From the very beginning, video games acted as portals to other worlds. Unlike books and movies, they allow us not only to immerse ourselves in another land, but to really explore it. It was this basic fantasy that made the open-world concept flourish; what better way to create a sense of exploring a new world than by building one with as much depth as possible and as few borders as possible? This goal has taken the open world from a form of environmental design to a completely differentiated genre.
Where the game’s linear design delivers slices of another reality, the open world aims to take simulation to the next level. It combines geography, architecture, populations, and events to create a living city, region, or kingdom. The thing that really separates open worlds from linear games, however, is freedom. For some developers, this means offering a wide range of buffet activities to always have the freedom to play What You want. For others, it provides the tools to let you explore the world freely How You want.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and its predecessor, Breath of the Wild, are emblematic of the game’s “play it how you want” philosophy. Their core mechanics are based on the genuine sense of adventure that organic, free-form exploration can bring. Therefore, apart from the main quest, very little guidance is offered. Its map is devoid of activity icons. Instead, the architecture of Tears of the Kingdom’s world is designed to grab your attention and encourage you to discover its myriad secrets.
Since there are several pre-set destinations, the unknown journey to your chosen destination is as important as the destination itself. That’s why Hyrule’s very topography, from steep mountains to floating islands, is designed to provide navigational challenges that require real effort and conquest planning. You may have to plan a grueling climb, risk a dangerous fall, paraglide an awkward route, or combine more unusual techniques to reach an interesting destination. This creates a real sense of accomplishment, which in turn makes the discoveries on the other side of these challenges all the more spectacular, whether it’s a precious treasure or a priceless sight.
Nintendo generated Breath of the Wild’s signature exploration style by developing a detailed simulation of the physical world. Gravity, wind, fire and propulsive forces can be used to launch Link to places that initially seem impossible to reach, with each new discovery making Hyrule even more vast and unknown. Tears of the Kingdom takes this a step further with the new crafting abilities, Fuse and Ultrahand, which allow you to create a variety of improvised weapons and devices. It’s an impressive system that constantly expands the horizons of the game with each new find. For example, experimenting with the Ultrahand can lead to the creation of an airship. That’s a fantastic feat in itself, but this airship can now be used to explore remote mountain peaks or as part of a new parachuting tactic to Bokoblin camps. It’s a domino effect; each new discovery opens up new ways to play, which in turn increases the sense of freedom in Tears of the Kingdom.
The development of Breath of the Wild, and in turn Tears of the Kingdom, was partly inspired by the development of open-world games in the West. This is most clearly seen in the map-revealing towers of Hyrule and Link’s ability to climb almost any surface, two mechanics that are directly based on trademarks of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. But the more important inspiration that Nintendo itself cites is Skyrim. Bethesda’s spirit of adventure can be found in the way Zelda uses enemy camps, unmarked secrets, and distant landmarks that just beg to be explored. Nintendo’s interpretation of these ideas has since set trends in the industry; in Elden Ring, we explore the world with a similar approach to rewarding curiosity and taking risks, while Death Stranding is an entire game dedicated to making the difficult traversal of the main event.
But while Breath of the Wild was clearly a turning point for the industry, its approach to open worlds isn’t ideal for everyone. The lack of direction and seemingly endless possibilities can limit rather than inspire, and overwhelmed players tend to stick to major goals and just a few simple, foolproof techniques. For these players, direction and cues can be beneficial where there is more traditional play What you want an open world design.
This variation of the open world originated in the early 2000s, as the success of Grand Theft Auto 3 spawned a wave of so-called “GTA clones”, and with the release of Assassin’s Creed 2 in 2009, the modern form of the genre was fully developed. It is characterized by a map filled with dozens (and sometimes even hundreds) of icons, each representing one of many types of activity, from major missions to momentary distractions. They are usually evenly distributed over many regions. Clearing a region may involve going through a few dungeons, solving a few puzzles, collecting a few resources, and defeating a local world boss in addition to main and side quests. This arrangement makes the map a question: what do you want now? Detailed main mission or something more short?
This project, often referred to (sometimes derogatoryly) as the “Ubisoft formula”, is the basis of dozens of games, including such hits as Batman: Arkham City, Ghost of Tsushima and the Horizon series. And it’s obvious why this project is so popular: it directs you to the most interesting and exciting activities in the world, something invaluable for those who need guidance, players who are short on time and people who want to reach 100% completion.
