I'm not sure I can really pinpoint the first open-world game I ever played. Was it Metroid, the free-roaming side-scroller for NES? Or does Metroid's action-driven platforming style disqualify it, making it too different from the type of game we typically think of when the term "open-world" comes to mind?
Metroid was the first NES game I ever bought, and my first experience with playing a game that demanded an understanding of persistence, progression, navigation, and character growth. But maybe The Legend of Zelda, which I borrowed from friends repeatedly until I finally finished it, would be the better choice. With its top-down viewpoint and almost completely gate-free overworld, the original Zelda truly is a sandbox adventure — non-linear to a fault. It had a few chokepoints where you'd need to track down certain tools or items in order to advance, but even these could be acquired in practically any order. Yes, you needed, say, a candle to expose the opening to Level-8, but there was a candle for sale a few screens from the area where you began the game. Only the final dungeon, Death Mountain, demanded the completion of every other labyrinth prior to entry; and even then, you could still break open the passageway into the dungeon at the outset of the adventure provided you could acquire a bomb and survive the vicious throngs of monsters who populated Hyrule's northern reaches.
The challenge of Zelda — and Metroid, too, really — wasn't about surviving monsters. It had more to do with the act and art if discovery. Finding tools, learning how to use them, and solving the riddles of the world's design in order to advance. They both presented a radically different mindset to single-board arcade titles of the early '80s, and even of one-way side-scrollers like Moon Patrol and Rolling Thunder. They were about digital worlds, and though primitive by modern standards, those worlds seemed intoxicating in their immersiveness.
By no means were Nintendo's adventures the first open-world games ever made. The early Ultima games (especially from Ultima III: Exodus and onward) predate Zelda by years, yet they dropped players into worlds far larger, more complex, and more opaque than anything Nintendo has ever produced. And Metroid had its share of predecessors on the action front, too; gamers in the UK had been banging their heads against the hostile freedom of the likes of PC action-adventures like Jet Set Willy and Knight Lore for years. Even the humble Atari 2600 had its own open-ended platformer, there at the very end, in the form of Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns.
Nintendo's games simply happened to come along at the right time for me, and for a million other kids who didn't have computers but could afford console cartridges and trade them with friends. In the U.S., the worlds of Metroid and Zelda absolutely outclassed every cartridge that had come before them; the console market had been comatose for several years by that point, and the sprawling worlds these games offered stood as a marked contrast to the previous generation's fun but ultimately tiny experiences.
They were hardly perfect games; both Metroid and Zelda proved to be riddled with downright unfriendly design choices. Completing those early adventures meant spending a lot of time wandering lost and confused without a single pointer for direction. Only through tedious trial-and-error would you eventually sort out which tiles you could shatter with a bomb or burn with a candle to reveal hidden passages; it's easy today to forget what a grind that could be, in this age of instant-access FAQs and wikis. Those who actually finished games like Metroid and Zelda at the time of their debut usually did so with guidance from friends, or with tips 'n tricks culled from magazines such as, well, Tips 'N Tricks.
I miss the sense of uncertainty those old NES games possessed — the discovery and epiphanies — but I don't miss the aimless meandering. As games matured in the following decades, many of them built on the principles and ideas of those early and ambitious NES classics. They took the raw inspiration of formative 8-bit titles and refined them into friendlier forms. They evened out the roughness of trial-and-error, providing guidance. They perfected the tools and weapons you gathered into more useful iterations. Today's open-world games are, unquestionably, better than their predecessors from the '80s.
And yet, as I recently played and parsed demos of several open-world games in advance of E3, I couldn't help but miss the more exploratory form that modern-day sandbox adventures have largely forsaken. Mad Max: Savage Road, Batman: Arkham Knight, and several other big upcoming titles look great and feature rock-solid mechanics. What they lack, however, is the sensation of the unknown. Every item of note is neatly presented to players on the main in-game map, with major points of interest and nearby elements documented in painstakingly granular detail on the main display's mini-map. Open-world design has become the go-to trend for blockbuster games (last generation's Call of Duty-inspired cinematic hallways are so passé now), and almost all of them work the same way. That so many games have embraced the sandbox style should come as no surprise; people love the format, and the current batch of consoles finally have the power to make it work. But the fact that most of them use the exact same format has grown discouraging.
