Let's make this very clear right now before progressing any further: I am not against open world games. Having a game with a true open world is a wonderful accomplishment. I've just realised that a lot of games end up doing it wrong and want to delve into what makes such a concept actually work as opposed to railing against the notion.
A while back I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. My thoughts on the game are mixed at best, and there are multiple reasons why. In this case, however, I was busy working through the game's many side-quests and had just completed one of the zones entirely and was starting a new one when I stopped for a moment. Something had finally snapped, given way. I saved my game, shut it down, and promptly went 'This sucks' before loading up an entirely different game. Some massive plot-twist hadn't come along, some character I had enjoyed hadn't suddenly croaked, nothing at all had happened. I was done, however. Like a person trying to cram down a six course meal, I just couldn't take it anymore and had to stop, and worst of all, it wasn't a very good meal. For a while, I didn't think about it, enjoying one of the many games on my backlist and review titles, until I had to stop and go 'Why did it suck?' I thought about it for a while, played some more games, and then found my answer.
Open world games are a fairly wonderful concept. Instead of a linear dungeon with the goals clearly marked and in which the story can be beaten more or less by always moving forwards, there is plenty of room to move about and explore. Who knows what could be hidden away in some corner and what mysteries the world holds? So many games boast about it that it often ends up seeming like a requirement to be good and more and more games try to have it, yet why do so many games also seem to fail at it, as well? For every Elder Scrolls game there seems to be some schlock title whose name isn't even worth remembering. For every Minecraft, a No Man's Sky. To make it even more confusing, I was also playing some games that were not meant to be open world, yet were coming off as far more explorable, open-ended, and enjoyable than their open world counterparts. Why? Well, I sat down to figure it out, picking several games I felt best exemplified the various dichotomies.
Mass EffectTo start my search for an answer, I didn't stray far, moving to the first entry in the sister series that was well-known for its famous/infamous planet exploring mechanic. At the core it's simple enough. While gallivanting around the galaxy, there will be multiple planets in which the commander and his crew could land on, with each one, in theory, being unique with many secrets to uncover. In practice, it was all basically just driving across samey-looking terrain to various waypoints to either go to a pre-determined mission or find minerals/various items you probably had no need for. It could take an entire session to handle all the planets without even touching the missions. They rarely had anything distinct about them, and generally felt boring. Why was this mechanic so beloved, then? Why did I like Mass Effect? Well, I sat down and thought.
The answer came out as this: because I had a reason to. When I was on these missions, I always knew why I was there, where I was going, and why it mattered. As a result, I could often suppress the boring aspects with the thrill of completion. It didn't matter that the planet basically held only minerals and a crashed probe offering gear several levels below what I needed, if I didn't like it I could just get the minerals and leave. When something different did happen, however, I also knew more or less that I was there for it. Hence why, despite being pretty lacklustre and bad, I never felt so frustrated. If I wanted to ignore it, I could just drive to the missions and minerals and leave. It wasn't good, but it didn't feel like a vampire sucking away my will.
Hyperdimension NeptuniaFar be it for me to claim that the Hyperdimension Neptunia series is 'open world,' as it simply isn't. Rather, while bonus dungeons exist on the side, they are mostly literal copy-paste jobs with no significance at all beyond grinding out more experience/loot/stuff and various guild quests. One could easily complete the main story and any non-guild stuff without so much as touching about half of the dungeons in the game, yet these bonus dungeons often held monsters, items, and plans for various things that couldn't be obtained any other way and completing the guild quests would require visiting them all. However, even the longest dungeon was fairly short and, while the copy/paste nature was an undoubtful detriment, it also gave the upside of reduced frustration and knowing the layout perfectly from the get-go. The result is a major load of stress reduction, as well as a noticeable reward for bothering with them. While it is unquestioned that it would be better to not have the copy/paste nature, said nature also reduces the frustration by a sizeable chunk. As such, despite not being 'open world,' the open world nature of this series came off better.
