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I think the last few years have brought us to a bit of an inflection point for open world video games -- which I feel have been in kind of a rut for the better part of the last decade. Long-time readers of my personal blog will probably be very familiar with my complaints. The two core complaints that I've had with this particular game design paradigm are:

  1. That the map itself rarely feels meaningful as a game space, and instead serves primarily as a convoluted mission-select screen full of time-wasting filler content.
  2. That the sandboxy nature of the game design means that the world and narrative often feel stagnant (as if in a kind of "limbo").
This blog is mostly a transcript of a YouTube video that I posted.

These problems can be traced back at least to 2001's Grand Theft Auto III, which set many of the conventions of open world games for the next two decades. Companies from Ubisoft to Bethesda, and many others, would copy GTAIII's structure of going to a location on the map to trigger a mission in an aggressively linear, cinematic story, while spending free time on time-wasting filler content that did nothing to move the story forward.

Grand Theft Auto III set many of the standards
for open world games over the past 20 years.

Aside from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Far Cry series, these problems have been present to varying degrees in everything from Skyrim to The Saboteur to Mad Max to Just Cause to The Amazing Spider-Man to Fallout 4 to Metal Gear Solid V, and many more. It started getting to the point that when I would see a game advertise the size of its map, I'd roll my eyes and lose interest. "Great, that's just more wasting my time walking from place to place with nothing meaningful or interesting or challenging to do."

Where you are on the map, where you're going, and how you get there was almost completely irrelevant in these games, which made the map itself (no matter how big and scenic it might be) feel mostly irrelevant. In fact, some games started introducing mechanics that let you bypass the map entirely by letting you fly, glide, or zipline to points of interest without having to engage with the space in between. In the case of Metal Gear Solid V's Afghanistan map, the roads are lined with sheer cliffs, funneling the player along linear paths from enemy outpost to enemy outpost, with practically nothing for you to do in the space between outposts. Even though the stealth action at those outposts was some of the best in the series, I couldn't help but think that Snake Eater provided a much more fulfilling experience of living within an open-ended game world.

I would roll my eyes whenever a game advertised the size of its map or hours of content.

The maps themselves weren't playspaces anymore; they were just the spaces in between towns, dungeons, and set pieces where the actual gameplay would take place. Just point in the direction of a waypoint and walk in a straight line, stopping every minute or so to pick up an umpteenth collectible, or climb an umpteenth tower, or sneak into an umpteenth enemy base and kill the umpteenth recycled mini-boss. Stop me if you've done all this before... A majority of the time with the game was just travelling around the map without any engagement in any gameplay systems or mechanics or strategies, and then playing some rote, recycled filler content to pass the time. And as the maps got bigger and bigger, the filler content just kept multiplying.

Beginnings of change?

But then, a few years ago, this started to change.

Game designers began vindicating my long-standing distaste for sandboxy open world designs, and started implementing actual mechanics for navigating the maps and turning those repetitive mission-select screens back into playspaces. I first noticed a transition back towards the open world serving as a playspace all the way back in 2013, while playing Assassin's Creed: Black Flag. That game put a large emphasis on sailing the open seas in search of trade routes to plunder for resources, and the ship-to-ship combat took place out on those open seas. But sailing and steering the pirate ship was, in fact, a simple matter of pointing in a direction and going. Even though all the gameplay had been moved out of towns and dungeons and back onto the map of the open sea, the act of navigating that sea was trivial.

Black Flag as an early stand-out open world game that moved its action onto the open world.

I first started noticing more nuanced mechanical and systemic navigation of maps in late 2016 and early 2017 when Final Fantasy XV and Breath of the Wild released.

Cross-country road trip

Final Fantasy XV still has all the trademarks of contemporary open world games. Linear, cinematic main story missions, separated by a large map full of collectible hunts and fetch quests. The big difference is that you aren't really free to just walk straight towards the next mission. Your movement using the car is constrained to follow the game's highways, and night time travel is restricted by severely over-leveled monsters that force you to stop at a motel or camp ground to sleep off the night, level up your characters, and wait till the safety of morning. ... Or just take care of any lingering quests that you have left to do in towns.

