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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

From Tears of the Kingdom to Grand Theft Auto: How Open Worlds Set Us Free

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Since their inception, video games have acted as portals to other worlds. Unlike books and films, they allow us to not just be immersed in another land but to truly explore one. It’s that core fantasy that has seen the concept of the open world flourish; what better way is there to create a sense of discovering a new world than to build one with as much depth and as few borders as possible? That goal has seen the open world advance from a form of environment design to a whole diverse genre in its own right.

Where linear game design delivers slices of another reality, the open world aims to simulate on a grander level. It combines geography, architecture, populations, and events to create a living city, region, or kingdom. The thing that truly separates open worlds from linear games, though, is freedom. For some developers this means offering a wide range of activities, buffet-style, to ensure you’re always free to play what you want. For others it’s providing the tools so that you can freely explore a world how you want.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and its predecessor, Breath of the Wild, are emblematic of that play-how-you-want philosophy. Their core mechanics are built around the authentic sense of adventure that organic, freeform discovery can bring. This is why, outside of the main quest, you’re offered very little direction. Its map is devoid of activity icons. Instead, the architecture of Tears of the Kingdom’s world is designed to draw your attention and encourage you to uncover its untold secrets.

Since there are few pre-plotted objectives, the unknown journey towards your chosen goal is as important as the destination itself. That’s why the very topography of Hyrule, from its steep mountains to its floating islands, is designed to provide navigation challenges that require genuine effort and planning to conquer. You may need to plot an exhausting climb, risk a dangerous drop, paraglide an awkward route, or combine more unusual techniques to reach a point of interest. It's through all this that a genuine sense of accomplishment is achieved, which in turn makes the discoveries on the other side of those challenges all the more spectacular, regardless of if that’s valuable treasure or a priceless vista.

Nintendo generated Breath of the Wild’s now-signature exploration style by engineering a detailed simulation of the physical world. Gravity, wind, fire, and propulsive forces can all be harnessed to launch Link to places that initially seem impossible to reach, and each new discovery makes Hyrule even more vast and unknowable. Tears of the Kingdom takes this one step forward with its new crafting abilities, Fuse and Ultrahand, which allow you to make a variety of improvised weapons and contraptions. It’s an impressive system that continually broadens the game’s horizons with each new find. For instance, experimenting with Ultrahand may see you craft an airship. That’s a fantastic achievement in its own right, but that airship can now be used to explore distant mountaintops, or employed as part of a new tactic to parachute into Bokoblin camps. It’s a domino effect; each new discovery opens up new ways to play, which in turn enhances Tears of the Kingdom’s sense of freedom.

Each new discovery opens up new ways to play, which in turn enhances Tears of the Kingdom’s sense of freedom.

Development of Breath of the Wild, and in turn Tears of the Kingdom, was partially inspired by the advancements of open world games in the West. We can see that most clearly in Hyrule’s map-revealing towers and Link’s ability to climb almost any surface, two mechanics that directly build upon the trademarks of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. But the more important inspiration, cited by Nintendo itself, is Skyrim. Bethesda’s spirit of adventure can be found in the way that Zelda employs enemy camps, unmarked secrets, and distant landmarks that beg to be explored. Nintendo’s interpretation of these ideas have since triggered industry trends; in Elden Ring we explore a world with a similar approach to rewarding curiosity and risk-taking, while Death Stranding is an entire game dedicated to making challenging traversal the main event.

But while Breath of the Wild was clearly a turning point for the industry, its approach to open worlds is not perfect for all people. Its lack of direction and seemingly infinite options can be limiting rather than inspiring, and overwhelmed players have a tendency to stick to main objectives and just a handful of simple, reliable techniques. For these players direction and guidance can be beneficial, which is where the more traditional play what you want design of open worlds comes in.

This strain of open world arose during the early 2000s as the success of Grand Theft Auto 3 ushered in a tidal wave of so-called ‘GTA clones’, and by the release of Assassin’s Creed 2 in 2009 the genre’s modern form had fully emerged. It’s characterised by a map populated by dozens (or sometimes even hundreds) of icons, each of which represents one of a variety of activity types ranging from main missions to momentary distractions. These are typically evenly spread across a number of regions. Clearing a region may involve playing through a couple of dungeons, solving several puzzles, collecting a few resources, and defeating the local world boss, in addition to the main and side quests. This arrangement effectively makes the map a question: what are you in the mood for right now? A detailed main quest, or something more bite-size?

