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.

NEXT: Lego Store Detains 11-Year-Old Boy for Shopping Without Dad

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  1. Given that we libertarians boast a large contingent of dorky white dudes, I would assume there are a whole bunch of gamers on here. I abandoned the PC master race a long time ago and now waste my time as a casual console gamer (XBone). My current timewastes are Battlefield games and the free Neverwinter MMO, all of which will be abandoned this fall when Star Wars Battlefront finally releases. Any xbox gamers want to join forces and murder pixels together?

    1. I am still a PC gamer. After looking at the expense and relative libraries of the various platforms, and acknowledging that I will always have a PC in my home for work-related activities if nothing else, I decided that consoles were just not worth the bother. (I am also far more accustomed to gaming via keyboard and mouse that controllers feel too limiting)

      1. This, plus mods.

        1. This, plus mods.

          This. I’m running 84 mods on Skyrim, 800 hours in and still having a ball.

          1. Skyrim was fun but I got burnt out at about 200 hours.

            I still prefer FPS games. Playing Destiny now. I’m up to about 340hrs on it all ready. The game mechanics are superb. Bungie promised a more open game, maybe that is coming. Right now the game is a bit repetitive, if it weren’t for the PvP stuff I would probably be on to the next one.

            I might try Witcher. Was disappointed by Dragon Age though.

            1. Did anyone else confuse Peter Suderman with Peter K. Rosenthal?

        2. Definitely mods. Between FO3 and FONV I probably ran through hundreds and hundreds of mods.

          I have an online gaming community which is currently playing ArmA 3 (PUNY Battlefield and CoD titles make me laugh!) and we’re running a Wasteland mission server that I’ve heavily modified with scripts from Armaholic and the Wasteland website.

          I have a giant home theater PC setup in my living room on a 50″ plasma. Consoles?

          No way, Jose.

      2. The games I like to play (strategy, simulation, 4x games, god games, etc.) don’t come out on consoles, so the majority of gaming I do is on the PC. I do own a Wii U, but that’s mainly because I have a young daughter whom I am training for glory.

      3. I game on both PC and PS4. The consoles have the advantage of being assured (well, usually) that the game will actually work on the system. I was pretty bummed to have to wait for a new computer just to run The Witcher II (bc the required specs were so demanding.) but it’s hard for me to imagine playing any of the old-school RPGs I like on a console.

        Open worlds are still the exception, though. Neither are they new — think Ultima I or quite a few other games I played as a kid in the early 80s on my Apple II+.

        1. Thank you for bringing up Ultima. It was open world at least a decade before the concept became obvious.

  2. I’m more of a book reader.

    1. Being into books does not preclude being into games and vice versa. The only limitation is the difficulty in doing both at the same time. (I find it easier to rotate through hobbies).

    2. “Print is dead.”

      “Oh, that’s very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I’m too intellectual but I think it’s a fabulous way to spend your spare time. I also play raquetball. Do you have any hobbies?”

      “I collect spores, molds, and fungus.”

      1. +1 Ecto Containment Unit

    3. Book reader? Luddite!

  3. I play Go over an internet server. Latency of a second or two doesn’t really matter as long as you don’t want to play blitz.

    Not that I’m very good, however. 🙁

  4. I like playing classic video games on emulators. Mame is the best

  5. I’m only just starting to get the hang of Pong.

    1. Let me know your tips/tricks, please.

  6. I’m mostly a reader, focusing on sci fi and speculative fiction. (I especially like Heinlein and the newer William Gibson.) Started playing a couple of PC games fairly recently, at the tender age of 40. I like the Borderlands games. Tried Bioshock Infinite, but need to upgrade the computer to get it not to drag badly. Any recommendations for games or books?

    1. Though you seem to like first-person shooters, perhaps you might want to try Endless Legend? What separates it from others in its genre is that each faction plays very, very differently and I find the balance is excellent. However, if one faction doesn’t fit your playing style, trying to finish a game for their story can be a challenge.

