The Evolution of Open-World Video Games


In recent years, the open world video game genre has become the de facto standard for the industry. This trend owes to a number of factors, both graphical and game mechanics based.

In terms of the ability to move around, GTA III was one of the first sandbox games to allow players to explore a 3D-shaped city at will, while more recent RPGs such as Skyrim and Death Stranding (2019) have cultivated making exploration the very crux of the experience. Over time, dynamic day/night cycles as well as biomes with distinctive flora and fauna have also become more prevalent.


Open-world games, spawning wildly successful franchises such as GTA, The Elder Scrolls and Assassin’s Creed, reinforce the pattern, blazing new trails in the design space. As is common, many of them force the player to complete countless additional missions or ‘side quests’ to move forward in the game, but in an open world they can do these quests in any order. They can wander around, do anything or nothing, and find the interesting stuff wherever they are at the time – a gold coin here, an erotic cave painting there. This gives players a perfect way to keep themselves occupied if the main beat loops become stale or mundane.

However, this type of gameplay can be traced much deeper. The action role-playing video games of the 1980s, like Hydlide (1984) and Courageous Perseus (1987), were the first to explore the then-unchartered territory of allowing open-world third-person on-foot outdoor exploration that did not fit to scale on maps.

Ultima 1 broke new ground for open-world gaming when it placed a 3D fantasy landscape at the player’s feet so they could explore it as they wished and affect the storyline.


Thanks to technological innovations, it had become possible to craft games that featured complete worlds of breathtaking levels of detail and realism to explore at gunpoint – and to explore at will, taking on missions across cities, forests, mountains and deserts alike.

Thanks to blockbuster offerings such as Skyrim and Minecraft, the trend exploded into a global phenomenon. The later Elder Scrolls games provided access to worlds, not to societies, as the landscapes seemed to come to life.

Historical settings and massive worlds, courtesy of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, were taken a step further still, and player choices that changed storylines and outcomes were added to the mix in games such as The Witcher 3 (2015) and Horizon Zero Dawn (2017).


The best open-world games create a living world, enormous and populated by other players and non-player characters with whom the player can interact and play in myriad ways – Skyrim, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Minecraft.

These games are also notable for having emergent gameplay, meaning that the game reacts to what players do, and in a way that cannot be foreseen. They can involve things like clambering up a rockface on horseback in Skyrim, or hunting down a sabretooth tiger in Wild Hunt, and score those unplanned moments that add bonus bang to an already pleasing gaming bonanza.

Developers will likely continue their insistence that the open world genre can be sustainable with ongoing innovations like procedural generation, AI-driven content and, as we’ve seen with games like Horizon Zero Dawn or Elden Ring, sprawling sandbox worlds full of secret histories, intertwined narratives and player-generated events. The open world genre, it seems, will never truly die.


The ongoing ‘main story’ or ‘core premise’ of popular open-world games is frequently driven by narrative, by the player’s actions, the success or failure of allies or those closely identified with by players (eg, favourite characters), or by loss and grief – all as an emotional centerpiece of player experience.

Open-world gaming is an old idea but it only truly entered the mainstream during the 2000s. While early 3D titles such as Shenmue (1999) expanded upon the horizontal space offered by 2D games. Grand Theft Auto III (2001) made huge contributions to the formalisation of open-world design.

Rockstar games such as Grand Theft Auto V (2019) and Red Dead Redemption 2 (2020) have diversified this subgenre with large worlds, open-ended side quests and advanced 3D graphics – not just gaming entertainment, but art as well.


Though the earliest open world games laid the foundations for later entries in the genre, they were, perhaps, too simplistic: while characters could walk right across a world with a small map, there was very little for them to do in it aside from climb towers and strongholds, and hit up NPCs for quests.

Graphical infrastructure enhancements allowed programmers to produce worlds that were even more all-encompassing than anything before. Games such as Skyrim and Fallout 4 with worlds that could be larger than a US state or an entire country gave human audiences many hundreds of extra hours of worlds in which to wander without limit, and provide a degree of ‘emergent gameplay’, a type of play engineered into worlds that could generate unexpected challenges such as jumping as high as you could or climbing tall buildings, or attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world filled with animal automatons – you know, like jumping as high as you could in Grand Theft Auto or climbing an impossible mountain or just trying to survive in a world against odds created by their audiences.

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