Paris, circa 1800. The rooftops are deserted. Buildings sit false-fronted and empty, no feet to wedge in their meticulously crafted architraves, no eyes to marvel at their detailed designs. Common people walk back and forth, once the background to adventure, now the foreground of nothing in particular.
Hong Kong, present day. Stall owners shout about pork buns, but nobody listens. Cars drive back and forth, never arriving at their destinations, because the destinations no longer matter.
The duchy of Gransys, after the defeat of Grigori. Monsters roam empty fields with nobody to attack. Pawns sit idle in the Rift, living out an uneasy and pointless peace.
These are the worlds we leave behind when we move on to new games. Technology advances, the consumer maw gurgles for new meat, and developers create yet more digital spaces in which to caper. It’s the way things are done. And it makes perfect sense for a linear experience, where a location or environment exists in a specific time for a specific reason. When the Master Chief escapes from the Pillar of Autumn right before it explodes, taking the Halo with it, we’re done; there’s no plausible reason to keep it in our thoughts. We progress. But an open world is different. It is persistent; it has no specific beginning or end. An open world is an ecosystem, more closely resembling a character in the narrative than a mere map through which to traverse.
A good open world is remembered for its personality, quirks and foibles rather than something as coldly mechanical as technical specifications. We recall the angry drivers and seedy strip clubs of GTA IV‘s Liberty City, or the beautiful sunsets, unreliable horses and casual racism of The Witcher 3‘s Oxenfurt, rather than how many fake kilometres square they are or how many NPCs can be rendered in one location. Extended stays in these places breed a comfortable familiarity, so when a Skyrim guard tells us he took an arrow to the knee, it fuels a general hatred of the region’s guards rather than any animosity towards programmers who may have been overzealous with their numbers.
Even poorly realised worlds like the blithely indifferent technological dystopia of Chicago, as depicted in Watch Dogs, stick in our memories as real places where real hackers participate in real drinking games.
Unlike a human character, who may at least get a respectable new role in future games, worlds are discarded to make way for whatever bubble universe come next. Morrowind moves aside for Cyrodiil, which steps down for Skyrim; Liberty City turns into Vice City, which turns back into Liberty, then into Los Santos; Gotham keeps a few landmarks while changing and expanding whenever someone shines the sequel signal. No matter how intricate or lovingly crafted, once the story is done, the lands wither and die.
A waste. Yes, there’s the relentless march of technological progress, more rapid and violent in the video game industry than most places, but to simply leave all these fully-realised locations to rot is a tragedy. Instead, why not put them to work? Retain the physical form, the algorithmic muscle pushing all those civilians and horseless carriages back and forth, but replace the meat in the sandbox sandwich. Tell more stories, explore new characters, or look at old characters in a new way. Expand upon the themes of the original game by using the tools you already created. Games are interactive moments in time, usually fleeting; an open world provides a potential anchor for many, many stories.
Consider the London of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate; perpetually wet cobblestones, dingy corner pubs, busy intersections walled in by monstrously practical commercial buildings. Jacob and Evie Frye’s adventures are clearly Very Important, in the way that main characters are always very important to the locations they inhabit—the Templars’ hold on the city is corrupting all it touches, London must be free, etcetera—but imagine all the stories that could be told if someone was given the narrative reins. It’s not hard to think of options that require no messy crossovers, plot holes or ghastly retcons. Maybe a new character is introduced, a Templar bent on clawing back some of the city, or a young upstart who has been following the Frye Twins and fancies themselves an assassin of some sort.
The important concept to grasp here is that these ideas, and the thousands I never mentioned, don’t require any kind of mechanical overhaul. Use the existing world and universal cogs to tell a new story. Explore the ins and outs of the game systems from a new perspective, rather than beginning everything from scratch each time.
This sort of thing would generally be regarded as a bad move by certain types of people; games are about playing, you know, stories are just the excuse for a good time. Performative theories dictate that games are a creative medium designed to give your hands new things to do, all the time. Using maps, models, ideas and systems repeatedly is lazy, because something is only worthwhile if you’ve never seen or done it before.
But the whole idea of an open world runs counter to that. We’re supposed to spend a considerable amount of time in these places, far longer than the time it takes to learn the systems of the game, longer even than the stories which inject meaning into our visits.
Resuscitating these types of universes has been toyed with a little by the big guns of the genre. Grand Theft Auto IV gave players two so-called episodes which told entirely new (but connected) stories from the perspectives of two new characters. The city lived on. Saint’s Row IV started its life as expanded content for Saint’s Row The Third—a fact which allowed people to attack it for being lazy well before they had ever played the final product—before transforming into a fully-fledged, Matrix-inspired, alien repurposing of Steelport. SRIV so expertly plays with the warped nature of its origins, the tropes of the genre and the quirks of the series that it’s also something of a roller coaster critique of the form, all by making mechanical changes that essentially amount to adding developer-sanctioned cheat codes.
Your reaction to this idea of conscious recycling on a grand scale likely depends on what you see as the purpose of an open world in a video game.
A linear game is about moving through the experience, following the path—or paths—and completing the work in front of you (be that a story, a set of challenges, or something else entirely). Open worlds are universes in which to exist, perhaps indefinitely. They contain their own paths, bubbles of activity which hearken back to more straightforward games, but their relatively static existence before and after those bubbles implies a more relaxed and long-term approach.
You live there, basically.
For however long the game holds your attention, you are a resident of its fictional streets. This sense of home, of belonging to a world, connects us to it in a way that is impossible for less free experiences. We explore, wander, test the ins and outs of life in This City or That Forest when, by gaming standards, we aren’t actually playing anything at all. It’s why visiting a brothel in Wild Hunt feels more like something you’re doing to pass the time and ease Geralt’s loneliness than another funny check mark on your to-do list. And it’s why these worlds deserve a second, third, fourth look.
Developers are always going to make bigger, fuller, more realistic worlds. There will always be a drive for the next amazing piece of gaming technology or brilliant innovation. This is a good thing.
But there’s value in respecting the work that has been put into the worlds we already have, and keeping in mind the fact that they were always designed to be long-term relationships.
There are always more stories to tell.