The layout provides a more authorial experience; where many of Zelda’s greatest moments are rooted in your journey through Hyrule and the things you discover (often accidentally) along the way, the biggest hits in more traditionally designed open worlds come from fantastic mission or activity design. Ghosts of Tsushima duels, mech battles in Horizon, and stealthy infiltrations in Arkham City are among the highlights of the genre, but these are moments made Down you and no By You.
However, the more focused the open world is, the more important it is to maintain a sense of adventure. With too many icons, the world actually becomes an inconvenient menu where you have to switch between game modes. His sense of place is lost and his goal of an open world disappears. Assassin’s Creed Unity is an example of this bug, the map being made unintelligible with a mess of symbols highlighting everything from the main missions to the most insignificant treasure chest. As the Witcher 3 and Skyrim games have proven, a good open world map knows when to give a sign, when to give a clue, and when not to say anything at all.
Perhaps the reason why Rockstar Games is considered one of the most important maintainers of the open world is that its games find a way to combine discovery and direction. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2, the studio’s newest and most successful open world, is full of original moments. A serial killer, the voice of the devil, and a vampire are just a few well-known examples of the bizarre characters and quests you’ll find as you travel across the American frontier. But most importantly, these activities aren’t marked on your map until you stumble across them. In fact, Rockstar is reluctant to add icons to its maps at all, using them sparingly to mark significant quest givers and previously discovered locations. So running into one of Red Dead’s many unusual strangers feels like a real find, and the quests that follow from these encounters feel like a real adventure rather than a pre-planned activity.
Blurring the line between freedom and precise writing, Rockstar achieves its characteristic atmosphere; worlds that feel both cinematic and real. But this authenticity comes from more than just freedom; it is built on simulation. There is a constant two-way conversation between the world and the player. When it snows, you need to dress appropriately to protect yourself from the cold. Wading in the water, you will need to clean the weapon to restore its effectiveness. Act with kindness or cruelty and the population will respond accordingly. Even the imprint of your shoes in the mud gives a sense of believable reality. This is the real world and even your footprints leave a mark on it.
While Rockstar’s seemingly infinite budget means its graphics tech can create a world that looks photorealistic and therefore increasingly believable, studios around the world have long recognized that visual grunt alone cannot make an open world feel alive . Earth must react to your presence. This understanding can be traced back to Rockstar’s gameography; the very core of Grand Theft Auto is based on police reactivity. Commit crimes, get chased. The police chase system has since been replicated in dozens of games, from The Getaway to Cyberpunk 2077, but it’s also the first link in the evolutionary chain that leads to Shadow of Mordor’s incredible Nemesis system.
In the otherwise fairly traditional open world of Monolith, seemingly insignificant hostile orcs left to die in a ditch may come back to chase you throughout the campaign. They return to grudge games over and over again, each time looking more emaciated and crippled than before. In the sequel, Shadow of War, the orcs can learn from their combat mistakes and fight you in increasingly sophisticated ways. They rise through the ranks of Sauron’s army, becoming a more powerful threat with each encounter. Behind the scenes, this system is just a database tracking NPCs, but in the lands of Middle-earth, these lines of code are a living, breathing gallery of rogues with unforgettable enemies. It creates life unlike any other game, and that life is rooted in the simulation layer of its open world.
You can’t escape the Nemesis System in Shadow of Mordor, just like you can’t free the city from the GTA police or escape the forces of nature that rule the world of Tears of the Kingdom. And while the philosophy that drives open worlds is freedom, these games are as much about what is beyond the player’s control as it is about the possibilities it gives them. That players in Breath of the Wild are not free from the constraints of their own exhaustion as they climb the mountain dictates not only their journey, but also how they can freely explore. Tears of the Kingdom refines this concept even further; your limited stamina and gravity pull may keep you grounded, but the Ultrahand – and the amazing aerial vehicles it can create – will help you get off the ground and reach a distant mountaintop.
Like Tears of the Kingdom, another revolutionary open world will redefine freedom. I can’t wait to see the possibilities it opens up.
Matt Purslow is the UK news and features editor at IGN.