Free to Roam: The History of Open Worlds

Though finding prominence in the late 90s, the origins of open worlds in video games can be traced as far as the latter stages of the second generation of video gaming, shortly before the industry crash of 1983. In 1981, Richard Garriot of Origin Systems developed Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, which was also one of the first commercially successful and most influential RPGs ever developed. However, the concept of open worlds would not be expanded on by Garriot until the release of the third game in the series; Ultima III: Exodus. Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress was a much more linear game than both its predecessor and successor, and interestingly, was also the first game to include a cloth map on the box; possibly inspiring Bethesda to do the same for the collector’s edition of Skyrim, which I proudly have a copy of.

Ultima III, however, expanded on the idea of open worlds in video games by including several alternative modes of transportation, including boats and horses; elements, which have become prominent and continue to remain prominent in sandbox games. Following the release of Ultima III in 1983, two undergraduates of Jesus College in Cambridge, David Braben and Ian Bell, developed a space simulator game called Elite in 1984, which is often cited as further pioneering the open world concept. It was also one of the first games to use wire-frame 3D graphics with hidden line removal, pioneering even more gaming standards for the time. But aside from Elite, there were several other games that fell into the category of open-world; unusually many of them were racing games, such as New York City, Miami Vice, Turbo Espirit and APB in 1987.

Many of these games have been cited as major influences on the likes of Grand Theft Auto. But in 1986, the original Legend of Zelda was released, which contributed to Nintendo’s rise to power throughout the third generation, and has since been established as one of their flagship franchises.

The concept of open world games was further developed on when Interplay, who would release the first games of the Fallout series, released Wasteland back in 1988. Wasteland also featured choice mechanics, which have become stable elements of many different modern gaming series’, such as Fable, Mass Effect and InFamous. But more important than that, it featured non-linear gameplay, giving players the options to explore the world at will without the worry of having to make conventional progress, and complete side quests in any order they choose; each quest featuring different possible solutions. Another early example of sandbox gameplay Wasteland demonstrated was the inclusion of tools to progress throughout certain areas of the game.

However, it was eight years later in the fifth generation of gaming when the open genre would be brought to true video gaming prominence, when Super Mario 64 was released in 1996, and in many ways, took the gaming world by storm. With features such as the use of the analogue stick for navigation and more diverse camera control, it is seen by many gamers as being the forefather of 3D platformers, and a major pioneer of the open world genre. Many games of the kind were to follow on the Nintendo 64, such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo Tooie, Donkey Kong 64 and Diddy Kong Racing. The PlayStation also featured a number of open world titles, such as Final Fantasies VII, VIII & IX. But around the same time, Sega had similar ambitions.

Following the development and subsequent cancellation of the Sega Saturn title, Sonic Xtreme, Sega had released their last console, the Dreamcast, and had the desire to release an open world game of their own. Shenmue was released in 1999, and is, in many ways, considered one of the best games for the system; if not, the best. Considered the originator of the modern “open city” sub genre, it coined the term FREE, standing for Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment. The game offered a level of freedom unlike anything seen prior, featuring elements such as weather and day to night transitions, and fully-voiced non-playable characters. The amount of depth in gameplay and extra curricular activities is seem as being comparable to Grand Theft Auto III, which was released two years later in 2001. But most Grand Theft Auto fans nowadays see Rockstar’s 2004 effort, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, as being an even greater pioneer of the modern day open world genre.

Throughout the 21st century, open world games have prominently featured on system of the industry’s three main competitors; Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo continue to pioneer it with the likes of No more Heroes and the Legend of Zelda, which has received critical acclaim following the release of instalments such as The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword and A Link Between Worlds. Rareware’s last home console game developed for Nintendo was also an open world effort; Star Fox Adventures.

Sony and Microsoft have also enjoyed success with the publishing of several open world games, such as Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Fable, InFamous, Sly Cooper, Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Oblivion, Skyrim, the Batman Arkham trilogy, Borderlands and the Just Cause series to name but a few.

The Elder Scrolls series in particular has since gone on to set new standards in the open world genre, featuring massive and diverse worlds, offering potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay. It’s actually games like those in the Elder Scrolls and the Final Fantasy series, which make me believe that there are many games in the open world genre that suffer from far too short lifespan, having nowhere near as much to do. My hope is that more games like Skyrim and Oblivion, but with the future release of games such as No Man’s Sky and Horizon: Zero Dawn, I also believe that I won’t be disappointed.


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