      1. Looks interesting. I will check it out. Thanks!

        1. Fallout.

    2. As a piece of storytelling, Bioshock Infinite was a narrative failure. They realized when the game ended that they hadn’t wrapped up most of the loose ends and so did a solid ten minute exposition dump to spackle the plot holes. They failed in that they left the biggest plothole unresolved (why the main characters would think a parallel universe character would honor a deal made with a different iteration of that character when it in no way resembled the deal they made and they may not even have the item for which the main characters are searching at that time).

      I could rant for a prolonged period about “Burial at Sea”, which while a vast improvement in storytelling over the base game has horrific implications if you sit and think about it. (But that requires spoiling the entire plot to discuss)

      1. Speaking of parallel universes, DC saw it fit to make a new tv series featuring Rip Hunter and time travel but didn’t take the opportunity to bring back Booster Gold a main character. WTF?

        1. Well, the two do kind of have a very bizarre association. I was going to go off on a tangent about the characters, but I got distracted by the question of “Who would voice Skeets?”

          1. Anyone, as long as it’s not fucking Wil Wheaton.

            Seriously, fuck that guy.

            1. Skeets has traditionally been voiced by Billy West (thank you IMDB). I vote for him.


        2. Also, it’s probably that DC is trying to avoid paying creators for their work (a recent theme in their business dealings), and with Rip’s silver age provenance, there’s a good chance they can avoid royalty payments, while the creator of Booster Gold is alive, well and undisputed.

          1. That’s very likely, but they did have BG and the Blue Beetle make guest appearances in Smallville. The new series also has .5 of Firestorm and he’s only from the 80’s.

            1. There is a difference between Guest appearances and main characters in terms of royalties.

              But, I’m just guessing.

      2. I still loved the storyline in Bioshock Infinite. Didn’t buy the dlc, is it worth $15 (current steam price)?

        1. It’s got a better told story structurally, but it is rather short, and depressing as hell. Make of that as you will.

      3. Regarding Bioshock infinite. Rule of thumb: anything that involves time travel or time loops is bullshit. I don’t demand much of a science fiction story-line, but at the very least, it should not be grotesquely self-contradictory; and that inevitably rules out time travel. Fuck you Christopher Nolan.

    3. On books, check out the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. On games, as the article noted, if you haven’t played any of the Fallout games, I highly recommend them (good combo of FPS and open-world…even more so than Borderlands – which is excellent).

      1. Hyperion series is very good. Vernor Vinge’s Zone of Thought series (at least the first two books) is very good. Gregory Benford has some very expansive stuff – Galactic Center novels are worth a look.

        As is Brin’s Uplift series.

        These are all close to hard sci-fi but the stories are as good as the universe’s the authors create.

        1. Don’t know these other than Hyperion. Have heard good things about Brin right on this site.

          Have you read the Expanse series at all? I’ve read three so far, starting with Leviathan Wakes. I’d class it as hard sci fi. Pretty interesting themes from a libertarian point of view.

        2. Vinge and Brin aren’t hard sci-fi authors. Vinge’s slow zone is basically magic and Brin gets a lot of science just extremely wrong. Both are entertaining authors with Vinge generally the better in my opinion.

          1. If it’s a hard sci-fi hard-on you are nursing, try The Martian by Andy Weir. Soon, with 100% more Matt Damon.

          2. I give Vinge a pass because he has been right about lots of stuff. Read True Names.

            But generally both of these guys are classified as hard sci-fi, they may get shit wrong but he is in the genre rightly or wrongly. Brin went all SJW so I stopped reading his shit after the second uplift.

        3. How is Vernor Vinge’s characterization? What made Hyperion so great was the characters. Most sci-fi has trouble with this.

          1. The first two books in the Zone of Thought series are superb. He makes you hate a squealing pack of dog/seals.

            Brin, Benford, Vinge, and a few others are big universe guys. Big ideas, that lead to some interesting cirsumstances.

            I would rate Simon’s Hyperion/Endymion books as the best sci-fi I have ever read. One thing is for sure, he SUPER DUPER HATES CATHOLICS.

