You hear one phrase every five minutes at E3 this year: “open world.” The sandbox-style of gameplay sets the player down in a large digital environment and lets them explore; essentially, the whole game is one gigantic level, usually with a linear narrative strewn with dozens/hundreds of mini-games and unique interactions. The genre has a long history: Popularized by Grand Theft Auto, perfected by The Elder Scrolls, deconstructed by Shadow of the Colossus, vulgarized by Saint’s Row. But at E3 2013, it’s almost surprising to find a game that doesn’t trumpet a gigantic in-game universe. No less a seer than Jonathan Blow — creator of indie-game masterpiece Braid and semi-controversial industry wiseman — called this “The E3 of Open Worlds.” (He told me that in the middle of a demo for his new game. Which has an open world.)
Open world games tend to be maddeningly huge, and the list of open world games at E3 2013 is itself maddeningly huge. Ubisoft’s buzzy Watch Dogs and Tom Clancy’s The Division set you down in a vaguely dystopian Chicago and a vaguely apocalyptic New York, respectively. The newest entry in the company’s Assassin’s Creed franchise sends you to the West Indies at the height of the pirate age. Infamous: Second Son and Batman: Arkham Origins are superhero tales set in Seattle and Gotham City. And one of the most anticipated games of the year/decade is Destiny, Bungie’s debut as the creator of anything besides Halo, which sets you down in a far-future earth with seemingly infinite possibility.
Some franchises are getting open world makeovers. The newest entry in the Metal Gear Solid franchise sends you to a sandbox Afghanistan, filled with horses and trucks and other things to hide behind. Dead Rising 3 is removing the franchise’s time-limit element and expanding in every conceivable direction; executive producer Josh Bridges told me, “Dead Rising 1 and 2 combined can fit into our world and still have room.” Licensed videogames trend cheap and terrible, but Warner Interactive’s Mad Max promises an open-world Outback filled with vehicle warfare.
Even a relatively straightforward kid-friendly game like Disney Infinity has an open-world mentality. Infinity is sort of a series of themed open world minigames: You can sail around Pirates of the Caribbean as Jack Sparrow (which is basically a G-rated version of the new Assassin’s Creed), or drive around the terrifying post-apocalyptic universe of Cars (which is basically a G-rated version of Mad Max.) The game also has a “Toybox” mode, where you can build your own wacky mash-up Disney game universe.
But there’s a uniquely next-gen twist in this new class of open world adventures. Previous open world games were single-player adventures. You were the only real person in Vice City. But the next wave of the genre integrates multiplayer in dynamic, intriguing, and occasionally confusing new ways. In Watch Dogs, you play as a mega-hacker who controls every wired piece of technology in the city, Person of Interest-style. But you can also be hacked; another player can suddenly launch a cyber-attack against you. Other games stress cooperative modes. Both The Division and Destiny tell ongoing narratives but allow (or even require) you to play alongside other players; when I got a look at Destiny, the Bungie representative told me, “Almost every element is designed to be experienced cooperatively.”
Of course, there’s a long history of MMORPGs, the Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Games that set you down in a persistent digital world filled with millions of players — think World of Warcraft. But companies are generally bending over backward to call these games something different, partially because they are different and partially because nothing chases away casual gamers like writing “MMORPG.” Dead Rising 3 features a co-op experience, but in attempting to describe the game, Bridges says, “We’ve been tossing around the moniker ‘Massively single-player.'” The demo for The Division describes it as an “Online Open World RPG.”
Whatever you want to call it, it’s clear that the games at the forefront of the open world movement are moving gamers toward a new era of console gameplay, when the worlds you play in are always on. I’ve been asking everyone at E3 what they think will define the new generation of videogames. Mark Cerny — the videogame legend who was a lead architect of the PlayStation 4 — answered simply: “Living worlds, persistent worlds. Part of the reason there’s a hard drive [in the PS4] is that the world will be evolving month-to-month.” Bridges and the Dead Rising team echoed that statement from the Xbox side: “It’s the Cloud, this perpetual living world. The game can evolve with you.”
The big gigantic hugeness of open worlds is only part of the story, though. When I asked Hideo Kojima, the mastermind behind the Metal Gear franchise, what it was like creating his new game on a next-gen system, he stressed that the game’s focus was not necessarily on graphics. “We’re looking more toward the network, the cloud, how to incorporate tablets into the game.” (Kojima also noted, “I didn’t push graphics this time, but when I saw The Division, it made me think twice about pushing the graphics.” I thought he sounded almost apologetic, but he was speaking through a translator, so maybe he was joking, or maybe he thought my question was idiotic. E3 Wisdom: No one on either side of a translator ever enjoys a translator interview.)
Almost every major game I’ve seen at E3 this year features some kind of tablet interactivity. Tropes are already emerging. The tablet has a map of the open world. The tablet lets you communicate with your friends. In The Division, the tablet lets you control a helicopter; in Dead Rising 3, the tablet lets you call in an airstrike. Weirdly, both the PS4 and the Xbox seem to be using the tablet in a roughly equivalent manner to the Wii U Gamepad — which is to say, as a very expensive and somewhat unnecessary second screen. (E3 wisdom: Whenever a game developer swears that their game’s tablet integration wasn’t just a corporate-mandated knickknack, you get the sense that it was definitely a corporate-mandated knickknack.)
