It is safe to say that open-worlds have become this generation’s defining gameplay feature. Immersive worlds, diverging paths, exploration; these buzzwords and phrases characterize a large portion of the AAA gaming space. Games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Grand Theft Auto 3 paved the way for The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V to capture the time and imaginations of the gaming community. The success of these titles has caused the feature to percolate into the rest of the industry, leading to a landscape dotted with sprawling worlds and open air.
With this much proliferation, and the time required to truly digest games of this magnitude, many in the community and the press were worried about open-world fatigue. Players can only sink so much of themselves into a game at a time, while games are becoming more difficult to unpack as map sizes expand. The multiplication of the genre has aIso led to a multiplication of mechanics and ideas, with games imitating successes as well as common problems. Many open-world games were becoming stale, with generic collectibles and connective tissue tying the experience together between impressive story beats and dynamic events. With this blandness came a series of essential questions.
Had open-worlds exhausted their ingenuity? Could an open-world rise about the crowded genre and stand out? Are we tired of open-worlds?
I think it is safe to say that his notion has been debunked.
Within the span of a single week, we have potentially entered into a golden age of open-world gaming. PlayStation exclusive Horizon: Zero Dawn and Nintendo exclusive The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have dominated the community in an uncharacteristically busy first quarter. There is no wrong choice when deciding between the two, which is a testament to the products that their respective teams have created. The games are both masterpieces, but what is most special about the two titles is that they are wonderfully different games, despite the easy open-world RPG comparisons. Breath of the Wild is all about exploration – be it the world, the mechanics or puzzles. Horizon, meanwhile, shines in combat, featuring spirited battles against incredibly realized cybernetic dinos.
The fact that both of these games can so successfully capture the magic they are reaching for is a testament to the flexibility of the open-world format, and it bodes well for the future of the genre that two games can be so good, yet so different. An open-world is such a flexible canvas that the repetition often found in the genre was a bit disconcerting. While certain games brought something special to the formula, think The Witcher 3’s sidequests or Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System, many more settled for a generic world filled in with generic gameplay. Horizon and Breath of the Wild prove that we can still be surprised by open-worlds, and that we have plenty to look forward to.
When I stated that we were potentially entering a golden age of open-world gaming, it was less hyperbolic about the present than a positive outlook of the future. In just a few weeks, Mass Effect Andromeda looms to take the series’ galactic exploration and complex relationships to the next level. After that, the newly announced Middle Earth: Shadow of War hopes to see the Nemesis System catapulted to new heights without the shackles of the previous console generation. This holiday, Red Dead Redemption 2 will see Rockstar return to the Wild West with their consistently brilliance game design in a setting begging to be explored in intricate detail. This doesn’t even account for Assassin’s Creed, one of the biggest culprits of bland open-world design, which took time off to truly create something meaningful. If these games follow in the footsteps of Horizon and Breath of the Wild, then we will be in for a truly historic year in gaming.
All of this in a genre we are supposedly sick and tired of.
Set aside fanboy squabbles. The fact that two games, and exclusives at that, can breathe such life into a heavily reiterated genre bodes well for this generation’s defining trait. While the meaningless multiplayer that came hitched to the previous generation rarely pushed in any meaningful new directions, open-worlds have proven the ability to evolve and improve. Horizon, Breath of the Wild and even Pokémon Go, which is definitively an open-world game, have reinvigorated a sense of community and wonder many thought we wouldn’t reclaim. If this is the direction gaming is headed, we have a lot to be excited about.
So get out there and go exploring.
Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG with a talent for scaling high towers and digital topography. You can follow his nonexistent ramblings on twitter.