Nobody can agree on what the first open-world video game was. Nobody, for that matter, can agree on what an open-world game is. There are some criteria that have to be met: a free-roaming environment you can wander at will, the ability to pick and choose your objectives. However, open worlds tend to defy the simple definitions of other game genres. In a platformer, you jump. In a shooter, you shoot. But what makes an open-world game is the promise of freedom.
It's a promise that can never be truly kept. Even with the ever-expanding potential of modern processing power, the digital world always has its limitations. We are offered the chance to explore to our heart's content, but invisible walls always lie somewhere to hem us in, and waypoints hurry us on to the next mission. Stray too far from the developers' vision and the illusion of an open world will collapse.
Players don't seem to mind, though. In an industry forever chasing the hot new trend, the open-world game has survived and thrived for decades, and is only getting more popular. The genre can lay claim to a long list of gaming’s most successful franchises: Final Fantasy, Minecraft, The Legend of Zelda, Grand Theft Auto. Even artificial freedom is enough to grab audiences.
Perhaps that’s because we're increasingly being denied the freedom to explore in the physical world. Open-world games sell the fantasy of sweeping landscapes and endless choice. Even if the games can’t ever fulfill that fantasy, they are enticing in an era when our physical movements have become increasingly restricted. In fact, the same decade that first embraced the open-world game saw the beginning of a decline in real-world freedom that continues to the present day.
The Destruction of Public Space
Whether you trace the genre’s origins back to flight simulators or early role-playing games, open-world games had truly arrived by the mid-1980s. The decade’s booming economy sustained a burgeoning home console market in both Japan and the West. Customers and developers alike were eager to test the limits of their new machines and games like Ultima (1986), Elite (1984), and The Legend of Zelda (1986) demonstrated what was possible. The ability to roam a sprawling world at will was, and remains, the appeal.
While players were seeing their digital horizons expand, however, their physical space was contracting. Urban populations continued to grow throughout the 1980s, and the cities that housed an increasing proportion of the world's population were rapidly changing. In Japan and the West, the 1980s were the heyday of mall culture, which shifted the center of communities away from the publicly owned main street and into privately controlled shopping centers. There, behavior could be tightly monitored under the all-seeing eye of CCTV cameras, and transgressors forcibly removed by security.
By the end of the decade, the private security industry was generating $5 billion of business a year in the US. alone. Almost thirty years later we're accustomed to, and even enthusiastic about, being watched over—almost 60 percent of Britons now support implementing video surveillance in all public space in the UK. Cameras constantly loom behind us, as if we're each the protagonist of our own video game.
This reshaping of the urban environment over the 1980s was not confined to its public space. The decade saw a great surge in gentrification under the free-market capitalism espoused by figures like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Ironically, the deregulation of businesses and property developers that fueled the boom resulted in more regulation for the citizens of the communities they transformed. As Sarah Schulman wrote in The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to Lost Imagination, her memoir about the gentrification of New York during the 1980s AIDS crisis:
Just as gentrification literally replaces mix with homogeneity, it enforces itself through the repression of diverse expression. This is why we see so much quashing of public life as neighborhoods gentrify. Permits are suddenly required for performing, for demonstrating, for dancing in bars, for playing musical instruments on the street, for selling food, for painting murals, selling art, drinking beer on the stoop, or smoking pot or cigarettes…[t]he relaxed nature of neighborhood living becomes threatening, something to be eradicated and controlled.
The 1980s also saw the expansion of privately owned public space, or POPS. First developed in New York in the 1960s, POPS are open-air spaces—parks, plazas and thoroughfares—that are open to the public, but privately owned and controlled. This leaves them under the authority of the landowner, who is free to set and enforce restrictions on “acceptable behavior” as they wish. The few responsibilities required of the owners of POPS in return for this power are frequently ignored—the city of New York's forty-year ordeal to get Donald Trump to abide by his 1979 agreement to maintain public amenities in the POPS in Trump Tower being the most famous example.
In 2000, Jerold S. Kayden, a professor of urban planning at Harvard, found that more than a third of POPS in New York were of "marginal quality" and half of the city's POPS had been illegally privatized by their owners. Landowners had locked gates and hired staff to declare their buildings off-limits. As a result, a significant number of POPS weren't public spaces at all. Still, the allure of outsourcing the cost of maintaining true public spaces has proven impossible for local authorities to resist, and POPS have spread to cities around the world. In London, where POPS began to be built during the 1980s building boom, many of the city’s busiest and most iconic public spaces are privately owned.