      2. I read and enjoyed the first two books of the Hyperion series. Might tackle Endymion pretty soon. I just finished Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Beautifully written, but I liked few of the characters other than Arkady and Nadia. Not sure if Green and Blue Mars will be worth it.

        I’ve heard good things about Fallout. Will check it out.

    4. The Borderlands games are great games.

      The dialog is pretty interesting as well, especially the enemy dialog. They say some crazy shit. Sometimes when you kill a Goliath they say with their dying breath “I regret everything”…brutal.

      Destiny which I’m playing now, has some pretty bland writing.

      1. I agree about the dialog in BL 2. I could swear some of the tunnel rats and field rats are voiced by Mark Hamill doing the Joker from Batman the Animated Series. His version of the Joker is my all-time favorite.

      2. I’m big into Borderlands 2 right now. One word. Loot Midgets =D

        1. I had every character class to level 72, then I just quit. Took me over a year.

    5. I am currently reading, and enjoying, Freedom (TM), the sequel to Daemon.
      Maybe someone here can help me find a book I read a long time ago. I think it was Heinlein. I remember that it predicted a lot of our current satellite communications. I remember there were a brother and sister ( I think), sent to govern Earth, which was by then a primitive backwater. I think they were sent by a corporation, not a government. And I remember that they could access IM and other communication through their brains, probably via an implant.
      Anyone have any clues?

  7. I know there are a few gamers on this board that would be interested in this.

    Skywind, a re-mod of Morrowind using Skyrim’s graphics, and engine is approaching alpha testing.

    1. Huh. Given that my primary barrier to going though the company’s back catalog is my frustration with graphics and game engines that I have no nostalgia filter to compensate for their age-worn appearance, that might help.

      1. I would love it if my XB1 could just up-convert my old Morrowind disc. Something tells me that 1) that isn’t currently technically possible, and 2) it wouldn’t fit into the video game business model.

    2. That’d be cool. I personally enjoyed Mirrowind much more than Skyrim.

  8. Yeah, the Witcher 3 is insanely good. I never read the books so I can’t say jack about whether it follows those well, but the game plays like a hugely improved Skyrim. Better combat, much bigger maps, more variety in the subquests, superior voice acting, etc. The cities are so much better than those dinky ones in Skyrim. I think just the city of Novigrad is larger than every urban area in Skyrim combined.

    P.S. – Go Team Yen!

    1. I’m not enthused. Probably because games 1&2 failed to engross me and I never finished either. (I’m also fairly certain I didn’t get that far in).

      1. I never played the first two. They sounded much more linear in design, like Mass Effect. The third is open-world. I just bought Witcher 3 because Skyrim was starting to get stale, and I’m glad that the game fulfills my desire for a bigger and prettier Skyrim with much better swordplay.

        1. If it goes on sale some time in the future, I might rethink my current stance. At the moment I’ve blown through my gaming budget on Batman, Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto. (Two of which aren’t even out yet.)

        2. The third *isn’t* open world. Its just more open that the previous. Its still a very linear, narrative-driven RPG. The only ‘openess’ about it is there’s some areas you can (actually , *have to*) grind XP. And its kind of jarring when you’re supposed to be in a hurry but you have to stop and play whack-a-mole with the local wildlife for a day or two at every town.

          This isn’t bad, per se – but unless the modders get to work soon there will be nothing left to do once the main quest is over.

          You certainly couldn’t open up a shop, ignore the main story, and live life as a merchant (like you can in all three TES games).

          1. I think you are confusing open world with sandbox.

            Also, if you have to grind in TW3, you are doing it wrong. There are so many high quality side quests that I am actually massively over leveled for the main quests.

            “You certainly couldn’t open up a shop, ignore the main story, and live life as a merchant (like you can in all three TES games).”

            Which of the five TES games could you do that (besides ignoring the story) without mods? Kinda comparing apples and oranges.

            1. Everyone from Daggerfall to Skyrim – without mods.

              And the sidequests *are* the grind. And they mostly make no sense as only a few of them are even tangentially related to the main quest (go do this for me and I’ll give some info).

