The term ‘open world’ has come to be associated with a very specific type of game. Grand Theft Auto, Watch Dogs and Infamous: Second Son all conform to that narrow definition, offering you a city full of missions and sidequests that’s also populated by a smattering of resilient, if not very intelligent, civilians. But choice in these games is often illusory. You might be able to go anywhere, but is there anything to do when you get there?
This month showcases a shift in thinking as developers begin to approach open worlds in radical new ways. The Chinese Room’s debut, Dear Esther, was perhaps the antithesis of a freeform game, but the small team is tackling the problem of player volition and narrative arcs in nonlinear games head on with Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (p38). Its story is made up of many pieces scattered across a large area that can be experienced in any order and investigated in the depth of your choosing. Playground Games’
Forza Horizon 2 (p44), meanwhile, continues the trend of racing games that don’t constrain drivers to a circuit and actively encourage shortcut improvisation. And, of course, the celebrated No Man’s Sky (p62) wants to give you an entire universe to play in, with no particular stipulations as to what you do in it.
Perhaps the real change here, alongside advances in procedural technology, is a growing trust in players’ ability to make their own fun, rather than insist on the tasks and challenges we must undertake, and the order in which they can be attempted. In that sense, Mario Maker (p56) can be grouped into the same spiritual category, a surprising example of Nintendo handing players extensive authorial control over the platforming gauntlets that popularised its beloved mascot.
There will always be a place for tightly controlled, linear experiences, but as developers learn to build worlds and tools geared towards players’ innate curiosity, games can only become richer as a result.