There's no more wandering lost for days or weeks at a time, wondering how to advance to the next goal. Your next quest is clearly marked with a handy icon that floats at the edge of your periphery at all times. So, too, do markers for any number of other factors: Resources, enemies, hostile bases to capture, side missions, and more. Over the years, open-world games have gone from one extreme (giving too little information) to the other (offering entirely too much).
But dealing with this information overload isn't as simple a matter as turning off HUD elements. The design of these games rarely supports a more immersive, uncertain approach. Yeah, you can go icon-free in Skyrim or The Witcher III, and some people refuse to play it any other way, but their worlds are so vast, so densely crowded with content, so poor at giving valuable directions through dialogue that the unguided approach to the adventure is no better than playing the original Zelda blind. In fact, given the sheer increase in volume in something like The Witcher III over an 8-bit game and the complexity that results from its 3D viewpoint, playing blind arguably a much more grueling experience. Some hardcore fanatics enjoy that style, sure, but it doesn't really solve the real question: How do you make an open-world design that appeals to a general audience without turning the experience into a rote checklist?
The Assassin's Creed series has become the poster child for this conundrum. There's an almost mandatory flow to each game: You case out the "viewpoints," a dozen high locations that allow you to scout an entire region with the press of a button, and your map automatically fills out with every conceivable point of interest in sight. In recent games, synching a single viewpoint can reveal dozens and dozens of icons all at once: Everything from minor treasure boxes containing a pittance of cash to real estate purchases begging to be developed (by means of those pittances of treasure). Even pointless collectibles show up now, stripping the games of the biggest incentive the original Assassin's Creed offered to poke into the corners of its world. You no longer explore Colonial America or Revolutionary France, you simply navigate from one map point to the next. You're watching the minimap at the upper right, not the world the characters inhabit.
I hate to be too hard on Assassin's Creed, though. I get the impression the series has been forced onto a certain design track by circumstance and expectation. While it may suffer from the quirks of modern-day open-world design, it didn't invent them.
Who did, then? Was it Grand Theft Auto III? The most impressive open-world 3D action game ever seen at the time of its debut in 2001, GTAIII codified quest markers and other in-game map icons from the start. Yet GTAIII also exercised some restraint in its design — it pointed you toward major points of interest, but much of what Liberty City had to offer players was left to chance discovery.
Indeed, GTAIII struck a sort of ideal balance. There was never any question about where the next mission began, but at the same time Liberty City offered such a whimsical playground there was never any rush to hit the next quest marker. Hidden items like Rampage icons that turned the game into a twitchy, arcade-like survival shooter and even completely invisible features like insane stunt jumps begged players to poke around the streets and alleys of the game world. GTAIII also did a great job of doling out a little more play space at a time, with two of the city's three islands initially locked behind (in)convenient story gates. Even those limits made for a fun game, struggling to survive the full-scale alert that would pop up if you dared to slip past the borders and enter a forbidden area.
Even now, Grand Theft Auto gets it more "right" than just about any competing open-world franchise. While the number of map icons has increased over the years, Grand Theft Auto V still demonstrates the meticulous world-building that makes exploring its world so interesting. Even if you don't get caught up trying to figure out how to summon a UFO or whatever, GTAV is worth scouring from top to bottom simply for its wealth of tiny details, both deliberate and dynamic. The city of San Andreas feels hand-crafted to a fault, something rarely seen in open worlds that flesh out their space by copy-and-pasting elements or even entire areas. Not everyone works on the GTA-sized budget that makes such things possible... in fact, no series but GTA has that kind of money behind it, which is why GTA will continue to present the best open worlds in gaming.