In addition, you have to fill the car up with gasoline periodically. You can't burn all your Gil on potions, Pheonix Downs, and the best weapons every time you stop in a shop, since you have to save at least some of it for living expenses like fuel, food, and lodging. Living expenses are something that video games rarely ever make you have to worry about. And that actually provides considerable incentive to keep taking on all the side quests that litter the game -- since you actually need the money. "fast travel" is handled by watching an NPC drive the car to your destination in real time, rather than just teleporting to the destination through a load screen. Unless you pay a small fee of gil. then you're allowed to skip the travel time with a load screen.

Final Fantasy XV restricts your travel to roads, and requires you to stop daily for gas, food, and / or lodging.

Where you are on the map, where you're going, how you get there, and how long it takes to get there are now suddenly very important. Every expedition out into the world requires some careful forethought, planning, and route-optimization so that you don't end up out of gas and stranded when the sun goes down and nigh-invincible Iron Golems start literally crawling up out of the ground.

Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XV waffles on these concepts. Fast travel doesn't consume fuel for the car for ... some reason, which completely negates the entire logistical element of the game once you've explored enough of the map to have fast travel destinations for almost everywhere you care to go. There also aren't enough camp sites (and you can't just make a camp site anywhere), which means the game always gives you the opportunity to fast-travel back to town when night falls -- again, completely negating this mechanic. It also lacks a lot of UI conveniences that would help you plan your travels. The travel menu tells you how long (in real time) it will take you to reach a destination, but it gives no indication as to what time of day you'll arrive, how long the given quest might take, or how much fuel the trip will consume. So you have little more to go on beside an educated guess as to whether you can make the trip (and return to camp or a hotel) by nightfall, or whether you'll run out of gas on the way.

Going into the character menu pauses the game, preventing you from turning driving time into productive time.

The game also pauses when you go to the character menu, meaning that you can't convert the driving time into constructive time by gearing up for a quest, using elemancy to craft spells, or so on while the car is moving. And once you get to a destination, there's no "wait" option in the map or menu, in the event that a particular quest can only be triggered at a certain time of day. These failing of the game reduce the logistical planning elements from being core gameplay mechanics down to little more than minor inconveniences -- which is probably a big reason that this game received such mixed reception when it was released.

Finding your own way

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild doesn't have a car with a constantly-draining gas tank. Instead, it uses a stamina gauge and natural obstacles to force the player to have to think carefully about where they go and how they get there. Like Final Fantasy XV, monsters come out at night in an attempt to limit Link's night-time exploration and encouraging you to find safe lodging for the night. It's not very effective since the skeletons that crawl out of the ground are mostly push-overs, and Blood Moon enemies are easy enough to avoid. I mean, it's not like Lynels are coming out to rampage in the pale moonlight.

You place your own map markers and waypoints, because you're exploring on your own terms.

Breath of the Wild and Final Fantasy XV aren't so much about the player being able to go wherever they want (which has been the design impetus of open world games since GTAIII). Instead, these games are more about trying to figure out how to get there, and making sure you have enough resources to make the trip and return.

Just as importantly, Breath of the Wild lives up to its name, and is refreshingly open-ended. The objective to defeat the final boss is given to you at the very start of the game, and the bulk of the main story questline is to handle any one of 4 objectives, in any order you want. Other than that, the whole game is basically exploring the map to find the shrines and to power-up your character. Heck, the game even requires the player to manually place your own waypoints and map markers, which further reinforces the idea that you're exploring this map on your own terms and at your own pace. Ganon basically already won a thousand years ago, and he's been sitting around in his victorious complacency, while the kingdom's been begrudgingly maintaining a defeated status quo ever since. So the sandbox structure isn't undercut by some impending doom that artificially inflates the stakes and pretends to make the main quest more urgent than it actually is.

Ganon won 100 years ago, and is just sitting back in his complacency.

Libertarian dream

But perhaps the new gold standard for player-driven sandbox gameplay is Red Dead Redemption II. You play this game as an outlaw living with a band of outlaws. You and your gang are just trying to live day-by-day, making money where they can, and always hoping for that next big score that always seems to be just over the horizon. There's no missing loved one that needs rescuing, no impending dragon apocalypse, no villain mastermind supposedly planning your downfall. Arthur isn't a "chosen one" protagonist.