              And I’m not confusing the two. You can’t go anywhere in TW3 at any time – there are areas that don’t unlock until you reach certain points, other areas where there’s nothing happening until the main story advances.

              1. Well, to each their own I guess. I’m enjoying the side quests that are not related to the main quest at all because I am not expecting them to.

                Not to belabor the point, but in all the hours I have spent in TES, I have never been able to open a shop sans mods. I haven’t played Arena or Daggerfell for more than a few minutes out of curiousity so I can’t comment there, but in Morrowind/Oblivion/Skyrim you cannot buy property (except very limitedly in Skyrim with Hearthfire) and run a shop with NPC customers to the best of my knowledge. Not saying you can do this in TW3, because you can’t.

        3. I’m already kind of burnt out on the endless wandering around in areas that all look alike in Witcher III. At least the story is clearer this time around — though Witcher II’s more linear focus helped keep the player more focused on the (very convoluted) main plot.

    2. Eh, TW3 is *good*, if you ignore the clunky combat (I don’t know how many times i’ve been knocked on my arse because Geralt insists on spinning around before striking), the insane FOV (60 degrees? No FOV slider? FML – I keep finding myself craning my head, trying to peer around the edge of the screen and the character’s back to see anything), the insane amount of monsters that live 50 feet from the edge of any human habitation (seriously, how do these people survive? A nighttime walk to the privy requires an armed escort), and the overblown ‘I hate Witchers’ attitude of the people. I get it, you don’t like these guys. But really, *everyone* you walk by is going to spit in your path, make some rude comment? All 20 of you lining this path that I’m walking down?

      Oh, and Geralt’s voice is Bale Batman annoying.

      PPS – they nerfed the potion mechanic from the first two games so instead of preparing yourself, you quaff potions in the middle of a fight. The best, most unique, potion use mechanic *ever* and they tossed it. Maybe the console peasants couldn’t handle it?

      I like the series – but only for its darker tone.

      1. I’m sure an FOV mod will be available in a couple weeks. I wasn’t a big fan of TW2, though I recall thinking that the franchise had promise. Think I’ll join those on the sideline waiting on a sale.

        1. Its already available.

          And fragged by the patch.

          And fixed.

          And fragged by the next patch.

          And fixed.

          And fragged by the next patch.

          This is why an FOV slider should have been included from the get go. I put the game away until the major bugs (that others, not me, are having) and optimizations are finished and it settles down into something other than a ‘break your mods every other day’ cycle.

      2. Potions were hosed in the second game along with useful mutations And all in the name of satisfying the button mashing console players. I haven’t started on 3 yet, but I will.

        I don’t get the frothing over Skyrim. The main story is simply boring. Much of the combat is boring. Yes, big world, I get it. I just didn’t care about it.

  9. I enjoyed Skyrim but once I beat the main quest I had very little interest to explore the rest of the world. The interaction – at least with computer generated characters – isn’t very deep.

    A good first person shooter – playing with others online – is much more fun. Even something fairly old, like Left 4 Dead 2, is helluva lot of of fun if hook up with good team members. And my favorite WW2 shooter, Red Orchestra 2 (with the American/Japanese mod Rising Storm) requires a good team to win – eg you can’t go in running ‘n’ gunning for too long – not in a battle with zero health packs. But holding back an entire enemy attack with a machine gun barricaded in a window – ah, good times.

    1. … with good team members

      You have just identified the most impossible pre-requisite for online play.

      1. The RO2 / Rising Storm community is pretty good; mostly a group of mature players who are into realism.

        L4D2 sadly is a big mess – lots of little kids

        Back when I played the Call of Duty series, it was the worst.

        1. Ha, try GTA V Heists. You wait an hour before you even get past the loading screens, and you get stuck with some guy who immediately proceeds to put a bunch of explosives on the thing that you’re not supposed to blow up, and you wonder, ‘who would wait that long just to troll three other people?’ How can one retain faith in humanity after that?

