The open-world genre – if you can even call it a genre, given how, well, open that descriptor is – continues to evolve and go from strength to strength, giving gamers around the world massive sandboxes to play in and stories to discover. I’ve always played a lot of open-world games, and lately I’ve been thinking about the things my favourite games of this type have in common. Have a read, then let me know what you think the best open-world games have in common in the comments.
You Construct Your Own Stories
One of the most obvious trends we’ve seen in open-world games over the last few years is a move away from mini-maps covered in icons, to a more emergent style of storytelling. In these games the stories you build are less scripted, and are more likely to be organic events that just happen as you’re out exploring the world.
One of the most obvious trends we’ve seen in open-world games over the last few years is a move away from mini-maps covered in icons, to a more emergent style of storytelling.
Take Far Cry 5, where the fictional Hope County is littered with bases to take and secrets to find whenever the player is out roaming around. In one session, I was wandering through the forest by a river in the western portion of the map. I saw a massive storm drain up ahead and like any intrepid adventurer I went exploring. Inside the drain and around some corners I stumbled on a makeshift camp: a sleeping bag, storm lantern, some bottles of beer and a rifle. Nearby was a locked gate and behind it I could see more guns, ammunition and cash than I could hope for. But the locked door proved a problem, and I hadn’t scored the lockpicking skill yet. So I left and thought I’d come back later.
I exited through the other end of the storm drain, and just down the river saw a splash of blood, and followed it. A little while along, just before a rocky outcrop and a bend in the river was another spot, then a great big streak of blood going around the bend. I followed it, and found the source. A man lying in a pool of blood. He had a gun next to him and a key lay in the dirt nearby. I grabbed the key and turned to head back, before a low rumble and a guttural roar sounded from near the water. I turned, and found myself face-to-face with a massive black bear.
This was just one of the “Prepper Stashes” (treasure hauls hidden away by one of the many “Doomsday Preppers” in the game), and highlights just how many directions this one story can be tackled from. Like me you could find the storm drain by chance and stumble through it that way. As I found out later, there was also a note in a nearby house that points towards the stash. Or you could get tipped off by an NPC and led there. Or, of course, you could find the body, and the bear, and wonder where the key fits, and get to the treasure that way.
These elements give a flexible quality to scenarios like this, allowing each player to create their own story by virtue of how the pieces fit together.
You Have Room to Experiment
An extension of that last point is that a common thread across open-world games is leaving the player room to experiment, whether for the purposes of approaching objectives or just messing around. That might mean starting a turf war to clean out a base in Watch Dogs 2, or strapping C4 to a plane and piloting it into an enemy player in GTA Online.
There’s almost no end to the discovery process in Breath of the Wild.
For many gamers, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the greatest examples of this ideal. Its massive open-world is built atop layers and layers of systems, and revealing how they interact with one another is both surprising and joyful. You can do things like toss metal weapons at enemies during a thunderstorm to get them struck by lightning, use fire to create your own updraft allowing you to get the drop on foes, or use the Stasis ability to build up charge on an object and then fire yourself across the map like a small green cannonball with arms. There’s almost no end to the discovery – and experimentation – process in Breath of the Wild (check out 100 little things you can do in Breath of the Wild here), and this adds immeasurably to it as a gaming experience.
The best open-world games are full of moments where you say to yourself “I wonder if this will work,” and more often than not, it does.
You Can Get Around in Style
Transport is hugely important in open-world games, and whether it’s a horse in Red Dead Redemption, a car in Grand Theft Auto, or a Gryphon in World of Warcraft – the way you get around the world is pivotal. Because really, when you build a world the size of Skyrim, Los Santos or Medici, you’ll spend a lot of time moving back and forth between objectives.
While planes, trains and automobiles can be a fun way to get from A to B, the sky really is the limit with this aspect of open-world games.
Most recently we’ve seen how Breath of the Wild built upon the series’ history with horses, while also adding the glider… not to mention the insanely entertaining shield-surfing ability. We’ve also seen how Horizon Zero Dawn gave you the option of turning enemies into vehicles by converting the dangerous robot horses and bulls into trusty steeds.
