Open Worlds and Endless Lives

How massive, explorable environments brought a new era of choice to video games.


For those who grew up in the Atari era, when primitive video games were first coming on the scene, the key to success at most electronic games was simple: beat the game, or at least get a high score. Game designers drove players toward a single overarching goal, with a series of milestones along the way: solve a puzzle, complete a level, beat a boss, then beat a bigger one, a faster one, a harder one. Points were awarded mostly for completion of basic tasks; the more of them you completed, and the less often you died, the more points you received. Games were repetitive, fairly simple, and tended to set strict limits on player behavior. In many of the most popular side-scrolling games, movement was only allowed from left to right. Players had to go where the game designers wanted them to go. The only real choice was figuring out what to do along the way.

Part of the reason for this was that in the early days, many video games were conceived along the same lines as conventional offline games—the kind in which you competed against a human opponent in a game of strategy and skill. The main difference was that electronic games pitted the player against a computer opponent.

Another reason was because early games themselves were subject to strict technological limits. Graphics were crude and interactive complexity was tough to pull off. Ultimately, game designers could only let the players do so much.

The rise of 3D technology helped change that by recasting games as visits to virtual environments. Even in their most rudimentary form, the inclusion of virtual worlds gave players a new form of agency, because it gave them something to explore. Granted, exploration wasn't entirely new to video games; early chapters in the Zelda franchise allowed players to explore simply animated two dimensional maps and blocky dungeons filled with riddles and secrets. But the addition of a third dimension made exploration more thrilling and more realistic; instead of a looking at a two-dimensional representation of a place, 3D games in the first-person perspective allowed you to actually see it from the inside, on the ground. It was the difference between looking at a a map of a city and visiting it for yourself.

The first virtual environments were fairly limited themselves; they tended to be little more than blocky rooms and repetitive corridors, with perhaps the occasional trip to a flat green plane abutting a wall of blue intended to represent the outside. At best they offered the bare suggestion of a place, a glimpse at its outlines and structures.

But over the last 25 years, video game virtual environments have grown bigger and richer, more detailed and more complex, filled with big crowds and tiny details, and, in the very best games, a sense of practically limitless possibilities for play and exploration.

Dozens of games and game franchises in a variety of genres have sprung up devoted to supplying players with open worlds—massive digital playgrounds that offer, and often emphasize, tremendous player freedom to move around a vast virtual place.

Indeed, many of these games, such as the Grand Theft Auto series, explicitly seek to replicate the experience of visiting a digitally created city. Others are even vaster in scope, offering players the opportunity to traverse and explore entire virtual continents tens or even hundreds of miles across. The spaces have grown immensely over the last few years, and over time these in-game spaces are only going to get bigger; one game now in development seeks to use real-world satellite imagery to model and digitally recreate the entire planet earth.

These games are no longer simple contests between player and computer, but opportunities for aimless exploration and individually directed free-play. In virtually all of them, players can go where they want, when they want. And in the best of them, games like Skyrim and Fallout 3, there are few arbitrary limits on behavior. If you can think of something to do that fits within the game's broad boundaries and capabilities, the game will probably let you do it. 

The sort of free-wheeling virtual immersion these games offer can be immensely satisfying, and, for a certain personality type, borderline addictive. As Tom Bissell wrote in his 2010 book, Extra Lives:Why Video Games Matter, "The pleasures of the open-world game are ample, complicated, and intensely private; their potency is difficult to explain, sort of like religion, of which these games become, for many, an aspartame form. Because of the freedom they grant gamers, the narrative-and mission-generating manner in which they reward exploration, and their convincing illusion of endlessness, the best open-world games tend to become leisure-time-eating viruses." The time-suck is directly related to the open-endedness; when you can do anything (or at least what feels like it), there's suddenly an awful lot to do.

Yes, there are still technological limits on play (truly open ended conversation is still a ways off), and in most of these games, there are a variety more traditional missions and levels available, as well as various "side quests" that offer digressions from the main thread. These missions offer the possibility of narrative and structure, but no more. They are usually optional and often somewhat beside the point. Tellingly, the old concept of "points" has itself mostly disappeared; beating the game and achieving a high score is no longer the sole objective. 

Rather, the point of these open world games is….well, to figure out what the point is, or at least what you want it to be. Pursue the main quests, fiddle with side missions, or just run around and see what there is to see. Go with the flow, or strike off on your own and make your own story, whatever it is. There's no larger, predetermined point, and no one's keeping score, but in contrast to their predecessors, what open world games teach us is that it doesn't really matter. Choice, it turns out, is its own reward.