quest VI (1992). However, it is likely that Super Mario 64 (1996) can be considered a breakthrough in non-linear gaming, with its open-ended levels and the ability to gain some of the stars in differing orders. It represented a different strand of 3D gameplay than the competing Crash Bandicoot (1996), and inspired a wave of successors, such as Banjo-Kazooie (1998), Spyro the Dragon (1998), and Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (2001), the latter of which was notable for having the entire game take place through one interconnected world.
Outside of the platforming scene, Shenmue (1999) allowed players to explore and complete quests in an open-ended city, a game so expensive to produce that it contributed to Sega abandoning their own consoles and becoming a third-party developer. However, by far the biggest innovator in this style of gaming, has to be Grand Theft Auto III (2001).
Releasing right at the start of the sixth generation of consoles, Grand Theft Auto III can be considered a seminal title in video game history. Giving the player almost complete freedom to explore a vast 3D city, the game received massive controversy for its violence, but was also incredibly popular, becoming the best selling game of the year. From then on, more and more games were inspired to follow in the open world formula, from RPGs like the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series to shooters like STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007). Even the Jak and Daxter series began using Grand Theft Auto inspired vehicle exploration.
The seventh generation of consoles saw open world games continue to flourish. Assassin’s Creed first saw release in 2007 and would go on to see over a dozen sequels. Its structure of placing a large amount of quests over the map and giving players a checklist would prove highly influential, and as it turns out, highly copyable. As well as the incredibly high amount of Assassin’s Creed sequels, developer Ubisoft would also use this formula for its Far Cry and Tom Clancy series. Games like Saints Row (2006) and Watch Dogs (2014) became popular by iterating on the gameplay style of Grand Theft Auto. By the eighth generation, it was starting to feel like open world games were falling into a bit of a repetitive slump, with them being considered the standard format for a new game.
Of course, the main reason that open world games became so widespread is their popularity with players. The ability to freely explore a massive world is an incredibly appealing style of gameplay, so it’s no surprise that it has become so popular. Games that fall into this formula, such as Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) and Spider-Man (2018) are some of the best selling games of the last generation, and received significant critical acclaim. However, the one thing that we should be careful of is treating linearity as being a bad thing. ‘Linear’ is occasionally used as a criticism against a game, but linear progression can have significant advantages. They allow games to be more streamlined and focused on delivering fun ideas to the player without having to worry about spreading their gameplay over a large map.
As much as open world games can become formulaic at times, there are still many developers pushing the boundaries of the format. Minecraft (2011) allowed players complete freedom in shaping a procedurally generated world, becoming the best selling game of all time and remaining highly popular today. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) featured a highly advanced physics engine that allowed for creative combat and exploration, while Elden Ring (2022) featured beautiful world design while largely shunning traditional waypoints.
The dominance of open world games is by no means a bad thing- the freedom and sense of scale they provide is no doubt an incredibly fun and appealing style of gameplay. While some may be generic and formulaic, there are still countless developers that are pushing open world gaming forward. As long as we as players reward innovation and aren’t afraid to embrace linear games too, the future of the industry should remain bright.
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