When I was asked to write about the development of the open world over the past decade, I thought that I would have an easy path. I’m an adherent to the Assassin’s Creed, I was an early adopter of Minecraft, and I thought that I would be able to chart the movement from corridors to mountain ranges easily. If you see it, you can go there, and all of the other ideological moves would follow from there. And I could write that piece, I think, but as I dug into how I felt about the past ten years and videogames’ transformations during that time, I realized that the mechanical or structural changes weren’t what stood out to me. Instead, I realized that the effect of the open world, what it has done to us, was what I needed to write about. Because it has done things to us, the players and the critics.
Traversing genres, from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey to The Witcher 3 to Red Dead Redemption 2, the open world is normally characterized by terrain to navigate, enemies to find and defeat, and small quests or minigames to find. All of this is distributed across a big space that, to put it bluntly, has a lot of not-interesting stuff in it. That is, in fact, the point. Most of the world is not interesting, and the joy of the open world game is finding the points that matter.
The open world has turned most games into puzzle boxes. In the narrative sense, the puzzle box is a story in which the core conceit, the thing that keeps you watching, is not just drug dealers vs. cops and the ensuing antics. Instead, there’s a mystery at the heart of things. Every show is now Twin Peaks or The X-Files. They have things to reveal. You need to watch each episode to understand how that revelation takes place. You’re watching to be surprised and to get a little more of the big picture. You’re looking for all the pieces so that you can understand how they fit.
The open world game takes that linear narrative flavor and spatializes it. It stretches a mode of narrative creation out into a map, obscuring some parts of it and hiding others, typically the strangest ones, for the intrepid explorer to discover. Take a look at any page of The Witcher 3 or Red Dead Redemption 2 easter eggs and you will find locations, enemies, and sundry weird things that exist for the eagle-eyed player. They’re there to collect. They’re also there to share. On a conceptual level, the open world is there to stuff full of things that refer to other things, or refer back to previous things, or that will be refer-able in an easter egg video by a prominent YouTuber.
When we think of the open world, we think of massive scale. It is pitched as scale. But when Todd Howard said that we could see a mountain and that we could go there, he was speaking of a specific experience. You can go there. And there are going to be things in between that you might be the first person to see. In the context of the game narrative, you might be the only person to see them, a kind of Chosen One hero of events generated from a spawn table. Two animals might arrive from the dusk to fight each other. A singular, guitar-playing person might be sticking it out in their camp, and you can pause there and listen.
The open world is the promise of a special experience that exists right over the next ridge.
And this is different from the non-open world game (the closed world?). Modern Warfare sells itself on the cinematic encounters that your trigger finger will navigate you through. Resident Evil 2 gives you a literal world-puzzle that’s tightly wound and timed and demands that you figure out which metaphorical wires to snip in which metaphorical order. These are clockwork experiences that still have the thrill of excitement without depending on vastness and potentiality to generate it. Put another way, Devil May Cry will give you badass bosses and weird story beats, but you’ve got a relatively straightforward path through those things. Breath of the Wild does as much as possible to uncouple you, as a player, from that kind of path.
The joy of open world games is the joy of novelty, and in that way it’s not unlike the other, much more verboten, box of videogaming. The loot box and the open world game are both driven by our desire to be surprised that the known thing in front of us could produce something that we didn’t expect. You might get that skin you really wanted; you might find the secret of Mount Chiliad if you look around hard enough. Both run on speculation. Both prey on hope to keep you going from one moment to the next.
And it has changed us, I think, as players and as critics. The open world is made for the tweet thread, enabling us to share the weird experiences we have and claim ownership of them, even for just a moment. The open world allows us to split the universe up into bite-size pieces, creating supercuts or writing critical pieces that hold one instance of the world up as an example of its wonder and beauty. One easter egg can be the universe, and it can become the singular experience that defines a weird, giant thing that is a game.
I think that the open world has both given us bigger games but also smaller, more delimited experiences of those games. The open world is actually rarely more than the sum of its parts, which are a string of surprises like popcorn on the thread that is the player’s desire. And in their massiveness, they become easier to speak about but harder to grasp on the whole. The open world game offers an opportunity to act and speak as if the part is the whole. The fragment stands-in for the entirety of the universe. Mirroring the rest of the developments of the past ten years, where a tweet is a person and ten seconds is representation and a trailer is a movie. Marx told us that everything that’s solid melts into air. It might be more accurate, in 2019, to say that everything solid has splintered into holography.
The last decade has given us the open world, and we cup these worlds in our hands like so much shattered glass, making proclamations about each glimmer from the shards.
Cameron Kunzelman is a critic. You can follow him on Twitter, listen to his podcast (with Michael Lutz) about game studies, and check out the D&D sessions he runs.