A few short months ago God of War turned travel into what it’s never been before – an exciting distraction from the main game. Even though the game itself isn’t completely open-world, the Lake of Nine gave you a wide open space to explore and some of its most entertaining dialogue. By traveling around the lake with Mimir and Atreus, the game played stories and conversations that fleshed out the game and the world immensely. God of War is the only game that has ever had me going around in circles a few metres away from my objective, just waiting to hear the end of a character’s story. Mimir’s tales are legendary in that game, and combining them with the traversal system of the boat gave a whole new life to getting around the map.
On the more “extreme” side of the spectrum, it’s hard to go past Just Cause 3. In that game strapping rockets to a cow was a perfectly reasonable use of your time (and a surprisingly efficient way to blow up convoys), but its most inspired piece of game design was the combination of wingsuit and grappling hook. They made getting around Medici utterly exhilarating. It was a movement system that was entirely grounded in the world (you could only grapple onto things you could see or reach), but it was also faster than any other way of getting around, not constrained by roads and could be activated from anywhere.
The movement system was also tied to the orchestral score in the game: the music would crescendo each time you crested a massive hill or swept down into a valley, giving you an exhilarating rush that felt planned – even though it rarely was.
Of course, Just Cause 3’s wingsuit did lead to some spectacular failures, like the many times I accidentally catapulted Rico Rodriguez into a building, pedestrian or enemy vehicle. But the fact that the game allowed you to fail spectacularly showed the breadth of the system and allowed you to try more and more ridiculous things, just for the fun of it. Now bring on Just Cause 4!
The Side Stories Are Actually Memorable
There’s something to be said for a great story, but open-world games need more; they need reasons for you to keep you coming back after the credits roll, or things to do between major story beats. Games like Mafia 2 and L.A. Noire fell flatter than a bad joke at a Christmas lunch when they let you off the leash between missions. For all the care that went into crafting Empire Bay and Los Angeles in those games, it really just boiled down to window-dressing on your daily commute to the next mission.
For that reason, a great open-world game also needs some strong narrative drive between missions. Take the recently released Vampyr, a game so dripping with mystery and intrigue that Sherlock Holmes would need two or three more Watsons to keep track of everyone’s secrets. It takes place in London during the Spanish Flu of 1918, a bleak time in global history that resulted in the deaths of a quarter of the British population. You play as Dr Reid, a doctor specialising in blood transfusions who is – ironically enough – turned into a vampire.
Between missions that have you searching for answers to your vampiric heritage, the game throws you into the deep-end of British society to booze it up with officials or slum it with the street rats as you see fit. This societal system plays heavily into what makes the game world feel alive, because as you get to know more NPCs around town, you’ll not only get more information to help you survive the city, but you’ll uncover more secrets about the people you’re talking to and open up new opportunities.
Key to all the little stories you pick up in London is the fact that any of the people you meet can become a meal for your vampiric appetite…
One mission had me searching for a local priest’s assistant, who had gone missing. Throughout the investigation the priest seemed more and more suspicious; he seemed too zealous about the epidemic and seemed to care more about freeing the city than curing the ill. By the end of the mission I realised just how far his corruption went – murder, grave robbing and worse. I’d determined London would be better off without him, and I’d be better off with the XP he’d give me as a meal.
Key to all the little stories you pick up in London is the fact that any of the people you meet can become a meal for your vampiric appetite, thereby gifting you with experience points and making you stronger and more capable. So as you get to know the city-dwellers, and find out who needs medical care, you can help them with their issues and cure their illnesses, all the while with the constant temptation that they’re becoming more and more valuable to your XP bar.
Then, as you kill off characters to level up, the city adapts and changes to fill in the gap that they left; some people close to them might become depressed, or the city will start to be abandoned and thugs will fill the street.
It’s an incredible mechanic that constantly had me weighing up how much I cared for particular characters versus how much I wanted a new skill or to be more powerful. Not every decision is as clear cut as removing the priest, and more than once I found myself weighing up two characters and deciding who I (and the city) would miss less. It feels like a natural evolution of the Nemesis system showcased in the Middle Earth series, only applied to the NPCs who are giving you missions to fulfil.
As I said in the opening paragraph, the term “open-world” covers a ridiculously broad cross-section of games these days. I’ve outlined some of the elements present in my favourite open-world games, but maybe you play completely different games that could also be classified open-world. Tell me what you think makes them sing in the comments.
Nathanael Peacock is a freelance games journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. He recently wrote about some of the pantheons that the God of War series could explore next. Why not say hey on Twitter?