When Death Stranding was released in 2019, it divided critics and players, some of whom lavished praise on its story and gameplay, while others criticised it for being pretentious, among other things. One of the prominent critiques about the game was the effort it took to get from one point to another, with some reviewers calling the game a tedious slog.
Death Stranding is an open-world game where the player character must deliver supplies to isolated colonies of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world. Creator Hideo Kojima decided to make traversal a real problem in Death Stranding – the challenges that the courier would face in carving out a path to his destination is at the core of this game. As such, the title subverts the delightful freedom of going anywhere you please in an open world, and is a remarkable step in the evolution of open-world games.
In our previous blog we touched briefly on the history of open-world games before discussing some of the seminal games in the genre. In this blog, we will delve deeper into the evolution of open-world games, from the space-sim Elite (1984) to Death Stranding. Many games released during this period have contributed to the evolution of the open world, and we will discuss each of these titles in detail.
Key Features of Open-World Games
There are a handful of features shared by all games that qualify as open-world – a non-linear game design where the player can freely traverse the world to visit any of its locations at any time without being restricted to a linear path.
However, there are a host of features that open-world game designers have incorporated to help their games stand out and feel more alive and interactive. Open-world games feature dynamic day/night and weather cycles, and biomes with varied flora and fauna. Similarly, they have evolved to allow dynamic encounters with both friendly and enemy NPCs, some of whom can also lead to new quests, and many NPCs have their own schedules and behaviours that react to player actions. Map sizes have gotten larger or grown in scope – No Man’s Sky (2016) is set in a wide-open universe of 256 galaxies containing 18 quintillion planets – and many open world games have unique settings and themes. The size and scope of game worlds have led to novel traversal mechanics, including scaling mountain ranges, sailing wide-open seas or hurtling through space, and the now well-known ‘Ubisoft tower’ enables players to scale a high vantage point to open new areas of the map and reveal the quests therein. Open world games have offered varying degrees of freedom to the player with non-linearity, side quests and non-mission activities, and RPG elements have allowed gamers to really inhabit their player character and make unique builds to make the most of such games.
None of these features are essential – but they are the ones that make each open-world experience unique in its gameplay – even open-world games of the same franchise differ dramatically because of their setting – Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, set in Greece, offers an experience quite unlike Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, set in the Viking age. Many features of open worlds also represent innovations by studios, or key turning points in the evolution of open-world games.
In the following sections, we will chart the progress of open-world games from the earliest titles, such as Elite, to the first modern 3D open-world games, such as GTA III and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and discuss how studios such as Bethesda and Ubisoft built on these ground-breaking games to create their own open worlds.
Ancestors of the Open-World Game
The open-world game has been around for longer than one would imagine, although GTA III (2001) is widely considered the game that set the standard for modern 3D free-roaming games. Games like Elite and The Legend of Zelda (1986) are the forerunners of this genre.
The space sim Elite can be considered a proto-open-world game – players could hop onto a spaceship and explore multiple galaxies, which were generated on the fly by an algorithm. Its wireframe planets and spacecraft instilled a vast sense of scope when it was released.
The Modern 3D Open World
Mercenary (1985) can be considered the first 3D open-world action adventure game, while Hunter (1991), characterised as the first sandbox game with full 3D graphics ‘has a strong claim’ to be a forebear of GTA according to Ars Technica.
Nintendo’s revolutionary 3D platformer – Super Mario 64 (1996) – is still remembered for its innovative open-world elements – Mario enjoyed a freedom of movement unprecedented in gaming, and could even skip levels while romping through the 3D world.
Games such as Mercenary, Hunter, and Super Mario 64 would inspire the open-world games that followed – titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Grand Theft Auto III would take cues from these games to greatly expand the scope and level of detail in open world gaming.
The Modern Open-World Game: Early Years
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) featured a detailed overworld which contained explorable dungeons, and introduced day/night cycles that affected world events – Townspeople, enemies and other NPCs would move, sleep, or even die according to the time of day. The game also allowed players to control the weather and the sun by song – a key mechanic revolving around Link’s ocarina. Distant areas on the horizon could be explored, the world could also be traversed faster on a horse and the player could interact with NPCs – game areas were filled with people you could speak to, and mysteries you could explore. The game map is very small by modern standards but was revolutionary for its time.
Grand Theft Auto III (2001) was the first in the series to implement 3D graphics – and took this one step further by creating one of the first realistic and explorable open worlds centred around non-linear gameplay. GTA III offered an incredible variety in how you interacted with the world – you could shoot, drive, run, jump, and punch people, who would react to you, talk to you, even chase you or run away from you. You could also kill random NPCs at will – and watch as an ambulance rushed to the scene. You could even perform drive-by shootings as you lived the life of a gangster on a quest for revenge. Areas of the map would be unlocked after completing certain missions and the game was filled with secrets to uncover, NPC’s had their own schedules and came in various types (including street criminals), much of the world was destructible and the game was designed to let you play out your criminal fantasies.
