Wandering the streets of an unfamiliar city, I catch myself thinking, ‘Hey, this is a pretty open-world experience’ – one of those uncanny moments when you see life in videogaming terms, like scouting out ideal sniper positions on actual rooftops or visualising yourself performing a nifty bit of close-quarter combat on an antisocial fellow commuter.
As an advertising promise, ‘open world’ is the new AI. Even id Software, kings of the two-and-a-half-dimensional maze shooter, are going all Fallout 3 with the upcoming Rage. Of course, the roots of the open-world ideal lie in 8bit-era classics such as Elite and Tir Na Nog. But in the modern era, largely thanks to the success of GTAIII and its successors, ‘open world’ has become a must-have fashionable feature, even for games that an open world renders more irritating and less fun.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that the real world is not very open. Lots of it is fenced or walled off; there are metal detectors, mortice locks and policemen. You can’t simply wander into someone else’s house, or climb a mobile phone mast, without risking prosecution. Many ‘open-world’ games, too, start off more shut than open, feeding motivation and progression by only gradually allowing the player access to new areas. But the logical endpoint of such a schema is still a state where all doors are finally unlocked and you can go anywhere: in other words, a completely unrealistic world.
Just how closed our own world is increasingly becoming is detailed in a brilliant recent book by Anna Minton, Ground Control, about the rise in Britain of the ‘gated development’ and the long sell-off of public land to private corporations, who then make up severely restrictive codes of conduct for the public and patrol their privatised urban centres with private police forces and CCTV. In that sense, at least, reality is becoming more like a videogame. Soon enough the whole of England will feel like Arkham Asylum.
In another, quite monstrous way, the management of these privatised districts resembles the design of a banal open-world entertainment product. One executive is quoted by Minton as defending his strict busker-control policy thus: “We prefer planned creativity. There’s a trade-off between public safety and spontaneity. What you want is a few surprises, I agree with that, so we add in unpredictability with lighting schemes and water features, anything that adds to the quirkiness of what happens when you walk around as a consumer”. This is progress: just as you can hardly walk around in most modern videogames as anything other than a consumer or a serial killer, so the roles of actual pedestrians are to be narrowed in repertoire until you do not have the right to walk around a town centre unless you are walking around “as a consumer”. And thus the frustrating gap between what you can do in videogames and what you can do in real life will not seem quite so wide.
The flâneurs of 19th-century Paris did not “walk around as consumers”, but as the opposite: their joy was to explore the city without any plan, let alone any prospective purchase. (Baudelaire defined a flâneur as someone who walks the city in order to experience it.) And one contemporary study cited by Minton makes a similar point about modern life: “One of the most important functions of public space is to allow people to ‘do nothing’”. If you like, you can play GTAIV as a flâneur, taking no missions and doing no violence, but this would be playing against the grain. Open-world games are simply not detailed, textured and unpredictable enough to reward such doing-nothing, which is why there is always a tension between their inviting sprawl and the rigid mission structures that overlay them (a point well explored recently by Jim Rossignol at the Rock, Paper, Shotgun blog).
One of my favourite things to do in a new city is to find a café with a good street view and sit there nursing a coffee. The closest analogue to such an experience in videogames, I think, is drinking the pigeon-prepared coffee in the electro-jazz bar of Animal Crossing: Wild World. On the other hand, if I go to see a film I want to be led by the nose through the story, just as I am happy to be so led in Call Of Duty: World At War. Only a few games manage the subtle feat of Far Cry 2, which leads you by the nose through an apparently open world.
In general, it’s clear that a shift in the form’s ambition has taken place. Videogames used to want to be movies; now, it seems, more and more of them want to be curiously underpopulated and low-contingency cities. Meanwhile, our actual cities want to be risk-free virtualised consumer experiences. Was there ever such a thing as an ‘open world’, either on your screen or outside your window?
Steven Poole is the author of Trigger Happy: The Inner Life Of Videogames. Visit him online at stevenpoole.net.