The Nature of Open Worlds

In my earliest days of playing games, I dreamed of a truly open world. A game where I could travel across the land, searching far and wide. Find secret caves, fight epic battles, and learn the very secrets of magic.

It was a hell of a dream. Open worlds. Go anywhere, do anything. Having the ability to influence the world and change lives. To create your own story. It was a dream was about excitement and adventure and really wild things.

And here we are in the current year, and open worlds are everywhere! Zelda has an open world. Tom Clancy has multiple open worlds. We can go nuke some mutants in one open world today and hunt turtles in the Wild West tomorrow. Next week we can go to ancient Greece to fight with Sparta.

On paper, these all sound exciting. They always look interesting, and at first they are. But I can’t say that I feel fulfilled by any of these games.

A word wall. Art by Adam Adamowicz.
A word wall. Concept art by Adam Adamowicz.

The reality

I feel let down. The promise of an open world has rarely ever been fulfilled. But that’s not the fault of the genre. Rather, it's the fault of our own expectations. The reality is that open world means, very literally, open world. As in space, not time. Not events. Not stories. the world. They’re like “choose your own adventure” books but with less structure. It’s not what people imagined open world games would be like, but that’s how they are. A huge, open space with a bunch of loosely connected plot-lines and a lot of, mostly pointless filler.

This naturally makes for a hell of a challenge when writing stories for these games. In an open world, you can go anywhere, and do anything. So how do you tell a story that could be told in any order?

The answer is simple: you don’t. No one does.

In Skyrim you can’t go find Ulfric Stormcloak and stab him to death. You have to stab him to death when the story tells you to. In Breath of the Wild, you can’t mystically levitate your way up to the magical giant stone bird with your iPad. You have to shoot a couple arrows into some targets first to make some bird happy so he’ll fly you up there.

Despite the supposed openness of open world games, the plots are still linear. Only the order in which you choose to do things is different. They’re linear games with extra steps.

Windhelm Streets. Concept art by Adam Adamowicz.

A meaningless experience

One of the greatest disappointments I ever experienced in a game was the end of the civil war in Skyrim. I escaped the dragon at Helgen with an imperial soldier. We fought those stormcloak bastards all the way through the cave and out the other side. I served in the legion right up until I was sent out on a mission to recover the crown. I retrieved the crown from its cave and escaped. But I did not return to the imperial commander. I had a different plan in mind.

I arrived at the keep of Ulfric Stormcloak and surrendered the crown to him instead. He was the rightful king of Skyrim. He should be the one to rule. Not the imperials.

With my help, we pushed the imperials back, all the way to their stronghold in Solitude. And there we finally won. Freedom for the north! Freedom for Skyrim!

And nothing happened. A handful of people were there, and there was some clapping. Nothing of value was gained.

The effects of anything in an open world are limited to a very narrow scope. Thieves Guild affects Thieves Guild. Dragons affect dragons. The war affects nothing. How could it have? The player still has to experience the rest of the world. It was an easy thing to overlook with groups like the Thieves Guild. They kind of kept to themselves and didn’t have much to do with anyone else. But this was a civil war! It covered the entire realm of Skyrim! It was a central plot point to the game.

It broke me in a way. I stopped seeing open world games in the same way after that. Nothing mattered. Nothing was real. I couldn’t be invested in anything because I knew my actions wouldn’t make any difference.

It might seem absurd to think like this. Of course none of it matters. It’s a game. But we do expect things to matter when we read a book or watch a movie. We expect actions to have consequences. We expect everything to matter.

And very few things can actually matter in an open world game. When we tear stories apart so they can fit in an open world, we cripple the potential impact of those stories.

So how could these games be done differently? Let's continue this in Part 2.