The sandbox of the gaming world; a virtual escape where nearly all things are at your disposal. Open world gaming has, in many ways, advanced the industry, though not all of the titles are revolutionary. Some developers have made the sandbox their bread and butter, like Ubisoft, Rockstar and Bethesda, but it's had a somewhat rocky history. To begin with, no one really knows when the open-world experience was initially birthed. Many in the industry claim it all started with early flight simulators, like SubLOGIC's Flight Simulator (1979/1980), while others contend with the belief that Colossal Game Adventure (1976) first adapted the concept with its free-roaming text-adventure design. Despite its ancient history muddled in uncertainty, the importance of the open-world experience and its stamp on the industry cannot go unstated. From The Legend of Zelda and The Elder Scrolls to Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed, some of the biggest names in the history of video gaming are open-world adventures. Let's look at how this came to be...
From 1980 to 2000, early virtual sandboxes were plagued with long loading times and constrained open worlds, due to the lack of enhanced technology. With most platforms running on very minuscule memory banks, it was rather difficult to create these massive and stunning open-world maps like the ones we see today. Early games of this nature include The Hobbit (1982), Mercenary (1985), The Legend of Zelda (1986), The Terminator (1990), and Super Mario 64 (1996). The latter pushed the envelope in terms of 3D free-roaming, with open-ended possibilities and all-angle camera control, but the long list of The Legend of Zelda games is proof that Nintendo was leagues ahead of the industry. It wasn't until the mid-2000s when open-world sandbox initiatives really took off, almost uncontrollably.
Pushing The Boundaries
Considered among the most revolutionizing video games in history, Grand Theft Auto III (2001) sought to challenge the industry. Up until this point, the use of invisible walls and restrictive environments disallowed the open-world genre a voice; they may have been somewhat different from linear titles, but they weren't "do whatever you want" until Rockstar eliminated the limits. Not only had Rockstar redefined non-linear 3D free-roaming gameplay, and created one of the best open-world games, but many will argue they had also kick-started an entirely new generation of the sandbox, one that would evolve with some of the most mesmerizing worlds and adventurous narratives in gaming. Later entries that must be mentioned include Mafia (2002), Jak II (2003), Shadow of Colussus (2005), The Godfather (2006) and Assasin's Creed (2007).
As open-world gaming took flight, the industry fell into this hole, much like we've seen in contemporary gaming with the Battle Royale craze. Developers and publishers alike engineered open-world experiences merely for the cash, because the standards of that time seemed to aid the phenomenon. It was almost as if a game couldn't be good if it was the boring old linear model and not freely structured. With Fallout 3 in 2008, shortly followed by The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in 2011, the open-world fad blossomed into a mechanism for the industry. Look at Gamespot's own list for Game of the Year; from 2008 to 2015, every game is open world. While they all may have been beautiful, wonderful games, shouldn't we take a step back? When does a genre become oversaturated in this industry that loves to borrow and modify? When do we get too old for playing in the sandbox?
Too Many Toys In The Sandbox
In retrospect, gazing into the past, it only makes sense. The enhancements implemented by the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 acted as a conduit, allowing for even larger, more beautiful maps and stories for us gamers to get lost in. We almost didn't even notice. I'll never forget the hours I poured into Skyrim and Fallout 3 merely walking, enjoying the escape, journeying just for journey's sake, discovering areas tinged with both beauty and terror. When a game can suck you into its world like that, that's when you know the open world has meaning.
Another popular game was Watch Dogs (2014). Ubisoft truly bent the chord and ran with it, adding their own taste to the sandbox genre by giving players the ability to interact with the world through hacking. While the game may have been overshadowed by Shadow of Mordor and Dark Souls II, it utilized the era of Anonymous and applied it to the open-world game in a refreshing way. It made both gamers and developers see the true potential and possibilities inherent in the sandbox.
So, what's with the distress? An early 2018 post on ResetEra asks: "Anyone else really not feeling the rise of the Open World games?" It was a serious and real question because although there are plenty of linear games, the open-world setting has still been one of the most abused. A total of 18 open-world games were released in 2018, which is phenomenal. You would think the curse of open-world games would have settled in, alas they are just too damn fun to put down. While Red Dead Redemption 2 may have had its issues, you can see how much time and effort Rockstar put into detailing their sad, ruthless bunch of bandits. What happened to the BioShocks of gaming? Don't get me wrong, I love me an open-world adventure as much as the last person, but isn't it worn out at this point? In her post on SandboxGaming, Sarah White asks an even better question:
"Are they trying to phase out linear games and go exclusively non-linear?"
Redefining The Open World
Although I'm biased, for Rockstar is my favorite studio, I do think there's an over-saturation in the sandbox market. This industry has developed innumerable titles of great importance that didn't rely on the open-world, just look at Uncharted, Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, and more. There's plenty of excitement in any game, they don't necessitate sprawling maps and immense playtimes in order to be considered good. As we draw nearer to the release of next-gen consoles, it will be interesting to see how gaming developers adapt to these advancements. Look no further than Hideo Kojima and his upcoming Death Stranding, a game that will most definitely push the bounds of open-world interaction and, as well, redefine the very meaning of genre itself. Developers should follow Kojima's example, as well as Ubisoft, Capcom, Rockstar, and FromSoftware. They have all redefined the way we play open-world games and challenge the way we look at our society at the same time.
The open-world isn't what makes the game special. It's the residents, the missions, the places not marked on the map. At the heart of the open-world setting is the adventure and a message: never stop searching for your destination. The sandbox is always beckoning.