The Grand Theft Auto series have produced some amazing games in the last 20 years. The game’s developers Rockstar have truly pioneered the open the world game, setting what many consider to be the benchmark for the genre upon every new release. They have introduced the world to some memorable characters like the ones seen in Grand Theft Auto Vice City to the more recent Grand Theft Auto V.
It could be argued that Rockstar were responsible for the popularity of games aimed at a more mature audience. With each title’s level of colorful language, explicit sex and violence, the GTA series certainly earns their ESRB rating of M (Mature).
While the game’s content is definitely aimed at a mature audience, the games are generally considered a nihilistic satire of modern life and parody of modern pop culture. So although the characters and storylines have serious undertones, it’s because of the games often playful nature they aren’t considered mature in same sense as a game like The Last Of Us or Telltale’s The Walking Dead series — which is the intention of the developers.
The open-world genre has moved far beyond trying to be “GTA clones” (as they usually strived to be in the 2000’s). There are many games in the genre that have their own take on telling a mature story, or evoke a genuine emotional response from an adult audience. Here are 15 open world games that could be considered to have more mature themes than Grand Theft Auto.
15. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3 concludes the story of Geralt of Rivia and is considered one the best open-world role-playing games of this generation. The series setting is a dark fantasy that is a far cry from the high fantasy of Warcraft or Lord Of The Rings.
Putting sex and violence aside, the game achieves its mature depth of story through the use of political intrigue, racial divide, religious extremism, and even its novel approach to choice and consequences.
It handles issues such as discrimination through the character races, such as elves and dwarves, or anything considered non-human endures barbaric mistreatment from the humans from the Northern Kingdom (Nordlings). Magic users are even hunted down burned by religious zealots. It’s a game that tackles discrimination well within the context of the game’s story.
Even the way you handle Geralt’s relationships with Yennefer and Triss can often have consequences. Pursuing a relationship with both characters will lead to Geralt losing them as lovers completely. The world of the Wild Hunt is one of the most reactive open-worlds this generation.
14. Watch Dogs 2
The first Watch Dogs was a game that had a lot of potential, but never quite lived up to expectations, which was not helped by a fairly unlikeable lead, and a drab take on Chicago. Thankfully, Watch Dogs 2 improved on the original game in every aspect.
The sequel definitely takes some inspiration from the GTA series. The game gives the players the tools to have fun, allowing gamers to enjoy the world, and taking satirical shots at Western society. However, there’s definitely a more cerebral way the game tackles very serious topics.
In light of today’s political climate, Watch Dogs 2 depicts mass government surveillance programs. Government surveillance and systemic repression are recurring themes Watch Dogs 2. The game should also be commended for the way it handles diversity in race and transgenderism.
13. State Of Decay
State of Decay is an open-world zombie survival horror game that’s exclusive to the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. You’re in charge of a small group of survivors, building outposts, and bases to ensure your group’s survival in a community.
The game has a deep character relationship system and is capable of playing on your raw emotions in a brilliant way. Consequently, State of Decay doesn’t pull any punches with character loss, the realities of life in the community and the dynamic structure can force you to make very difficult moral decisions.
12. Assassin’s Creed 3
The third entry in the Assassin’s Creed series suffered quite a bit of criticism at its release. This was mainly due to the game’s bugs, glitches, and its less charismatic lead. As a consequence, it was written off by quite a few gamers alike. Which is a shame because the world and its narrative were beautifully realized.
The game is set during the American Revolution and puts your protagonist Connor right in the middle of all the key moments during the war. It’s loaded with great set pieces and makes you feel like Daniel Day Lewis in The Last Of The Mohicans.
It’s not the set pieces or spectacle that gives it a mature edge though, it’s the way the game tells a historical story about the price of liberty, national divide, and extremism in the Colonial American branch of the Assassins. These are issues that seem more relevant than ever before in a modern world.
11. Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 released to a lot of critical acclaim at the time of its release. The game received high praise for its visuals, incredible sense of freedom, and stellar performances from the voice cast.
The story in Far Cry 3 puts the player in the shoes of a tourist on vacation named Jason Brody. Brody is celebrating with his brother and friends and makes the unfortunate decision to skydive into the pirate-infested Rook Island.
The game’s theme deals with dark issues such as human trafficking, hostage killing, and genocide. Also prominent, is Jason’s slow descent into madness, as he becomes just as ruthless and as monstrous as the Vaas and Hoyt — the two main antagonists.
Early into its release Nier was overshadowed by two games, the first was Final Fantasy XIII, and the second was God Of War. Square-Enix naturally threw all its financial and advertising weight behind its most lucrative franchise. What little marketing Nier did receive, made it look like a low-budget God Of War style action game.
Nier’s world is small in comparison to other games, but there’s a lot to explore and discover. The game adopts multiple styles of gameplay —that could at times feel a bit disjointed or incoherent— but ultimately they mesh together well helping provide a unique experience.
Sadly, the title was either passed over or dismissed outright as a bad game. This was a shame because Nier has a fantastically dark tale, with multiple endings that tell cryptic and very emotional character stories. The events that play out all have meaning, substance, and shock value. Nier is definitely a unique game that needs to be experienced first hand.
9. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is set two years after the events Human Revolution, whose conclusion ended on a dramatic cliffhanger involving cybernetically augmented humans being programmed to kill.
The incident caused a divide and a mistrust between both the unaugmented and augmented (augs) humans. The game’s mains setting in Prague has become a police-state, where all “augs” have been segregated to certain parts of the city – referred to as “The Mechanical Apartheid.”
“The Mechanical Apartheid” and the “Aug Lives Matter” themes were used heavily in the game’s marketing, with the latter causing controversy with its reference to the Black Lives Matter campaigns.
