First Steps: Freedom in the Open World (Part 1)

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“Whenever we proceed from the known into the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word ‘understanding.” – Werner Heisenberg

Welcome to the first post of many focusing on open world games! It’s a project I’ll be working on over the first few months or so of the Spring semester. (FYI, this isn’t the research project I referenced in December’s final post.) This project is something I’ve been pondering for a while now, and I decided last month to get moving on it.

Now, to the meat of the matter.

Open world video games have become a staple of modern gaming and for good reason. They often provide players with agency, a range of play styles, vast expanses for exploration, and hours upon hours of entertainment. My goal is to explore how open world games manage a balance between engagement (which depends, in part, on linear elements such as quests/missions) and player freedom within the first hour or so of play (essentially until the tutorial ends).

For this project, I have refined my focus further as opposed to biting off a larger chunk of the above question. In particular, I’m curious as to how open world games establish that sense of “open” in the initial moments of gameplay. What restrictions are placed on the player? How soon is the player ‘set free’ (and what marks freedom)? How much of a tutorial is provided at the beginning (and how is that tutorial shaped)?

To answer these questions, I selected The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, Fallout 4, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Horizon Zero Dawn, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. These games were chosen due to genre, frequency on “best of” lists, general popularity, age, and ease of access (for my part). A bit later on in the project, I’ll be asking for feedback in selecting a bonus game or two!

Note: Full transparency, I have previously played and
completed each of the 
above games prior to this project.

While I play each game, my goal is to document encounters I believe the game is directing me toward and to actively push back against what the game/its designers want me to do. I will deviate and question. The posts for each game will follow a journal-esque/observation style with some reflection and assessment.

After providing a framework of my approach to the project in this post and visiting each of the games respectively, I will conclude the project with a final piece that brings together my observations and analysis. Originally, my ideas for this topic would have fit neatly into a single post, but then I started thinking about Breath of the Wild and Fallout 4 and things…happened.  As I start to write about the games, I welcome your feedback!

Now, if you’re still interested, the next section involves a discussion of open world games and some of the concepts I’ll be working with throughout the project. Next week I’ll post my first game entry.

Also, if you’re looking for more open world goodness, be sure to check out AmbiGaming’s Year of the RPG project. Among other games, she’ll be playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim!


The Open World

Open world video games may be defined in a number of ways, but something that is commonly referenced in discussions of these games is freedom. Freedom in the open world may be broken down further:

  • Open areas/map (“nonlinear”)
  • Opportunities for extensive exploration

More could be said about the defining characteristics of open world games, but the two provided above are the most common, and I’d rather not get into the controversy of “open” in these games just yet.

In writing about open world games, I will use terms like linear and nonlinear. However, I feel the need to point out that nonlinear is problematic in discussing such games because no game taken as a whole can truly be nonlinear. Players encounter what developers design, the structures and rules of the game. As such, play is limited. So while I will use the term, it will be with the acknowledgement that open world games provide some nonlinearity.

While open world games aren’t traditionally linear, elements of linear progression such as main missions and side quests are present. How players reach these narrative elements and when is one factor that sets open world games like Mafia 3 apart from more linear games like Star Wars: Dark Forces. I could complete all of the main missions in Skyrim, but I might not complete as many side quests or in the same order as my friend Chris. Leaving modding out of the picture, we could have completely different experiences with the game depending on, in part, what order we experience quests. Which brings me to another element associated with open world games, and that I reference by use of the word freedom in the title of this series, agency.

Agency is associated with choice. In games, agency is best realized when the player’s choices result in consequences that potentially set player A’s experience apart from player B’s. For example, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has three possible endings. Certain decisions players make along the way impact the end-game narrative and therefore alter the experience. Games that present “options” without consequences are merely simulating agency under heavy restrictions. Much like nonlinear, agency is limiting in this context. The Witcher 3 may offer three different endings to Geralt’s saga, but players are restricted to those three. Options for ending 1.2, 2.3, or 3.5 simply don’t exist. Even if variations to the story’s end or to missions and side quests were available, they would only ever be available by design. Of course, I’m not denying the player’s ability to navigate through the game world, an aspect that affords players with a great deal of agency in open world games. Or so it seems. 😉 So when I refer to agency in this series what I really mean is simulated, apparent, or increased agency (when compared to more linear games).

It may be that I’m too picky with my terms. Maybe. My thought here is to establish some clarity moving ahead to discussions of the games themselves in future posts.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to dig into some of the particulars of my analysis as I play. My focus will be on what I’m calling spatial rhetoric and narrative elements. The narrative part should be self-evident. What is the player told at the beginning of the game? How is she told? What direction does the narrative provide from cutscenes, dialogue, and so on?

In terms of spatial rhetoric, I will be referring to the environment, the landscape, and what direction or meaning those elements imply. This is, perhaps, especially important in open world games and can include anything from topography to the way a player is funneled through a particular area via object placement. Part of my play and subsequent analysis will involve testing and breaking down the illusions that open world games create. In her article about Orientalism, agency, and space in games, Stephanie Scott writes:

 “the illusion of infinite space is necessary for the immersive experience but is difficult to achieve. Obstructions must be put into place in key areas without breaking the seamless sense of reality in the virtual environment.” (155)

Obstructions may include walls, fences, hedges, crates, boxes, etc. Scott points out that the ability to see beyond such objects maintains the illusion, the environment “retains its vastness and possibility” (155). This spatial illusion is used in all kinds of video games, but, I would argue, the illusion can be upheld with greater success in open world games due to genre conventions. Regardless, I will look for such obstructions and other environment limitations as they arise.

Logistically, my analysis of the selected open world games will be limited to the first hour or so of play. I’ve decided to focus on the beginning of each game because this is typically when overt guidance for play is provided and when the game, its mechanics and content, is at its least predictive for first-time players. As mentioned earlier, I will play long enough to determine when the game opens up, actually setting the player free to explore. And I may reload as needed, testing various choices and routes as necessary.

So far, that’s where the project stands. Feel free to leave a comment if you like and share any thoughts you may have about the direction I’m taking with all this. I hope you join me on this open world journey, and I’ll be back next week for the first game entry featuring The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim!


Work Cited
Scott, Stephanie. “Seeking the Exotic: Orientalist Agency and Space in Adventure Games.” Terms of Play, edited by Zach Waggoner, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013, pp.139-159.

Author: Tabitha

I game. I teach. I write. Graduate student pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric and Writing. Interested in the use of video games in education, digital rhetoric, and literacy.

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