Video Games

The Case Against Open-World Games

Grand Theft Auto set the standard, and video games have been worse off ever since.

A man in a black jacket and green pants walks down a city block while holding a gun.
Rockstar Games

Last week saw the release of a newly remastered version of the classic Grand Theft Auto trilogy: Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and San Andreas. Fans’ eager anticipation soon turned to a combination of anger and hilarity, as players discovered the many, many, many bugs throughout this re-release—easily one of the most anticipated games of the year, foiled by its own hubris. From women casually walking down the street in their underwear to cars that grow wider and wider as you wiggle the steering wheel, these issues have ensconced those of us watching the #GTADefinitiveEdition hashtag on Twitter with an undeniable sense of schadenfreude. Paying customers, meanwhile, have been unamused and even demanded their money back as publisher Rockstar Games issued apologies for the game’s unplayable status at launch, even briefly removing it from sale.

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While there’s no excuse to release a “definitive” edition of games from the early 2000s that’s this busted , bugginess is just one of the perennial issues with open-world game design. GTA is a standard-bearer of free-roaming games that allow you to do what you want, when you want—warts and all, and some may swear by these types of games and their faux sense of freedom. But I think it’s time for these oath-keepers to let themselves go; to them, I ask, Is it too much to hope that scandals over buggy games, like the GTA Definitive Edition, Fallout 76, and last year’s Cyberpunk 2077, might finally lead this irritating genre to lose its vise-grip on the video game design landscape?

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Broadly speaking, an open world is any space in a video game where the player is given freedom of movement, leading to multiple pathways and many alternatives to overcoming an obstacle. That sounds good, and it often is—designers can implement the basic concept in innumerable ways, many of them excellent. Super Mario 64 was an early experiment in open-world level design, allowing for diverse paths and strategies within a contained level. More modern games like the Dishonored franchise continue to use that concept to great effect, giving players a large measure of freedom and flexibility within a framework.

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Grand Theft Auto III, however, introduced a set of conventions for what we think of as a modern open-world game when it first launched on PlayStation 2 in 2001, and these conventions went on to completely warp the gaming landscape. They include having a very large map, a great many voice-acted non-player characters, and both a main story and many optional side quests. In the 20 years since, this paradigm is not only the default for free-roaming games a la GTA, but it’s because something of a larger, ubiquitous gaming monoculture—GTAIII and its ilks’ popularity and critical acclaim inspired other developers and publishers to include, if not outright require, a similar playground that has more often than not hurt those games, not help them. What we are now suffering from is an incessant pool of mediocre, bloated, unsatisfying games that swap a wide world for anything that’s actually, legitimately worth playing.

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A question asked by an acquaintance of mine—who also confided in me that they’d played 185 hours of Grand Theft Auto V—is the perfect distillation of the genre’s biggest problem: “Why can’t I go into at least a few buildings?”That this could be uttered by an enthusiastic player of open-world games underscores my main problem with the genre: Even relatively good open world games add space to traverse without filling that space adequately. This leads to row after row of buildings that can’t be entered, houses with no one to inhabit them, stores boldly advertising wares that can never be purchased, and skyscrapers that are mere facades of empty windows. All this emptiness isn’t necessarily the fault of the developers who make these games; there simply isn’t enough processing power, not enough hours in the day, and not enough human ingenuity to make the huge maps of a modern open world feel anything other than empty.

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Attempts to fill out these huge maps and fix their many bugs contribute to the phenomenon of crunch, under which developers are forced to work over-long hours under intense pressure; it’s a practice that has been exposed and widely criticized in recent years. It’s no wonder that bugs are so common with open-world games, more than with other genres; they’re a real “eyes bigger than your stomach”-like undertaking. Games like Assassin’s Creed Unity and Outriders  are remembered as much for their game-breaking bugs as for their gameplay. Excessively large worlds also lead to excessive amounts of NPCs that repeat the same few lines over and over, long stretches of traversing space with nothing interesting to do or see for many minutes, and redundant side quests, which turn out to be the same exact mission in 15 (or 50) different map locations.

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The accomplishments of open-world games could be truly remarkable; sometimes they are, to an extent. Thousands of lines of dialogue, multiple changes of setting and environment, and intriguing storylines are all compelling stuff—if the games housing them weren’t often so big that they drown any good stuff in tedium. And what is cool or unique in a big open-world game tends to become secondary to the boredom of spending 15 minutes traveling from one spot on the map to another, or the realization that a particular style of  side mission is going to reappear dozens of times with nothing new added to it.

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Don’t get me wrong— truly amazing open-world games create a feeling of endless possibility, endless exploration, with surprises and novelty around every corner. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is known for its deep, full, large world , as is Fallout: New Vegas, both of which have multiple optional storylines of great depth and complexity, bolstered by memorable side characters. Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild pulls off the open-world concept well too, by hiding secrets and treasure everywhere in a chunky, hilly, fully climbable map with dozens of unique environments to discover, transforming the player’s exploration into endless personalized puzzles of how to get the most out of the stamina bar. And, while they’re not my personal favorites, the original GTA games are beloved for granting players a then-rare rare sense of freedom while playing them—nostalgia directly contributing to the hype behind the botched remastered versions. But the fact remains that the open-world concept is a terrible mode to squeeze every big studio game into, especially when the perennial selling point rarely extends much further than “the size of the map is very large.” If even the best open world games can—and do—suffer from buggy interactions, long travel times, cheesy dialogue, and eerily empty locales, t every game that falls even slightly below the top tier can easily wind up being interminably boring and broken.

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To illustrate this more clearly, let’s take two games developed by the same studio in two very different eras. Ubisoft’a Prince of Persia: Sands of Time came out in 2003, before all big games defaulted to big open-world games. Sands features compelling storytelling anchored by the snappy dialogue of a charming and self-deprecating Prince, our playable hero. The strongest feature of 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey also produced by Ubisoft,  is also its well-written dialogue, character interactions, and storytelling). The main difference between the two, and the reason Odyssey fails while Sands succeeds brilliantly, is that Sands is a fast-paced, linear, puzzle-platformer-style game, while in Odyssey, it takes half an hour to get anywhere, and once you finally do, you’re confronted with a half-dozen side quests that are exactly like the ones you just played through in your previous location. The core elements of Odyssey would have made for an amazing puzzle platformer, but it makes for a boring, repetitive open-world game.

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So many modern games have, like Odyssey, been damaged by the requirement that they have a huge map, a daunting number of side quests, and a huge number of non-player characters. It’s not game devs’ fault that these games are so boring; it’s the design  itself that constrains them from focusing the player on the aspects that could really shine. Freedom of movement through a game world is great, in theory, but in practice, players benefit more from clear direction to the  core experience rather than having to trudge through 17 identical fetch quests in the hopes that something funny or interesting will finally present itself. I’ve been waiting for a decade for the open-world fever to break, so that I can stop wasting my precious free time walking or running or riding through vast landscapes of nothingness and get to the point already. Hopefully all these poor-quality releases and inhuman working conditions  will finally lead to changes in the industry—although, if the sales of poorly reviewed open-world games like Cyberpunk 2077 (which sold 13.4 million copies in 2020 despite being removed from digital marketplaces and before steeply falling off) are any guide,, I’m going to be waiting a lot longer for my least favorite kind of game to stop being the standard.

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