  10. I need to become wealthy enough to retire so I can just play Europa Universalis the rest of my days.

    Anyone got a less…. involved… game similar to that?

  11. Well, let me take thi sopportunity to remind you that there is a Steam group for Reason commenters.

    Called ‘Reason Magazine Commenters’.

    Its the fastest growing Steam group for Reason commenters *ever*.

    Send me a request and I’ll hook you up.

    1. I wasted 20 minutes looking for a “request invite” button at your group page (just started using the social aspect of steam this week.) Can you toss me a bone? bigbaddannyboy is my steam handle

      1. Thanks for this info. I’ll be back on there once I’m unbanned from the Pillars of Eternity forums for making fun of SJWs.

    2. Not sure how to add to the group either, so I tried to message Homo_Cyberneticus, ended up sending a friend request. Hope to see a reply.
      Thanks for letting me know about the group at least!

    3. Me too! I’m dr_fallout there. Sent friend requests to you and Lord.


  12. “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.”

    What he fails to mention is that Oblivion and Skyrim respectively were dumbed-down from Elder Scrolls III Morriowind. You could literally create potions/scrolls/spells that would break the game if you wanted to. Many of the potential tricks or manipulations were taken out of Oblivion an Skyrim. 🙁

    1. That’s not, by itself, a negative.

      What is bad is the removal of the spellmaking system, attributes, the godawful gamepad-centric UI, and the ‘streamlining’ of all the quests to a ‘follow the arrow, go here, click that’ format.

      The last part is the absolute worst aspect of Skyrim.

      But, in an effort to reach as broad an audience as possible, they got rid of anything that would require *thinking* and especially *consequence – too many console gamers do not like the idea that making a decision might lock them out of content in a single playthrough.

      1. How many potions did I create, that I ultimately did not use? About a bazillion.

      2. Yeah I understand why they did it. But I was still sad to see it happen. That being said, I still love Skyrim and play it to this day without getting bored. But I really wish it had the Morrowind style attributes/leveling system. And of course spellmaking.

        My favorite leveling trick in Morrowind was to make the drain skill 100% for 1 sec spell, then buy the training for the next level (level 1) from a trainer for pennies and max out any skill that way. ha ha

  13. We need extra lives in real life.

    1. Or Invincibility/God Mode

      1. That’s for pussies.

  14. It’s been a while, but I remember really liking the environment in Just Cause 2. The dense cities and night looked pretty good.

    I’ve been playing GTA V on PS4 off and on for about 5 months and might have 15% completion because I keep exploring. If you play, go into the Metro tunnels and check out the side tunnels.

    That, and I can’t help but cause mayhem.

    If you want to up your body count and collect guns/ammo, you can go to that police station that has an interior, RUN down the hallway (you’ll get three stars) and hang out under the stairs. You can pick them off as they enter that hallway. Run forward to pick up the weapons during the time when they gather outside. When you get sick of it, quick save. I’ve also racked up a large body count by going into the subway tunnel near the first guy’s house and going into cover near the mouth of it and just picking them off as they come after me. When you get tired of it, run into the tunnel and your wanted level will fade as they stop pursuing.

  15. It’s been a while, but I remember really liking the environment in Just Cause 2. The dense cities and night looked pretty good.

    I’ve been playing GTA V on PS4 off and on for about 5 months and might have 15% completion because I keep exploring. If you play, go into the Metro tunnels and check out the side tunnels.

    That, and I can’t help but cause mayhem.

    If you want to up your body count and collect guns/ammo, you can go to that police station that has an interior, RUN down the hallway (you’ll get three stars) and hang out under the stairs. You can pick them off as they enter that hallway. Run forward to pick up the weapons during the time when they gather outside. When you get sick of it, quick save. I’ve also racked up a large body count by going into the subway tunnel near the first guy’s house and going into cover near the mouth of it and just picking them off as they come after me. When you get tired of it, run into the tunnel and your wanted level will fade as they stop pursuing.

    1. Squirrels are in the garden.

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