Better yet, you're a legit outlaw this time around -- not some drafted operative working for the federal government. There's no implicit association with "the good guys" that might make you feel like you should be behaving honorably. You aren't a hero. You can hold people up, burglarize homesteads, rob trains and stagecoaches, and so forth. Or you can be a good Samaritan and help random strangers with their problems. You know, whatever you want! It's a near ultimate video game display of libertarianism -- do what you want, when you want, how you want.

Arthur is a legit outlaw, allowing the player to engage in sandbox shenanigans free of moral compunctions.

Like the other games I just mentioned, Red Dead Redemption II is loaded with small mechanics and systems that make your position on the map, where you're going, and how you plan to get there, all important and relevant. There's a survival meter that constantly depletes if you're not regularly eating and sleeping. The time it takes to search dead bodies or loot burglarized homes means you have to prioritize what to take when the authorities are closing in. Decaying animal carcasses force you to have to quickly turn them in for rewards or take them to camp to cook or craft with them. And cold weather will mean you'd better pack a warm jacket before traveling into or through the mountains.

Indie games have been experimenting as well

And then of course, there's Sony's Insomniac's Marvel's Spider-Man which has brought the joy of physics-based web-swinging back to an open world New York and makes the simple act of traversing the map into a fun and expressive pass-time in and of itself.

These games have redefined what a big-budget open world game should look like. They've set new standards for employing traversal mechanics that make the geography of the maps relevant and important. And they're taking the open world sandbox paradigm seriously as a narrative device.

indie games have been experimenting with the open world concept as well. If you turn off the current location indicator on the in-game map, then Firewatch becomes a game about using nothing but a compass and a paper map to navigate an environment by using physical signposts and landmarks.

Firewatch and Miasmata are largely about exploring natural spaces with nothing but a map and compass.

Four years prior, the game Miasmata actually attempted to gamify the process of cartography itself. You could only uncover areas of the map by triangulating your position in reference to two known, visible landmarks. This is perhaps the only game that I've ever played in which I became hopelessly lost in the dead of night, to the point that I had to restart the game and do a better job of not straying too far out of the known map.

And I haven't even gotten around to playing Outer Wilds or The Outer Worlds yet because I'm patiently waiting for the Steam versions -- maybe I'll go back and play Fallout: New Vegas while I wait. In any case, Outer Wilds apparently employs a Majora's Mask style time loop. You are constantly working against a ticking clock, so every second that you spend exploring the open solar system is one second closer to having everything reset. Once again, where you go, how long it takes you to get there, and what you do once you're there (and how long it takes) are all vital.

Outliers on the continuum

Now, just because I've only singled out 3 or 4 games does not mean that they are the only "good" open world games that I've ever played. Nor does it mean that every other open world game is completely broken and poorly designed. In fact, every game exists on some kind of continuum of quality of design. Every open world game probably does some things right and some things wrong. They experiment in some ways, and play it safe in others. This is also true of the examples that I've cited as innovators (especially Final Fantasy XV).

Grand Theft Auto IV and V only allow the player to fast travel by summoning a taxi and paying a fee, thus attaching a resource cost to avoiding having to travel across the map yourself. You even have to pay an additional fee to skip the trip and teleport.

Some open world games have used their maps better than others.

Fallout: New Vegas's "hardcore" mode has an extensive set of survival meters that require you to have adequate resources before setting out on a lengthy trip to complete a quest, and your character is constantly being exposed to ambient radiation that limits where you can go and how long you can spend there.

The Witcher 3 only allows you to fast travel between sign posts, and its quests are designed to tell long, involved story vignettes that help to focus the player's attention for longer periods of time and limit the amount of aimless wandering that you might do.

Games like Prototype, Infamous, and Sunset Overdrive were also early pioneers that experiment with different movement mechanics to make the travel across the map at least as engaging as the missions, in much the same way that Spider-Man 2 and Insomniac's Sony's Marvel's Spider-Man did with web-swinging.