Many games in this era focussed on getting high scores or collecting every last token – but GTA III offered a revolutionary change in gameplay where players were free to roam the world without completing the main questline. Both GTA III and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time rank among the greatest games ever made – the first true 3D open-world games were trailblazers that changed gaming.
Bethesda Builds on the Open-World RPG
Bethesda’s Morrowind (2002) is a true open world whose unique regions could be explored at will, within the constraints imposed by RPG elements such as character classes and a levelling system.
As a Polygon article observes, Morrowind offers a game-breaking degree of freedom – but this is constrained meaningfully by an unleveled world. Exploring certain areas would result in instant death unless you were at a sufficient level, because the strength of in-game enemies is determined by their location, and not by your level. Within this limitation, you could tackle many side quests and explore the map. RPG elements added to Morrowind’s replayability – you could enjoy a whole new experience by changing your starting skills and spell-crafting added nuance to the magic system. You could read books as well and do many things not related to questing at all. Morrowind’s game world was also teeming with wildlife, both mundane and magical, which you could hunt and kill for ingredients and crafting items, a feature that has become a staple of every Elder Scrolls game and many open-world games in general.
In its follow-up, Oblivion (2006), Bethesda implemented a design feature called Radiant AI, allowing NPCs to make choices and engage in complex behaviours as they went about their routine. Oblivion opened up the RPG elements by letting you be anyone who you wanted to be – you were not the only force that could defeat the world’s enemies – in fact, the final step of the main quest is to locate the true heir to the throne, who will eventually defeat the main enemy in the game.
Ubisoft Devises Novel Traversal in Historical Settings
Ubisoft’s early Assassin’s Creed titles, including the first (2007) and the subsequent Ezio Trilogy (2009-2011) introduced parkour-based exploration that allowed you to navigate historic settings by leaping from one handhold to another to scale various buildings and structures, and also introduced the ‘Ubisoft tower’, a high vantage point that players would have to climb in order to see more of the world and uncover specific missions within that region of the city. The ‘Ubisoft tower’ is found in many other open worlds now, including Horizon Zero Dawn (2017), Elden Ring (2022) and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017).
Gamers who played the early Assassin’s Creed games when they were first released may well remember the exhilarating parkour chases and the breath-taking leap of faith from a high tower to a hay cart below – few games then made you feel as nimble as the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed.
The Open World Opens Up
In our previous blog, we discussed how the release of Skyrim and Minecraft in 2011 ushered in a golden age of open-world gaming – the ensuing decade saw many seminal open-world games that would take the genre to new heights. Many other titles released in this era also mark key milestones in the evolution of the open-world game as we know it today.
Skyrim brought the open-world game to the mainstream. Unlike previous Elder Scrolls titles, Skyrim’s world, including its enemy NPCs and monsters, levels with you, meaning you can freely explore any region and take on its many challenges. Player freedom is Skyrim’s signal virtue and this extends to its streamlined RPG mechanics as well – even if you start off as a skinny elf, you can become a killer with a warhammer by just using it often enough. Bethesda also devised the Radiant Quest system that uses randomised parameters to create quests that would take players to undiscovered locations.
Minecraft is a procedurally generated world which gives you the tools to build anything you want – a sandbox with unlimited possibilities and massive mainstream appeal. It has no rules – start the game and build. As a Guardian article observes, you mine for minerals to make things, like swords, with which you can fight zombies, but the real fun lies in exploring your creativity, rather than building things to fight in-game enemies. Minecraft’s mainstream success is in a real sense due to how little it resembles traditional gameplay and it has had an enormous cultural impact that transcends gaming.
Open Worlds Grow in Depth and Breadth
Grand Theft Auto V (2013) is the culmination of Rockstar’s premiere open-world franchise, Los Santos is a living, thriving city whose hand-placed details enrich it in every aspect – IGN has in fact compiled a list of 100 details in the game world – you could walk into a shop that is being robbed by an NPC, running for a while will make you sweat, power lines sway in the wind, GPS signals are lost when you enter a tunnel, backfiring cars ignite gas trails, NPCs will compliment you on your car if you spend money customising it, NPCs will even take out their phone and film you if you get up to any wild shenanigans, following female NPCs will make them nervous and they will look over their shoulders…the game has a near-ridiculous level of detail. According to PC Gamer, the game didn’t take the open world genre to a new level, but refined it to an astonishing degree.
GTA V added depth and breadth to its game world, and also to its multiplayer mode, which takes place in the magnificently detailed city of Los Santos, rather than in constrained PvP maps. Gamers share this sprawling world as they pull off complex heists together, become powerful CEOs, hire mercenaries to kill for them, participate in stunt races and more. GTA Online continues to be updated, offering players more reasons to revisit Los Santos.
Players Set out for Sea – and Space
While games such as GTA V and The Witcher 3 feature meticulously detailed and dense game worlds, titles such as Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag (2013) and No Man’s Sky are stunning in their sheer scope and scale.