MinecraftProbably the epitome of open world-ness. While the goal of survival is important, from the moment the player enters the game, they have an entire world before them to explore and freedom to do basically everything. Build villages? Destroy villages? Engage in long treks? Build fortresses? The only thing stopping them was the player's desire. More directly, however, the reward was direct and visible. Building a house gave you a house and experimenting around could lead to tons of potential outcomes. There was never a reason to not experiment around and, with the sheer volume of possibilities, so much has been done. From entire cities and nations being created to functioning computers, and even a pseudo-working version of Pokemon: FireRed; the possibilities were effectively truly endless.
SporeIn theory, there are a near infinite number of ways to make any creature according to your heart's desire in Spore. In practice, there are about one or two things to really do with basically everything amounting to cosmetic changes and repetition. There was nothing stopping the player from taking over the galaxy and viewing the many different planets, there was just no reason to care or do so beyond the first few because they were all effectively identical.
Elder ScrollsPossibly the poster-child for open world gaming for fantasy games, this series has always prided itself on its vast world to explore. It certainly feels like it at first, with so much to see and potential outcomes, but while composing my thoughts, this is where it started to click when I thought about the radial quests. Sure, it could be interesting to piece together the odd unscripted titbit or discovery, but far too often I was getting a radial quest to head into a dungeon, and there was never a reason to not just kill everything, loot anything of value, and then not even bother looking further. After all, finding out that there is a run-down tower out in the middle of nowhere matters so little when the tower itself is nothing more than dungeon filler to fill out a map, holds nothing of interest on the inside beyond a strange amount of apples in the basement, and my only reason for even being in that part of the map is to kill a literally generic bandit boss just because there is a price on their head. There is no way said bandit and their gang can stand against a max-level warrior boasting top-tier gear with the best enchants and an arsenal of god-level spells, and there is no way they hold anything of value beyond just a few extra coins to pay for an upgrade to my house - so why even bother getting invested in any of the Elder Scrolls titles? That's when it clicked.
Dragon Age: InquisitionWhen I started this game, I had heard so much about how amazingly full it was. How there was a vast world to explore and it was just packed with secrets - collectables hidden away, quests and lore galore, and so on, and so forth. At first, it even seemed to live up to that promise, until it fell apart and the problem became apparent. It was true that there was stuff to do, but when it got around to actually doing so, it had to give me a reason to care. Something it failed to do bigtime. At the start, sealing off fade rifts seemed like an important thing, until they ended up being a routine thing that amounted more to a checklist and lingering reminder that you still had things to do once you completed that zone's primary quest. Finding all the wine bottles? Sure, it had its purpose, but pretty much only if you obsessed about collecting various bottles and just had to get 100%. Much of the zones, then, seemed dedicated to this form of self-inflicted twisting of a desire to hit 100% that there was no reason to care anymore. The open world didn't truly exist. It was just a series of waypoint markers that held no meaning beyond dangling a carrot in front of people to keep them playing and claim your game is over 80 hours long. Why? Well, because you're walking for 80 hours to find one final bottle of wine because you just have to hit 100% completion despite said wine offering effectively nothing more than the ability to brag about 100% completion.
Unlike Mass Effect, I couldn't just focus on missions and waypoints as I had to outright hoof it about. Unlike Hyperdimension Neptunia, I couldn't just ignore it outside of fairly straightforward guild-quests and my 'reward' was little more than the feeling that I had wasted time. Unlike Minecraft, I wasn't doing something impressive or even personal. I couldn't claim that it was even a cosmetic difference, like in Spore, or to upgrade my house for another display dummy, like in Elder Scrolls. I was doing it purely because the game would remind me that I hadn't. That's when it fully clicked.
The myth of the open world game isn't that open world games don't exist, because plenty of titles do. In Goat Simulator there are a ton of things that can be done, and so much can be uncovered on future play-throughs that, despite the relatively small worlds, it manages the open world feel. Meanwhile, in Dragon's Dogma, you can technically go anywhere, but why would you want to go to most of those places beyond a quest marker telling you that you have to? In the original Final Fantasy, there is only one way to progress the story, but you're free to roam about and any choice you make to go back to somewhere is purely your own and, inside the dungeons, who knows what secrets you'll find? In Final Fantasy XIII, why bother trying to explore when pretty much everything you need can be found in a straight line? In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there may be a core storyline to follow, but Nintendo offers the chance to explore purely for the fun of exploring, giving rewards for the more adventurous out there…and so on.