It’s December of 2016. As the days (both literally and metaphorically) grow darker and the uncertainty of the future weighs upon me, eyes affixed to my screen, I gesture with the thumbstick and gaze over to my right. I find my tall bro and goofy bestie to that side, taking in the view while playfully bantering to one another, a glorious landscape stretching out past the horizon framing this scene of camaraderie. To my front, guiding our journey at my behest (so I can shop for items via my smartphone) is my bespectacled cohort with the almost superhuman culinary prowess. We’ve been on this adventure for days now. Hours dissolve into what feel like moments as we cruise these vast open landscapes, with familiar tunes blaring in my ears as I purchase them at shops throughout the land. Picturesque scenery evoking a sense of wonder and merriment pass me by as, outside in the real world, the overcast (and occasional snowstorm) provide a stark contrast to the scenic beauty that lies before me. What should normally be a frustrating venture by way of the gnawing passage of time inherent in getting from one point to another instead becomes akin to the actual joy of a road trip.
But this is, of course, not your average road trip. This is, instead, a part of the open world that the game Final Fantasy XV provides as part of its revolutionary experience...
An experience built around the concept of the open world format of gaming.
A year prior, I found myself alone, this time in a far more unforgiving environment that stood in equally sharp contrast to the changing seasons of Fall and Winter outside. The voices pumped into my head from my “mother” base, occasionally accompanied by a horse or one of the story-centric comrades I was bonding with along this journey...this was an equally immersive beast, but one with a VERY different approach and camaraderie to go with it. Whether hustling across the African plains to enact retribution for shenanigans I had to endure a year prior during the full prologue to this story, or enduring sandstorms in the Afghan desert to reach my objective with maximum stealth. And while I wouldn’t usually have tunes blasting on my journeys, when my chopper would come to my aid with the familiar opening jingle of a-ha’s “Take On Me” whimsically resonating in my ears (as I was the one who deliberately chose that odd contrast for this gritty wartime affair), I felt a smile overtake my face and a rush of joy that only the ever quirky Metal Gear franchise could provide in this, its canonical fifth, installment...yet another that departed from a traditionally “linear” approach of storytelling to change up the experience.
Three years prior to that, my motley band of street criminals-turned-media darlings-turned-elected officials were upending an alien empire after having spent an entire game in a virtual representation of the city we conquered in our previous outing. I may have also gotten to do an EPIC canyon dive set to 80’s Transformers music while rocking Iron Man-inspired armor at some point. Like a Boss. (We’ll be returning to this particular series a bit later.)
Today, I find myself hours away from the general public of Nintendo’s Switch console in the United States, and the killer app it’s debuting with, to universal acclaim no less, is (surprise, surprise)...an open-world game. This time, however, it is with a game that is no stranger to the open-world format, but revolutionized in a way that only the expansiveness of the modern iteration of that format could allow: the latest installment in The Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild. I freely admit to not being a much of an aficionado of the Zelda franchise (I only even picked up Ocarina of Time once I owned a 3DS, my first Nintendo console of any sort in over a decade by that point, and it was a Nintendo Select title), but I look forward to going on a breathtaking adventure that will no doubt change how the Zelda franchise operates moving forward as a result of adapting this format. (As all the preliminary reviews I’ve seen can attest, it’s a complete paradigm shift for this franchise. Kenneth provides his own review for the game here, if you’re interested in getting our take on it.)
Make no mistake: I’m a gamer who, traditionally, enjoys action games from the side-scrolling beat-em-ups to FPSes, but since the popularization of this particular format, I have ADORED the genres of adventure and RPG when executed correctly in this format.
Open world format is nothing new to gaming (honestly, one could argue that MMORPGs have had this concept down to a science for years before the popularization of it into more traditionally single-player experiences/genres), though there has definitely been a more notable shift towards it over the last decade or so, especially in the wake of the third installment of the Grand Theft Auto series. To return to the aforementioned Final Fantasy XV for a moment, this installment served as the first notable wholesale “conversion” to the format in that storied franchise as the previous iterations, while still featuring an “open world” in most of those cases, didn’t quite fit the contemporary conventions of the description and had an overall different feel or focus.