Ubisoft introduced a huge, traversable ocean along with landmasses for Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag – you sail around the Caribbean, explore islands, hunt for treasure and plunder ships – the game is set in the golden age of piracy, with a few AC elements thrown in. Ubisoft introduced naval mechanics in Assassin’s Creed III, and made seafaring and naval combat central to Black Flag, allowing the player to live out the life of a pirate on the high seas and distant shores of a massive map. Later Ubisoft games would allow traversal of water bodies as well, and so would Valheim (2021). The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (2002) had pioneered this mechanic, but Black Flag built upon it and brought sailing and naval combat mechanics to a long-running mainstream game franchise.
However, Black Flag, and just about every open world game, is rendered infinitesimal by the 18 quintillion planets of No Man’s Sky, which brought back procedural generation to the forefront. It is considered a game that makes itself – a cascading series of algorithms generate a massive universe of 256 galaxies containing a total of 18 quintillion planet-sized environments teeming with unique biomes and locations you can explore (just as algorithms generated procedural worlds for Elite, decades ago). No Man’s Sky’s creatures are also procedurally generated from a roster of archetypes, and creatures of the same type often band together. The player character has to work to survive in planetary environments and can also explore entire galaxies at will. Games like Skyrim and Witcher 3 had promised gamers that they could actually visit the far-off structures cradled in the mountains on the horizon, but even they use a game design element known as a ‘skybox’ to portray the day and night sky – any day/night cycle is a slow transition from one set of skyboxes to another. But in No Man’s Sky, every star you see in the night sky can actually be visited, and the day/night cycle is literally happening as the planet rotates on its axis. With its procedural generation, vast scope, detailed planetary simulations and interstellar travel, No Man’s Sky marks a dramatic shift in open-world design.
The Open World as Ally and Adversary
Open world game design has evolved in remarkable ways – developers have added RPG elements, lavished detail and attention on game worlds, created brilliantly-written characters, quests and missions and have increased the sizes of game maps to engender an awe-inspiring sense of scale. Game worlds have become traversable in multiple ways, and such games naturally foster player freedom with their wide open worlds. At the same time, in-game maps have become cluttered with information about places of interest and other map markers, and the HUD elements of some games are littered with so many features that players may end up paying little heed to the world itself.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is remarkable for how it refocuses attention back on the open world itself. It does away with map markers and any similar hand-holding, and does not implement any leveling system. Instead, it puts you in the open world and lets you explore it however you wish. As discussed in the previous blog, the world is fully traversable, and with the lack of any hand-holding, it becomes your principal ally, yielding loot, weapons and items as you explore its various biomes. It can also become your adversary – the game’s streamlined survival mechanics can make exploration a challenging but rewarding aspect of gameplay.
Death Stranding is perhaps the most innovative spin on open-world gaming yet. As discussed above, the core challenge of the game is in traversing the harsh game world to deliver supplies to isolated colonies of survivors. While making your way through the game world, you can fall, stagger and lose your balance, unlike the lithe, nimble protagonists of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Climbing a mountain or crossing a river is a mission in itself – the journey is the most meaningful part of the adventure. As a courier, you must also manage your cargo carefully, and must carefully maintain your balance while carrying heavy bags filled with precious supplies, and not go too fast lest you drain your stamina. You need to consider the value of your package before taking a risky shortcut – losing cargo will defeat the purpose. Death Stranding also has enemy NPCs such as bandits and supernatural creatures, and evading or fighting them is no easy task considering the cargo strapped to your back and the hostile terrain.
There are so many aspects to open-world design that in the first decade of the 21st century, developers such as Rockstar, Bethesda and Ubisoft were essentially starting from scratch. Nevertheless, they pioneered many staples of open-world gaming and we encounter a remarkable diversity in a genre that has now become one of the most popular in gaming – as a GameRant article observes, such games ‘have been trending for more than ten years now since Skyrim’s popularity set the course in 2011’. Open-world games have genuinely ‘evolved’ to survive and thrive in a marketplace littered with competing offerings.
For instance, Witcher 3 stands out with its masterful writing and narrative quests. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has innovated in novel traversal mechanics and setting each of their games in different historical periods. Skyrim and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild gives players total freedom – you are the one making your own adventure and telling your own story. Grand Theft Auto V Online – an open-city multiplayer experience – is a huge success that continues to receive updates.
Present-day developers now have a wide variety of open-world games to draw inspiration from, thanks to the efforts of studios such as Rockstar, Bethesda, Ubisoft, Nintendo, the indie developer of No Man’s Sky, Hello Games, and even Hideo Kojima of Death Stranding.
Want to make a harsh, unforgiving world? Look up Death Stranding. Want to make a world mind-boggling in its size and scope? Refer to No Man’s Sky. Think traversal is the key to good open-world design? Look into the Assassin’s Creed franchise and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Open-world games have matured and evolved over the years, and it remains to be seen how present-day game makers can learn from the best games to surpass them.
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