This design, often referred to (sometimes derogatorily) as the ‘Ubisoft formula’, is the foundation of dozens of games, including smash hits such as Batman: Arkham City, Ghost of Tsushima, and the Horizon series. And it’s obvious why this design is so popular: it directs you to the world’s most interesting and exciting activities, something invaluable to those who need guidance, time-poor players, and people looking to achieve 100% completion.

The arrangement provides a more authored experience; where many of the greatest moments in Zelda are rooted in the journey across Hyrule and the things you discover (often by accident) along the way, the greatest hits in more traditionally-designed open worlds come from fantastic mission or activity design. Ghosts of Tsushima’s duels, Horizon’s mech battles, and Arkham City’s stealth infiltrations are all among the genre’s highpoints, but these are moments created for you, rather than by you.

The more directed an open world is, though, the more important it is to preserve a sense of adventure. With too many icons the world effectively becomes an awkward menu in which you need to walk between game modes. Its sense of place is lost, and the purpose of it being an open world in the first place dissolves. Assassin’s Creed Unity is the poster child for this mistake, its map rendered incomprehensible thanks to a clutter of symbols highlighting everything from main missions to the most insignificant treasure chest. As proven by the likes of The Witcher 3 and Skyrim, a good open world map knows when to signpost, when to hint, and when to say nothing at all.

A good open world map knows when to signpost, when to hint, and when to say nothing at all.

Perhaps the reason why Rockstar Games is considered among the open world’s most important custodians, then, is that its games find a way to blend discovery and direction together. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2, the studio’s most recent and accomplished open world, is full of authored moments. The serial killer, the voice of the devil, and the vampire are just a few well-known examples of bizarre characters and questlines that you’ll find during your travels through the American frontier. But, crucially, these activities are not marked on your map until you stumble across them. Infact, Rockstar is reluctant to add icons to its maps at all, using them sparingly to mark significant quest givers and previously-discovered locations. And so bumping into one of Red Dead’s many unusual strangers feels like a genuine discovery, and the quests that spin out of those meetings feels like a true adventure rather than a pre-planned activity.

By blurring the boundary between freedom and precise scripting, Rockstar achieves its trademark atmosphere; worlds that feel both cinematic and authentic. But that authenticity comes from more than just freedom; it’s built on simulation. There’s a constant two-way conversation between the world and the player. When snow falls you need to dress appropriately to fend off the cold. Wade through water and you’ll need to clean your weapons to restore their effectiveness. Act with kindness or cruelty and the population will respond accordingly. Even the impression of your boots in the mud conveys a sense of believable reality. This is a genuine world, and even your footprints leave a mark on it.

While Rockstar’s apparently infinite budget means its graphics technology can make a world that looks photorealistic and thus increasingly believable, studios across the world have long recognised that visual grunt alone can’t make an open-world feel alive. The land has to react to your presence. This understanding can be traced all the way back through Rockstar’s gameography; the very core of Grand Theft Auto is based on the reactivity of the police. Commit crimes, get chased. The police wanted system has since been replicated by dozens of games, from The Getaway to Cyberpunk 2077, but it’s also the first link in an evolutionary chain that leads to Shadow of Mordor’s incredible Nemesis System.

In Monolith’s otherwise fairly traditional open world, seemingly inconsequential enemy orcs left to die in a ditch can return to hound you across the campaign. They return for grudge matches over and over again, each time looking more haggard and mutilated than the last. In the sequel, Shadow of War, orcs are able to learn from their combat mistakes and fight you in increasingly sophisticated ways. They rise through the ranks of Sauron’s army, becoming an ever more powerful threat with each encounter. Behind the scenes, this system is simply an NPC tracking database, but within the lands of Middle-earth these lines of code are a living, breathing rogues gallery of unforgettable foes. It creates life in a manner unlike any other game, and that life is rooted in the simulation layer of its open world design.

You cannot escape the Nemesis System in Shadow of Mordor, much like how you cannot rid the city of GTA’s police or avoid the natural forces that govern Tears of the Kingdom’s world. And so while the philosophy that powers open worlds is freedom, these games are just as much about what’s beyond a player’s control as they are the opportunities granted to them. That players in Breath of the Wild are not free from the limits of their own exhaustion while climbing a mountain dictates not only their journey, but also the way they’re free to explore. Tears of the Kingdom refines that concept even further; your limited stamina and the pull of gravity may shackle you to the ground, but Ultrahand – and the amazing skyborne vehicles it can create – will be the thing that helps you break free of the earth and reach that distant mountaintop.

Like Tears of the Kingdom, the next revolutionary open world will once again redefine freedom. I can’t wait to see the possibilities it unlocks.

Matt Purslow is IGN's UK News and Features Editor.

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