Yet even GTA can reduce down to keeping your eyes on the waypoint icon prize. I suspect the growing tendency of large-scale games with gigantic worlds to degenerate into mini-map-crawling also accounts for the very vocal cult affection the Dark Souls series commands. From Software has deliberately chosen to make use of many design philosophies that go against the grain of today's AAA games; while the series' unrelenting challenge level tends to dominate conversations about it, the difficulty is simply one aspect of the underlying ethos of the series. Ultimately, From respects players and asks for an investment of time and effort in return. Dark Souls and Bloodborne are much tougher than big-budget games, it's true; yet they're consistent, not random and unfair. They simply expect players to learn the ins and outs of combat and the behavior and abilities of enemies.
In a similar spirit, the games — especially the first Dark Souls — drop you into a massive interconnected world and leave you to sort out the details. The series elicits comparisons to Castlevania and Metroid not because of aesthetic or mechanical similarities, but because those games share in common a philosophy of leaving the player to their own devices. And even those two series (both of which appear to have been more or less abandoned at this point) gradually abandoned their respective sense of "figure it out yourself." Zelda, of course, left it behind around A Link to the Past — which was a brilliant game, but was a far more carefully crafted and guided experience than its 8-bit predecessors had been.
By no means is this some crusty rant about how games used to be better in the olden days. On the contrary, I have zero desire to revert to the 8-bit way of doing things. Obtuse game design like that of, say, Zelda II or Simon's Quest was tolerable in 1988 because their creators were blazing trails, and sometimes innovation means making mistakes from which to learn. If I were to pick up an unfamiliar '80s action-adventure game and play it for the first time today, I can guarantee I'd hate the experience. But, at the same time, I find the new standard approach to open-world design deeply increasingly uninspiring as well. If there's no reason to immerse myself in these massive worlds, if I'm using the same controls and general mechanics to run from map point to map point with no incentive to absorb my surroundings along the way, why even bother?
When I think back to the open-world games I've truly loved over the past few years, each one stands apart from the rest of the pack for one reason or another. Alien Isolation worked because it added a tremendous sense of danger and tension to the world, turning small, contained spaces into seemingly vast deathtraps. Dragon Quest IX took a more old-school approach to its world, pulling back the camera angle, while integrating an addicting resource-gathering/crafting element into its maps that demanded exploration. It also featured the fantastic proto-Street Pass maps system that doled out bonus dungeons to be explored but required players to figure out where in the world each map led to. Lightning Returns put a harsh time limit on things to reinforce the importance of time and skill management. Even Skyrim, for all its countless mission markers, left most of the exploration up to player — aside from key locations, icons only appeared on your map once you'd come within sight of them. Plus, its world was so densely honeycombed with intriguing crypts and fortresses that even the process of making it to your next destination undistracted required an act of will.
Open-world action games are well on their way to joining the ranks of corridor shooters, belt-scrolling brawlers, and mascot platformers as a good idea beaten into monotony by too many creations that jump on the bandwagon without any apparent consideration given to the fundamentals. Without anyone questioning certain assumptions about the genre and daring to make changes for the better — or, more likely, with the voices of design dissent drowned out by the sheer immensity of the processes required to produce blockbuster games. I've seen a couple of upcoming titles (still under embargo, unfortunately) that seem to push back against the checklist design trend. They're definitely in the minority, but even so they offer a little hope for change.
The thing is, I love open-world games. I have ever since I plugged that silver-labelled Metroid cart into my brand-new NES, all those years ago. But I increasingly look to the format's uniformity with a sort of weary resignation. It frustrates me to no end that the new mass-manufactured approach to sandbox design has reduced what should be immersive worlds into expensive yet meaningless filler between objective icons. I don't want every game to be Axiom Verge — I just want the scenery to matter, rather than to be a series of boxes that glide past in an uncaring blur. If nothing else, I'd like a reason to slow down and savor the sights a little more often.