Death Stranding: a case study

But there is one game from last year that I think acts as a fantastic deep-dive case study of how developers design traversal systems for open world games. That game is Hideo Kojima's contraversial Death Stranding. Death Stranding removes the dungeons and towns altogether and sets the entire game in its open world maps. Death Stranding, I think, works well as an open world game design case study because I feel that it highlights both the best of open world gameplay, and the worst. Death Stranding might very well be at the point of the inflection point that I'm talking about.

I did an in-depth case study of Death Stranding on YouTube (embedded below), and most of that content was pulled straight from my review. I don't want to duplicate that material a third time here, so if you want more detail, then I hope you'll check out the YouTube video, or the original review.

I did an in-depth case study of Death Stranding on YouTube.

A dynamic play space

Most importantly, Death Stranding removes the towns, dungeons, and so forth completely and sets the entire game out in the open world. The game is, in fact about travelling across that open world. Just like Final Fantasy XV and Breath of the Wild, Death Stranding isn't about going wherever you want; it's about figuring out how to get there. The map is the play space.

The second big point is that Death Stranding's play space is dynamic, and is reshaped by the activities of the player. You are tasked with helping to rebuild America by connecting settlements up to the Chiral network (basically the internet) so that everybody can share their knowledge and skills to help rebuild civilization. As you travel, you build infrastructure like bridges, zip lines, and highways, which makes return trips and further deliveries much easier. The network features also mean that your infrastructure is shared with other players, helping to ease their burden, and vice versa. Similar to Dark Souls' network features, Death Stranding's network features make the game about overcoming hardship and adversity through community and cooperation. Except unlike Dark Souls that sense of community is also the point of Death Stranding's narrative.

Death Stranding is about figuring out how to travel across the map.

Your failure also reshapes the game world, as being captured by the ghostly B.T.s will result in a voidout. These voidouts will eradicate the nearby terrain, leaving a smoldering crater and blocking future travel through the area -- permanently. You'll have to find an alternate route around.

A Sisyphean chore

So if Death Stranding is built upon such a novel and mechanically-engaging open world design with a strong and poignant thematic message that is told and reinforced through gameplay, why isn't the game resonating with people the way that something like Dark Souls and its online play did? Well, once build infrastructure, you trivialize the travel across the map. This reduces the deliveries to rote busy-work, similar to the copy-pasted content and scavenger hunts of other, lesser open world games.

Death Stranding is comparable to other classic games like Shadow of the Colossus and Resident Evil. Shadow of the Colossus is also largely about navigating the map to find the nesting places of each colossus. Resident Evil is a game about inventory management and logistics. These games 10 and 6 hours to beat (respectively). They don't wear out their welcome. Death Stranding goes on with its Sisyphean chores for 40 to 100 hours!

Death Stranding has design philosophies similar to Shadow of the Colossus and Resident Evil,
but drags on for much, much longer..

New ground

Death Stranding may have tried to do a bit too much and gone on for too long, but it's hard to deny that it takes a novel and innovative new approach to open world game design. Moreso than any other open world game that I've played, the geography and landscape of Death Stranding is an absolutely essential component of how the game plays; not just some pretty scenery behind a sword fight, shootout, or scavenger hunt. And unlike so many big-budget games that try to pretend to be "not political", Death Stranding proudly proclaims that it has things to say. Things to say about how we play our games. Things to say about how we interact in digital spaces. Things to say about how we treat our world. Things to say about how we treat each other. And things to say about how we treat ourselves. Most importantly, it uses its map, and the long nature walks across that map, as the medium on which it says those things.

Regardless of what you think of Death Stranding, I feel like it (and the other games I've talked about in this video) are breaking exciting new ground and setting new standards for how open world games can (and should) be designed. Hopefully, the days of maps being little more than massive, time-wasting scavenger hunts is coming to an end. The games that I've talked about here turned the act of exploring their maps into actual gameplay systems that challenge player skills and require forethought and strategy to successfully navigate. Or they are turning my decisions of where to go and how to get there into legitimate strategic or role-playing decisions.

If more games follow suit, then I might start to get excited by the promise of open world adventures once again.

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