The concept of the open world is the epitome of freedom in a game. Not only do players have the physical freedom to travel anywhere in the world, with barely any barriers or level loading screens, but also freedom in gameplay. Although an open world game has built-in goals and objectives like in any other, what separates this genre is the choice to complete them in any way or order you choose (or ignore them completely). More often than not players will find themselves caught up in a bunch of little things to do or see without making a beeline for the main story. This is good and expected, as open world games are designed that way.
With so much freedom to mess around, it is important to keep players engaged in the world. Games today do this well with some distractions and the ability to raise hell. There’s seldom a Skyrim player out there who was heading in the direction of a quest marker, not expecting to see a soaring dragon looming in the distance (which had to be killed, quest be damned). How many GTA players, while cruising to the objective, never felt the urge to accelerate indefinitely on a busy street and initiate an epic cop chase just because they can? In open world games, our best memories in them probably don’t have anything to do with the story. Instead, we remember the moments we created and witnessed. Like the time you broke up with your in-game girlfriend by sending her over a cliff in a car. Or maybe the time you came upon a mudcrab who pit itself against a bear, and won.
Should there be more to open world games besides spontaneity? The ability to face the unexpected and do the unexpected is satisfying in its own right, and should be here to stay. One of the most compelling aspects about them is that the player can truly feel their experience is unique. The game is not a recipe to be given in a specific order with a specific set of ingredients; rather, the player and the game go on their own merry way, and the experience is created by them crossing paths.
However, even though each individual’s experience is unique, the game world and often the player character remain the same. Through the entire duration of playing, the streets, villages, and people are just as you left them. In a game where playthroughs can be so varied, it is strange to see that each world remains the same. No matter how many cops you murder in the street, you can walk around as a normal pedestrian just a few minutes later. No matter how many dragons you have slain, guards will still talk down to you at cities. Neither the environment nor the player is changed by the other. The stuff players do may be meaningful in the context of the mind of the player, but meaningless in the context of the game.
This leaves another step in the evolution of open-world gaming: a dynamic world which shapes itself according to your actions. What if instead of messing around in a virtual dollhouse, players can (so to speak) go beyond that and add some windows or tear up the flooring? With the potential to shape their world as they please, the player enjoys the game more because they feel a sense of significance in their actions, and an even greater sense of freedom. Satisfaction from causing mayhem or witnessing random things can go a long way, but imagine how much farther open world gaming can take us if we could make a mark upon the world out of our own volition, or witness something that happened because of some spontaneous action you did earlier?
Some examples are in order. If open world gaming evolves this way, killing massive amounts of people should result in something from a simple newspaper clipping to a mass-murderer reputation. A player can build or destroy something that lasts on the world, leaving a physical mark. It wouldn’t hurt to have new spontaneous happenings emerging from others. Something similar to having an assassination contract against you in Skyrim for killing a random person. A living, breathing world and society mirrors the actions of the player, thus giving a huge sense of influence by creating a more satisfying and unique experience.
I understand that a dynamic world isn’t necessarily a new idea (elements of it have been seen in quite a few RPGs) but I feel it hasn’t been implemented in a degree that doesn’t feel scripted. The closest I’ve seen is the event system in Guild Wars 2, where events not only go on regardless of player interaction, the result will change the surrounding area and lead to other events. However, most open-world games today haven’t given up their static worlds and characters. They keep to the traditional way of using progression systems and dialogue trees to give meaning to structured quests or skills, ignoring all the other random stuff the player can do.
When we get to the next step in open world gaming, the player will not only own their experience, they will own their world.