Putting aside the potentially insensitive “Aug Lives Matter” advertising campaign, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided succeeded in making the player think about real-world issues, both the modern and historical events it’s referencing.
8. Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn, developed by Guerrilla Games, is arguably one of the best-looking games of this generation and a complete departure from their previous outings in the FPS genre with the Killzone series.
It was a departure that paid off, because Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the best open-world role-playing games of this generation. It isn’t just the stunning visuals in its beautiful post-apocalyptic world that help it shine; the game delivers a great coming-of-age story played through the eyes of the protagonist, Aloy.
More importantly, the game’s story develops at a perfect pace as you piece together the tragic events of the past from the artifacts left behind all over the HZD’s world. These artifacts reveal a very tragic and harrowing end for a civilization that was overly reliant on technology coming face to face with their own extinction.
7. Sleeping Dogs
Sleeping Dogs is a spiritual sequel to the True Crime series, that was originally released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (and released as a part of a definitive edition on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 with updated visuals and improved frame rate).
You play the role of Wei Shen a former San Francisco cop who was transferred to Hong Kong’s police force in order to infiltrate a Triad organization.
Fans of the Grand Theft Auto series should feel right at home with this game because on the surface they play very similarly. Sleeping Dogs does have a more fluid —martial art inspired— combat system that feels similar to the Batman: Arkham Knight games.
Where Sleeping Dogs shines, though, is its unique Hong Kong setting and its story of a man torn between the law and his growing friendship. The game takes a lot of inspiration from Hong Kong films like, Infernal Affairs and Hard Boiled.
6. Yakuza 0
SEGA’s Yakuza series has been around since 2005 and released exclusively on PlayStation consoles in the West. Yakuza 0 makes a good starting point for those new to the series as it’s a prequel to the original Yakuza — the original Yakuza game named Yakuza: Kiwami has been remade from the ground up for the PlayStation 4 and will be released in August 2017.
The game’s setting is based on a fictionalized version of Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Shinjuku Golden Gai in the late 80s, and follows series mainstays Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. While the game isn’t anywhere near as wide open like GTA, its areas jammed packed with distractions and side-quests.
The side-quests can be wacky, tongue-in-cheek, and even a bit strange, but it’s Yakuza 0’s main story —surrounding each character’s personal development— that is the real draw. With Kazuma learning how to readjust to life outside of prison, and Goro breaking free of forced captivity and dealing with the aftermath of being tortured. The writing is exceptional, and the payoff from the beginning to the end is both emotional and satisfying.
5. L.A Noire
L.A Noire is a detective game that draws inspiration from the film noir genre of the 40’s and 50’s. It was set during the post-war boom of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
You play the role of Detective Cole Phelps a by-the-books cop that gets drawn into a game of cat and mouse. The game begins with Cole working his way up the ranks and dealing with other officers who have questionable morals, while solving some very grisly crimes. During these investigations, you get up close and personal with some disturbing crime scenes.
The game not only contains a lot of references to films like L.A Confidential, Chinatown, The Untouchables, and The Black Dahlia, but it uses some real crime incidents based upon real life cases reported in 1947.
Bully was another game developed by Rockstar that garnered more controversy than it actually deserved. In particular, the many accusations levied at the game for trivializing bullying came before its actually released.
The player takes the role of Jimmy Hopkins, and it’s set in a private school called Bullworth Academy. The game takes some inspiration from the film Scum, although it’s nowhere near as a gritty or as dark as the movie. The plot follows Jimmy as he rises through the ranks of high schools social circles.
While the trademark humor from the Grand Theft Auto series is here, Jimmy is faced with real consequences for his actions and is actively encouraged to watch his moral compass. Bully’s premise is unique for an open-world game, as its characters deal with the real life issues that teenagers face, such as self-image, insecurities, and social status. There aren’t many other games that tackle issues like these beyond Persona and Life is Strange.
3. Mafia 3
The third entry in the Mafia series is set in the fictional city of New Bordeaux, based on New Orleans in 1968. Unfortunately, the game released to mixed reviews, with criticisms citing repetitive mission design, and the game failing to make good use of its stunning open-world.
While all these criticisms are justified, there is still a lot to enjoy about the game, its combat system is simple but fun, the soundtrack is incredible, and most of all: the story is one of best narratives in any modern game.
The game’s great acting, excellent script, and emphasis on issues such as racism and intolerance help deliver a brilliant narrative. Additionally, it has deeply flawed characters with believable motivations and goals.
2. Deadly Premonition
If you’ve ever wondered what David Lynch’s Twin Peaks would be like as a video game Deadly Premonition is the closest you’ll ever get. The lead character, special agent York, shares a lot of similarities to Twin Peaks Agent Cooper. Right down the character’s obsession with coffee.
You play as Agent York investigating the horrific murder of an 18-year-old girl, which bears a similarity to other murders across the United States. Along the way, you’ll meet some incredibly strange and weird characters.
An unusual but very effective plot device is York’s invisible friend known as Zach, with whom he converses with throughout the duration of the game. In effect, Zach is you, the player, and surprisingly it’s a feature that works exceptionally well.
1. Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption is a game for players that love watching Spaghetti Westerns, or Clint Eastwood. There are more than a few references to films like The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Man With No Name. There are plenty of easter eggs for fans of the genre to spot.
You take on the role of John Marston who, after getting shot and left for dead by his former friends, wanted to live a normal and peaceful life. Unfortunately for him, he’s forced into a manhunt for his old cronies. Consequently, this sets the wheels in motion for the rest of games narrative.
The game’s story is more engaging on an emotional level than Grand Theft Auto, with memorable moments like your first ride over the mountains Mexico to the incredible ending.
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