In fact, FFXV serves as a perfect example for why I’m excited about the new Zelda: try as I did, I always had difficulty in the traditional format of the Final Fantasy series. While one could be quick to criticize that I just needed to “get good”, or the like, I would like to propose that perhaps it wasn’t a matter of skill but a matter of format that made all the difference: Crisis Core, a portable spinoff of the seventh installment in the franchise, was FAR more accessible to me gameplay-wise and was one of the few games in the series that I was able to successfully complete and do so on my own. (Unsurprisingly, Tabata-san, the director of that game, would go on to helm the FFXV ship.) With the transformation of the long-developed FFXV into an open world game proper, I was able to finally sink my teeth into a Final Fantasy experience that I could truly indulge in full-force, one where I could truly jump headfirst into and become immersed in the gorgeous world being presented...all thanks to the benefits of what open world gaming allows in regards to its structures and payoffs.
In the time since I began writing this piece back when we announced DEE CORe (...it’s been a busy/rough few months on my end, hahah), I revisited the first Saints Row now that I once again own an XBox 360, and reminded how much of a leap this format of game has made since the days of games like the aforementioned pioneer Grand Theft Auto, and the period that the initial Saints Row, originally decried as an HD pretender to the GTA crown, existed in. For my personal narrative, this was also a very unique period it was on this very device, which was my preferred gaming platform at the time, I was treated to some of the most unique open-world experiences that straddled both sides of the fence: the aforementioned Saints Row (basic and rough around the edges compared to later installments), where, as already mentioned, you played the role of a criminal in a very heightened, if not borderline dystopian, version of the real world, and Crackdown, where you played a superhuman enforcer of the law in, effectively, a VERY dystopian sci-fi world akin to Robocop (with a dash of Blade Runner/2000 A.D.). Whereas Crackdown slipped HARD in its second outing while the Saints Row franchise picked up the momentum that it did to become a powerhouse in the open world scene for a few years (even superseding the best elements of Crackdown by way of the superpower-infused fourth installment), it is a franchise that hasn’t gone away and, in due time, is making its return with a third installment on current-gen platforms. I bring these two up as a juxtaposition that I find inherently amusing because both result in the same “hook”: open-ended mayhem in an open world that, when focused, drags you so far into the narrative it becomes hard not to feel like one with your virtual avatar.
The oft-underrated Sleeping Dogs is a great example of walking that line both in terms of the portrayal of the world and the moral code you can abide by: in the course of it’s gritty, action-packed crime thriller, it gives you the chance to be “good” or “evil” while giving you both a very “grounded” yet “enhanced” reality over the course of the narrative. And while the idea of moral choice is nothing exclusive to this genre (see literally anything Bioware has ever worked on, or the amazing Bioshock series), the way that it has an effect on the immersiveness of the story can transform a game into a whole new variety of art...see InFamous and how its very “comic book” storyline got a huge boost (at points, anyway) from the use of the open world format.
Admittedly, there are some tropes that the genre falls into much like any type of entertainment. In this case, things like the inevitable quagmire of post-story “freeplay” (which, thus far, FFXV has been careful to sidestep with compelling updates and content) and its almost empty progression, as well as the “pyramid of growth” (i.e. grinding your way up from basic missions/antagonists to master-level missions/”bosses”) stand out as the biggest issues with the format. Further still, when the “pyramid” gets excessive in regards to playing to formula for the sake of adding playtime, it can ruin the fun by turning “fun” into a “chore”...Crackdown 2 was guilty of this, as was much of Batman: Arkham Knight, though the latter was mostly hindered by unrelated story and design issues that made the ubiquity of choice and plethora of options into an unnecessary grind for a “complete” experience. (Crackdown 2 was just sloppy and overall nonsensical in its overall approach, which made me sad given how fun the original was.)
What I will say is, particularly after what I keep hearing about Breath of the Wild and ruminating on my experiences playing (and in the case of Saints Row, re-playing) some of these styles of game, is that the level of immersion is the biggest advantage of the open world format. It is the single biggest reason I laud it the way I do, and it evolves the core aspect that I believe makes gaming a truly special experience as a medium: the ability to become one with the story in a way no other storytelling medium can allow.
I look forward to what the future of this style of gameplay has to offer, and what innovative new spins on old favorites (or new entries that will take hold to this degree) the format will bring.
After all, once you open a door, you’re setting foot into a bold new world once you walk through it. With the ever expanding horizons in gaming, it’s becoming bigger and bolder every day.
Towards new horizons, and the open(ing of new) worlds.
AFTERWORD: While a shorter piece than intended for such a potentially expansive subject, this was more of a reflective “stream of consciousness” post wherein I shared my own thoughts and memories about one of my favorite varieties of gameplay style.
Are there any particular franchises you have enjoyed? Any moments that were distinctly “open world game” moments that you will always cherish? Feel free to let us know so that we can hopefully open up a dialogue amongst our readers and maybe forge new friendships and meaningful conversations in the process!