While thinking back on some of the biggest games in recent months—games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and Sunset Overdrive—I started to notice just how prevalent the open-world format has become. The most popular releases of last year took place in sprawling environments where players could take time off from story missions to complete optional side activities or just explore at their leisure. While each of the games listed above is completely different in plot, setting, and gameplay style, all of them share a basic design structure. Open world games, while always popular in the past, seem to have dominated 2014.
This doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon. Titles like Techland’s Dying Light, Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham Knight, and Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky have all been advertised with large, “sandbox” style worlds as a main feature. Again, these games couldn’t be less alike in their aesthetic and gameplay systems: one is a first-person, parkour-centred zombie game; one a third-person superhero brawler; and the last a space exploration simulator. But, they’re all titles that emphasize player freedom as a cornerstone of their design.
There’s nothing wrong with setting games in open worlds, of course. Some of the best experiences are ones where the developer presents players with a large environment to explore, and with almost no restrictions on how they choose to do so. Just the same, the immense popularity of the structure can become tiring. Nearly every game set in a sandbox world features the same world map, dotted with the same mix of main and side missions, the same type of character upgrade paths, and the same smattering of hidden collectables. While all of these elements are fine in a vacuum, the fact that so many mainstream games rely on such frequently repeated gameplay features can become tiring.
This is part of the reason I’m excited for a title like Ready at Dawn/SCE Santa Monica Studio’s The Order: 1886, a game currently getting most of its pre-release coverage from criticism aimed at its hyper-linear campaign design. Though there’s plenty of cause to be concerned about The Order’s reliance on quick-time events and overlong cutscenes, the fact that it looks to be a heavily scripted shooter set in confined spaces doesn’t worry me much. If its developer can tell a good story and craft entertaining action setpieces then a lack of freedom seems just fine. Not every game needs to take place in a massive world, full of optional activities. If the direction of a linear game is solid, restricting player choice can lead to better story pacing and more tightly-honed scenarios. The Order may not end up being particularly good as a whole, but the fact that its vision seems fairly limited could be a positive, not a negative, point.
It may be, though, that open worlds are the new default for big-budget videogames. While the format makes an awful lot of sense for genres like the role-playing game (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s allegedly enormous environment is only an extension of the smaller, free-roaming maps of its predecessors) it doesn’t have to be a given for action and adventure titles. Kojima Productions’ Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is taking the leap to a sandbox world, which may sound great from a gameplay perspective while being slightly worrying for a series traditionally concerned mostly with telling interesting stories. When players are given more freedom to dictate their gameplay experience, developers lose control over the pacing and direction of their narratives, after all. By loosening the reins on the level of guidance provided to players, there’s the distinct risk that storytelling will suffer as a result. When the audience is able to dictate the pace of exposition by taking breaks to run around outside of the main campaign, it becomes much more difficult to keep them engaged in a plot. It’s for reasons like this that open worlds may not be the right fit for every type of game.
The kind of games I like best are typically those that are mainly concerned with presenting focused, carefully designed stories and gameplay scenarios. That doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in other styles of play, only that what attracts me to the medium is something that may be in danger of becoming outmoded. As open worlds gain traction as the preferred format for modern, mainstream titles, I only hope that more linear experiences manage to survive. Environmental design should fit a game’s goals—not the other way around. If this rule is forgotten in favour of the widespread adoption of open worlds, big-budget games will likely be the lesser for it.