There is one open world game where tablet integration seems positively essential, although describing it as a “game” might be inaccurate. Microsoft actually calls Project Spark an “Open World Digital Canvas.” It is surprisingly difficult to describe exactly what Project Spark is; if you want a strategy guide, go read the Book of Genesis. Essentially a game creation mechanism, Project Spark allows you to build your own world and game from the ground up. In demos, the developers demonstrated how you could build a world simultaneously on a tablet and on your Xbox One. In its most straightforward form, you’re set down on a blank-canvas world. You can create a unique setting built from a dizzying array of choices: icy tundra, forest, desert, whatever. Within that setting, you can create a whole array of characters, animals, things.
Let me try to describe. When the developer showed me Project Spark, he began on a blank-canvas world. His avatar was a little fantasy-genre character; he could either control the character, or shift into god-mode and build up the world. He created a pleasant little garden surrounded by a tiny river-moat. He added in a prefabricated goblin, a prefabricated tree, and some prefabricated birds. Then he went into each of their “brains” and selected unique behaviors. The troll was initially designed to attack when the avatar approached; he chose the brain “Troll Party,” and the troll started dancing. The birds were designed to fly away; he chose the brain “Exploding bird,” and they flew two feet and exploded. Then he mixed and matched. He gave the troll the “exploding bird” brain, and it flew two feet and exploded. He gave the tree the “exploding bird” brain, and everything flew two feet and exploded.
The end-game of Project Spark is, well, games. Microsoft showed off a whole array of games created within Spark; one of them was a ’90s-style RPG, while another looked like the recent indie sidescroller Limbo. It sort of seems a little bit like iMovie for videogames, although Microsoft has an even more ambitious perspective on the game: In the demo I saw, one of the project leads compared Project Spark to YouTube. (It’s also, weirdly, basically Disney Infinity‘s ToyBox mode on a much grander scale.)
Project Spark might not be for everybody, but the most intriguing of these open world experiments stress some variation on that hyper-personalized experience. Destiny might be from the same creator as Halo, but whereas that early game let everyone play as galactic super-protagonist Master Chief, Destiny lets you individualize your own character and your own arc.
There’s a flip side to this open world renaissance: Some of these games will be bad. And there is nothing more depressing than a bad open world videogame. When done poorly, the format feels incredibly flabby, as if the game designers forgot that the basic rule of gameplay is, well, to have a game to play. Mafia II, one of the single worst experiences I’ve ever had in a videogame, set you down in a gorgeously art-designed mid-century metropolis and gave you absolutely nothing to do.
The general tendency in open worlds is to fill the world with a million boring things to collect. The most recent Assassin’s Creed 3 was gigantic, but it felt remarkably undernourished: You were moving through a beautiful and totally believable wilderness, but half the time all you were doing was collecting animal skins. (If I understood the developers correctly, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag lets you collect storms.) “Walking around a big space” is not exactly gameplay, and there’s a danger that all the next-gen excitement could lead to massively empty experiences. (I never like to judge a game from the E3 demo — it’s not finished, it’s extremely short, it lives in a black hole of extremely rehearsed PR — but if I had to guess, don’t hold out too much hope for Mad Max.)
“Most open world games are trying to be gigantic. That is the opposite of what we’re doing.” That’s Jonathan Blow again, who showed off The Witness on Thursday morning to a small group of journalists. Blow rose to prominence in 2008 after Braid became the first major hit of the indie-games movement. Braid was a platformer that was retro by necessity; it was designed by a skeleton crew that mostly constituted Blow himself.
The Witness had a larger crew — seven full-time employees with seven part-time freelancers. In turn, the game’s look has advanced from 2-D side-scroller to 3-D first-person; in historical terms, we’ve moved from the early ’90s to the late ’90s. The game sets you down on a mysterious island filled with puzzles; it has vague elements of BioShock and a definite Myst vibe, but unlike the multi-world Myst, the game’s whole universe is fully accessible from the beginning of the game.
But although the game has an open world, it feels in many ways like the polar opposite of the fully integrated mega-sized cities/oceans/deserts/galaxies that already define the new open world renaissance. “Most open world games are trying to be gigantic,” says Blow. “That is the opposite of what we’re doing.” If you run at full speed, you can make it across the Witness island in one minute; but Blow claims that the content is so densely packed that the island contains 30 hours of gameplay. “There’s not this thing where you wander forever, hoping for stuff to happen,” he notes.
In the short gameplay demo Blow showed off, you engage in tiny puzzles that ultimately guide you to paying attention to the world around you; a tree or a window that seems randomly placed is actually a clue to solving some other riddle. “We’ve hidden a lot of stuff in the world you might never know about,” Blow teases. Although The Witness is probably the smallest open world game at E3, I suspect that it’s a vision of gaming’s future as surely as larger titles like Watch Dogs or Destiny. In the next generation, the world will be larger than you can imagine; in the next generation, the game may never end.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich.