The video game industry has certainly progressed by a large margin since its early days in the 80s. Back then, just being able to move in a 3D environment instead of the 2 dimensions of the 8/16-bit graphics was considered an impressive feat. Over time, as technology developed, so do the worlds of video games. They become more open, more realistic, with more details and overall just…more.

While a lively world certainly contribute to the gaming experience, and some companies such as Rockstar Games and Bethesda have demonstrated that they can create open worlds filled with tons of memorable content, some open world games might have gone too far.

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Assassin's Creed: Odyssey

Nowadays, many games would advertise that they have a gigantic open world, as if that alone is already enough to make the game come to life. In fact, it is the complete opposite. These worlds are often empty and forlorn, and just don’t have a soul to them.

The Trendsetter

The popular Grand Theft Auto III from Rockstar Games, which many consider to be a classic at this point, is thought to be the blueprints for open world games today, even though it is not the first open world game by any mean. Instead of various levels, GTAIII gives players the chance to freely explore the Liberty City. You can take any vehicle you want, go anywhere you please, do whatever you wish. It makes you feel like an actual part of this world, and encourage you to explore more. This has remained the consistent approach of Rockstar for its games since, and it has been working. Grand Theft Auto V would not have been the game it is if we were not allowed to explore every nook and canny of Los Santos or Beverly Hills.

Grand Theft Auto V

Unlimited Power

Other developers, on the other hand, don’t always see technological advances as tools to create a deeper, livelier environment that helps contribute to a meaningful story. For them, it is all about making a world as large as possible. “Larger than anything you’ve ever seen”, they would announce in their press releases.

It sounds great when they say it in a trailer, but is that actually the case in reality? Does a bigger world mean more interesting activities to do?

More often than not, the answer is “no”. Many developers choose to make open world games because they offer a longer gameplay, though not necessarily a better one.

Assassin's Creed Odyssey review
Assassin's Creed: Odyssey

Ubisoft is oftentimes the name criticized for this. Almost all of the company’s games, single player or otherwise, have gigantic worlds with many things to do. That doesn’t mean the games are always great.

Take the Ghost Recon series for example. The 2012 entry titled Ghost Recon: Future Soldier was for the most part a linear shooter game where players would go from one mission to the next, but it still delivered many memorable moments. It could have been a stable foundation for future games. Yet Ubisoft chose to take another approach in 2017 with the latest addition to the franchise, Ghost Recon Wildlands. The company claimed that the game had the biggest open world in gaming history. That might actually be true, given that the entirety of Bolivia, where the game takes place, is explorable. However, while the scenery is absolutely stunning to look at, especially from a helicopter, it is also utterly boring to be in.

Ghost Recon Wildlands review
Ghost Recon: Wildlands

Just imagine this, you have to sit in a car or a helicopter for several minutes every time you want to get from one mission to another. No matter how beautiful the scenery is, it gets old really quick, not to mention that the missions themselves often feel repetitive. There are still some amazing moments in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, but you need to go through such a big pile of junk to find them that for many people it is just not worth the effort.

This trend doesn’t look like it is slowing down either. The latest two entries in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Origins and Odysseys, also follow Wildlands’ footsteps. In term of size and beauty, their worlds are at a level that very few games can match. Yet this comes at the cost of pacing. Too often the two games turn into a grindfest because you have to level up, get better equipment and abilities to prepare yourself for the next zone.

Less is more

For this issue, there is no easy solution. Should we stop making more open world games? Or if we still do, should we scale down the size a bit? No, these cannot be the answers. We need to look into the reason why open world games are great, and what makes the large world interesting.

It is the reason No Man’s Sky was a great disappointment when it first came out. There are billions of planets for you to explore, but they are all just so empty. There is nothing to enjoy on each one, so why bother going to another? It’s like going to a restaurant where the food is bland and tasteless, but the serving portion is huge.

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No Man's Sky

Let’s go back to Rockstar Games and their upcoming game Red Dead Redemption 2. From what we can tell from the videos, the game’s world looks engaging. It doesn’t focus on the size, but rather on what you can do in it. The activities are there to make it an open world, not because it is an open world. That is what creates great open world games: The content, the story, the activities, the soul. That is something that cannot be achieved by just simply increasing in size.