Look, you probably don’t need me to tell you that the evolution of open-world games has been in full swing for awhile now. But I bet you didn’t know though that those roots go back as far as 1970, with the release of Jet Rocket, an arcade flight simulator by Sega.
Over the fifty or so years that have followed, open-world games have been slowly simmering away, cementing themselves in the modern gaming landscape. We’ve had The Legend of Zelda with its multiple examples of open-world experiences including Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask (set in the same sandbox but still counts), Wind Waker and Breath of the Wild.
Some of the most amazing examples of the evolution of open-world games include Super Mario 64, Super Mario Odyssey, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series’, Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption and a long list of other fine examples. Half a century is a long time and there’s no shortage of names to mention here.
Clearly then, an open-world is popular, but being able to fill all that open space with interesting things to do is a key element of producing a great game. No Man’s Sky launched in 2016 with the promise of 18 quintillion planets (18,000,000,000,000,000,000 for the record) and a whole host of features that weren’t actually available in the game. Players were upset to find when they logged in for the first time, that the game barely had any of the promised features. In fact, the vast majority of planets were empty apart from a few strange animals. (Disclaimer: Hello Games has spent the six years since launch working on No Man’s Sky and the game has progressed significantly since launch.)
And this is a great example of where sandbox games can be a pitfall for developers. Unless you fill the world with reasons to keep playing, your designed world will get stale very quickly. Anti-sandbox sentiments have grown over the years as players grew tired of forgettable characters and meaningless, repetitive side quests. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, for example, received criticism for uninteresting gameplay, confused storylines and too much space in between built up areas in the world that meant travelling for long periods to progress the story. And you could argue that this is a fair assessment. It’s great to have a wealth of space to explore, but only if you actually find enough to do to feel immersed in the intricacies of the world.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was at the top of ‘greatest games of all time’ lists for decades after release, due to the immersive story and impressive attention to detail of its world. Filled with things to find, quests to undertake and a wide range of areas to explore that kept the 26 hour main story fresh and interesting.
In short, the best open-world experiences follow the paths laid by Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda by focusing on activities and tailoring the space to be big enough to feel expansive, but also not too big that the player feels like they’re wandering an empty wasteland with occasional things to do.
Now this brings us to the modern era. Some of the most popular games of the last decade have been open-world. GTA V was acclaimed for the realism of its world. You can jump into the story, a rich tale that follows the exploits of three criminals pulling off various heists with an array of unique side characters. If you want a break from the story, you can take time out and go for a bike ride, play a round of golf, go hunting in the mountains of San Andreas, grab food with friends, get some yoga in to strengthen your core or numerous other options that only pull players in and make San Andreas feel like a real, lived-in environment, as close as you can get to running around California without catching a flight.
Rockstar carried on the amazing foundations they set up with the launch of Red Dead Redemption 2. A game that built on the celebrated first game, transporting players back to the late 1800s and allowing them to pretty much everything that a person living in that time would have been able to. Alongside activities that included fishing, hunting, heists, gambling and so, so much more, the game takes players through a 40-60 hour story that is arguably one of the best stories ever put in a game that at the end stays with you and leaves you feeling like you really lived as these characters during a period that forever changed the face of America.
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim gets an honourable, if brief, mention here for a world filled with complex lore, fascinating characters and an experience so strong that it has been ported to other platforms nine times since its release in 2011, and often called one of the greatest games of all time.
The last stop on our whistle stop tour of the evolution of open-world games is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. When it was released for the Nintendo Switch, it was a literal gamechanger. Dropping most of what was known and expected from the series, players launched into a wide, open space and could literally go anywhere from there. With no rules or set order for completing objectives, the only restrictions were breakable weapons and stamina limits for climbing and running. A whole new challenge that heavily encouraged exploration and experimentation, Breath of the Wild will be remembered as the game that launched an entirely new outlook on the open-world concept
And that brings us to Elden Ring.
For those who don’t know, Elden Ring is From Software’s newest game, a challenging, rich and rewarding experience that pits you against a world that is more often than not at an equal or much higher level than you. This game, like the rest of From’s releases, is built to teach you to accept failure, learn from your mistakes and try new tactics to progress.
From’s games have always been difficult, but Elden Ring has been getting particular attention as the open-world setting allows players to change tactics and find other areas to explore when they hit a wall on their current route.
The Lands Between, Elden Ring’s setting is a beautiful, colourful and extremely vicious landscape taking in mountains, swamps, rolling meadows, decrepit ruins and daunting castles. Each area is filled with creatures that are unique, terrifying and extreme. Another game in which exploration is actively encouraged, each new path presents a new style and level of danger than the one before. Elden Ring feels like an amalgamation of all the developments built into previous open-worlds, refined into something truly spectacular. With no clear marker system for locations, no real guidance on your next objective and only fragments of a map to start off with, the game puts you on the back foot from the outset. It’s up to you to survive, thrive and make it through to the end, roughly 60 hours later. And when you do make it, boy, is it worth it.
Elden Ring feels like the next evolution of open-world games. Providing a beautiful world with a wealth of interesting things to do, and a sense of real achievement at the end. A feeling rarely felt in other video games.
From Software President and brains behind the company’s games, Hidetaka Miyazaki, has said that Elden Ring will inform the future of its releases and it’ll be very interesting to see how Elden Ring impacts the wider open-world concept.
A new GTA and Breath of the Wild are coming which while unlikely to take too much from Elden Ring’s level of challenge, are likely to redefine expectations again. Games like Elden Ring inspire new creators, new ideas and ever-more immersive worlds for players to enjoy. That, surely, can never be a bad thing.
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