Google’s UK headquarters are currently being built within one of them: the Kings Cross Estate. The estate's four acres—the largest POPS in Europe—is under the control of King's Cross Central Limited Partnership, which maintains a secretive list of regulations governing behavior on their site and team of private security guards to enforce them. One homeless man in the area told The Guardian in 2017, "I’m allowed to lie down on the grass, but not to close my eyes... I tried to take a nap the other morning, just for an hour or two, and every time my eyes began to shut I was woken up by security guards."
Marginalized groups have always bore the brunt of efforts to control public life. They are priced out of homes and communities, arrested for “driving while black” or “walking while trans,” forced away by inaccessible design, and encouraged to stay inside “for their own safety.” While the “right kind of people” are largely free to roam at their leisure, the rest of society is kept under strict supervision.
Breath of the Wild
Every year, surveillance is getting more sophisticated, police more militarized and public space more privatized. However, this growing lockdown on our physical space has happened side by side with an incredible growth of our virtual space. In 1986’s The Legend of Zelda, the playable world of Hyrule was around 0.058 km2 large; in 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it was 121 km2.
These open-world playgrounds extend the opportunity to act in ways often denied to us in the physical world. The criminality of games like Grand Theft Auto and its imitators may grab headlines, but often it’s the far more innocuous moments that feel the most freeing. Spotting something interesting in the distance and running over to investigate it. Driving around the city with the radio on full blast. Finding a scenic spot and just enjoying the view. All three are simple things we take for granted in open-world games, but are more than enough to arouse suspicion in the physical world if seen by someone who doesn’t like the look of you.
Simply being able to leave your character idling is a freeing act when, in the real world, loitering can result in your arrest—especially for people of color. (In a particularly egregious example from April 2018, Philadelphia police arrested two black men just for sitting in a Starbucks without ordering anything.) With our actions constantly monitored and our freedom to explore eroded, it's no wonder that more and more of us are choosing to spend our time in virtual worlds instead.
The year-on-year growth in computing power means that our open-worlds are growing richer and more immersive all the time. Today, video games can sometimes feel more fulfilling than the real world. The Legend of Zelda was inspired by creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s childhood exploration of the forests and caves around his home in Sonobe, Kyoto Prefecture. Sonobe is no more, having been merged into the city of Nantan in 2006. However, millions of people play in the “miniature garden” that Miyamoto tells interviewers he sets out to create in each game, a fantastical recreation of a countryside that no longer exists.
Can our miniature gardens really replace the real thing? Could they one day?
The idea of humanity abandoning the physical world for the freedom of a virtual life has long been explored in science fiction, but the concept hit the biggest mainstream stage possible in the Steven Spielberg-directed blockbuster Ready Player One that came out in March 2018. In the movie (as well as the book it’s based on), much of humanity finds an escape from their desolate Earth in a virtual-reality universe called the OASIS. The OASIS takes open-world gaming’s promise of freedom and makes it a reality: inside, you really can be or do almost anything.
It’s an idea as unrealistic as any of the technology that appears in the film. The appeal is obvious when you live in a world of countless restrictions. In the end, though, our games are still the product of that world, with the same issues we play to escape.
A woman playing Grand Theft Auto may be free to explore Los Santos or Liberty City in a way that she could never explore her own city, but she has to do it in the body of a man, in a world filled with sexism. The female player of Grand Theft Auto is encouraged to murder sex workers. The queer player of The Witcher has to role-play heterosexual romance. The player of color who picks up most of the games in the Far Cry series is going to find themselves in a stereotypically “exotic” land, shooting its stereotypically “exotic” inhabitants. Even within the seemingly infinite possibilities of the digital world, the marginalized will still find themselves at the margins.
Any player who looks too close, though, will start to lose faith in the open-world game’s promise of freedom. Compromises will always have to be made. Maps have to end, the plot has to be followed, and dialogue trees can only grow so far. Our virtual worlds aren't as free as we would like to think.
Neither, though, are our real worlds. Our gentrified neighborhoods and surveilled public spaces are just as limited and artificial as the cities and villages in our open-world games. They're the manufactured creation of developers, whether they're building software or property. In the physical and digital world alike, freedom is, in the end, a facade.