By Samuel Caranicas ’21 // Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
A game’s open world is one of the most important parts of the open world genre, so much so that it’s in the name. If a game’s world feels overly repetitive or empty, the game isn’t as captivating or immersive as it could be. Rockstar Games, developers of the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series, as well as a slew of other beloved games, understands this better than anyone. They spend years crafting highly detailed, atmospheric worlds that other developers can only dream of, and as they basically wrote the book on open world game design, a lot can be learned from how they design their worlds. 2010’s Red Dead Redemption is a masterpiece of the last console generation, even more so than its follow-up, Grand Theft Auto V, primarily due to the design of its open world environment. While RDR’s world is not nearly as populated or densely-packed as GTA V’s world is, it still manages to feel more alive and organic. This is because of the empty nature of the game’s world; rather than devoting console resources to filling the screen with dozens upon dozens of cars, people, and buildings like GTA V does, RDR uses what is in the world to its fullest. Small towns of twenty buildings contain the same amount of content that you’d need to travel around the entire city to access in GTA V or other city-based open world games.
Let’s call it the space-to-content ratio: developers want to strike a balance between the amount of content it offers and the amount of space it inhabits. In other words, if a game shows me only twenty buildings but I can interact with eighteen of them, then I’m satisfied. But if a game shows me three hundred buildings but I can only do something with thirty, then I feel like there’s something missing from this “living, breathing” world. While city-based open world games are oftentimes exponentially more packed with objects than nature/wilderness-based games, they are not simultaneously more packed with gameplay opportunities and content. This leads to an unbalanced ratio, which results in an empty-feeling environment.
GTA V, numerically, may have more possible activities for players to partake in than RDR. But that increase in gameplay opportunities does not match up with the game’s increase in buildings and structures… structures players are going to want to go inside or interact with somehow. Whereas most of the buildings in GTA V or Watch Dogs are just for show, with no way to interact w
ith them, the majority of buildings and structures in RDR are possible to interact with, just because there are so few of them in the first place. Therefore, Los Santos (and the other towns and communities, for that matter) feels like a virtual backdrop, while the towns of RDR feel like real towns. There are gun shops, general stores, saloons, train stations, a Sheriff’s office, etc., everything a real-life fictional old west town would possibly need, and all of which players can go inside and directly interact with.
Compare that to GTA V: We’re supposed to become immersed in a living, breathing city… but yet if you were to move into Vinewood Hills, you’d quickly find you can’t do much more than look at stuff (no touching!). And say goodbye to good food. There are convenience stores, but I doubt Janet from down the block can get everything she needs for the week from 7/11. Also, I should clarify that of course I’m aware that GTA V offers a wide variety of gameplay possibilities through its mechanics alone. And I’m aware that the game’s world technically does have everything a resident would possibly need, but most of it is represented by flat, muddy textures, and nothing more. And when no amount of helicopter missiles or grenades can damage anything other than cars and people, and most of the map has little to offer once all the missions and side quests are completed, it’s difficult to find things to do that I feel would actually be worth my time. The online mode suffers from the same problem, too; unless you have a decently-sized group of people willing to coordinate in complex ways, the world doesn’t offer you much more than missions to complete within it.
This sounds like a non-issue, but the “soul” of a game’s open world is one of the most important elements the player needs to buy into. Did The Witcher III win game of the year because its world feels empty? Of course people interpret open worlds differently; some people find Skyrim deeply immersive and engaging, while others can’t get past the fact that virtually every single character and NPC in the game is voiced by the same handful of people. Many people find GTA V’s open world completely satisfactory, and I definitely understand why. It was an impressive technical feat when it was released, and is filled to the brim with little details that do make up for the emptiness, to a degree. And while I’m not at all suggesting that GTA V’s world is bad or feels dead empty, I am arguing that it―and many other games―lack a proper space-to-content ratio, something that Red Dead has.
I’ll acknowledge that most of RDR’s world is empty too, but the Sonoran Desert isn’t one of the largest cities in the United States, so it doesn’t break the immersion or feel lacking. In fact it enhances it, because it effectively captures the atmosphere of an empty desert. The empty desert portions of GTA V’s world is not the problem I have with the map; it’s the empty city of Los Santos that’s the issue. In RDR, I can ride my horse into town and head to the Saloon at the other side. To get there, I’d pass by a dozen buildings, most of which I can enter and interact with to some degree. I’d go into the Saloon, buy a drink, and play some poker. Then I decide to run into the building right next door to buy a new gun, before going into the next building over to get a new horse. In GTA V, if I want to go buy a shirt, here’s how it would play out: I’d drive towards the clothes shop, passing by dozens of buildings, only one of which I can enter (the clothes shop). I’d buy my shirt and leave. Then if I wanted to buy a gun, I’d have to drive past a few dozen more buildings I can’t interact with to get to the gun shop.
And that brings me to my next point: the space-to-content ratio does not exist in a vacuum. It can only be effective when combined with the proper setting. As I said before, you can’t give me twenty highly interactive buildings surrounded by nothing, call it a big city, and expect me to be happy or immersed. But, give me twenty highly interactive buildings surrounded by nothing and call it a small town in the middle of nowhere, then I’m satisfied. Therefore, open world games benefit from a more balanced ratio. Nobody would be immersed in a Los Santos made up of only a couple dozen buildings, though, and a city-sized world with a city’s-worth of content isn’t possible with modern technology, so developers are left with a choice: create a massive but dead city, or an open and empty, but living environment.
As the Triple-A portion of the industry seems to be prioritizing graphics and polished presentation more and more, in-game cityscapes grow larger and more impressive every year, but the amount of stuff to do in them doesn’t. This all creates a dilemma: even with the great strides gaming is making, it’s doubtful we’ll see that degree of interactivity in a city-based open world game any time soon. It shows in public opinion, too: many of the most popular and acclaimed open world games this generation haven’t been based in massive cities. The Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild, and most recently Red Dead Redemption 2 are all prime examples. As far as city-based open world games go, most of them have underwhelmed critics and fans alike. Watch Dogs, The Division, and Infamous: Second Son have all received criticism for empty, desolate open worlds. GTA V, for the reasons I’ve been giving (and more), has received plenty of criticism for its world too.
I’m not going argue that giant city-based games can’t work with present technology. GTA V is a fantastic game that I don’t at all regret pouring hundreds of hours into, despite the issues with its world. City-based games can feel incredibly atmospheric and are fantastic settings for a lot of different gameplay mechanics, from superpowers to driving to gunplay. Spider-Man would suck if it took place in a wide open field. But, unfortunately, these games often feel empty. It breaks immersion when I can’t do anything with eighty percent of the map, in a setting that suggests I can. And as common criticisms of city-based games suggest, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Perhaps there’s a reason Ubisoft’s been avoiding cities in Assassin’s Creed games lately. And perhaps it’s the same reason why Red Dead Redemption 2 manages to be so incredibly gorgeous, interactive, and complex; a game set in a city would not be able to support as many gameplay systems on the hardware RDR 2 runs on, as it would be too busy rendering the packed environment. It has a perfect space-to-content ratio. And, after Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser said in an interview with GQ that it’s unclear what direction they could take it in due to the current political climate, we probably won’t see GTA VI until the mid-to-late 2020s. And by then, we might have the technology to see a gigantic cityscape truly come alive with a well-balanced ratio.