Travel is a big part of my job. Maybe not to the degree of a truck driver or airplane pilot, but many of my mornings and afternoons are spent in the car. I travel for various purposes – attending meetings, conducting trainings – and most of my trips are somewhere between 90 minutes to two hours long. This requirement has allowed me to see a lot of the state where I live. Sure, I’m just passing through, but I can take in the view of places that I never really had much reason to go before. And when I chat with my coworkers in those areas, I learn fun little things about the culture of each town, or the best place to stop for an ice cream or a hot meal.
I spend my time on the road in different ways. Often I’ll listen to playthroughs of RPGs on YouTube, a way to experience them vicariously since I don’t get to play tabletops nearly as much as I’d like. Other times I’ll listen to music, free to sing out and destress after a long presentation. Sometimes I turn off the radio or my phone and use the time to think, brainstorming a blog post or some RPG hack I want to work on. On my most recent trip, I found my thoughts wandering to the very places I was traveling past. I felt a desire to stop in the quaint shopping centers, to turn down the side roads, to eat at the local restaurants – it occurred to me that traveling would be a lot more fun if I had the opportunity to explore a little bit.
I’m not the kind of guy who always thinks he needs a vacation, but in that moment I definitely found myself wanting one. Not because I’m exhausted of my job, but because the idea of being able to travel freely and to actually enjoy the little places I pass by appeals to me. I found myself thinking back to some of my favorite vacations – visiting castles in Germany with my mother and stepfather, exploring the southern US with my grandfather, driving down the highway with my best friends on the way to a wedding – and wanting to experience something like that again. I felt the call of the open road and the desire to travel for travel’s sake. No plan, no agenda, just myself and some people I care about exploring places we’d never been. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll have the opportunity to strike out on vacation anytime soon. But while I wait, I have other ways to get my exploration fix: gaming in an open world.
I wouldn’t describe open world games as my favorite style of game by any means. I tend to find a contained world filled to the brim with activity and lore infinitely more interesting than a vast, empty one. Most open world games I have experienced struggle to tell an engaging story, and story is just as significant for me as gameplay more often than not. Still, open world games definitely appeal to this part of me which desires to explore.
I haven’t necessarily played a ton of games that could legitimately be called “open world,” but of the ones I have, each one has something about it that appeals to me and something that kind of holds me back. In Breath of the Wild, I love how the freedom is tied not just to the ability to explore the world but also the ability to solve problems and fight enemies. In Skyrim, I love how the world is filled with little villages, caves, and dungeons, and it’s easy to get distracted with new places to explore. In Final Fantasy XV, I love the different methods of travel, and how camping with your crew really invokes the feeling of a roadtrip. Each new game open world game I play seems to capture a different facet of what makes exploration exciting.
Of course, video games aren’t my only alternative to actual travel. As a fan of tabletop RPGs I found myself thinking of which games could best give me the sandbox feeling at the table. My mind naturally drifts first to my favorite RPG, Dungeon World, which certainly has the ability to reproduce the Elder Scrolls effect. However, there’s another game which I haven’t had the opportunity to play yet which places even greater focus on the pleasure of taking a journey: Ryuutama. This game focuses more on travel than many other RPGs and offers a lot of tools for collaborative worldbuilding that players can use to design cool places to explore.
I’m not sure right now which game I’m going to end up playing in order to satisfy my desire for some open world shenanigans. I’m kind of leaning towards Final Fantasy XV because it has my favorite mechanisms for travel and a greater focus on some of the more practical aspects of traveling, but as it’s a PS4 game I wouldn’t realistically get a lot of playtime. The same issue distances me from Skyrim somewhat – though I have that on PS3 and the console would be available to me more often, it’s still stationary. I’ve come to rely on the Switch’s portability more than I’d previously realized, and the fact that I couldn’t play Skyrim or Final Fantasy when I’m out of town would be a turn off for me. And no, I will not buy Skyrim for the five billionth time on the Switch.
This leaves me with Breath of the Wild, and honestly that’s probably the title I am the least interested in picking back up. I enjoyed the game, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t consider Breath of the Wild to be the pinnacle of the open world formula. It’s also the game I’ve played most recently out of my three options, and the one I have explored the most thoroughly. It wouldn’t feel nearly as fresh to me as revisiting one of the other titles – I’d just as soon pick up and replay a different Zelda title.
I don’t know what I will ultimately do to satisfy my open world cravings, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Do you find that open world games help you when wanderlust strikes? What is your favorite open world to explore? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!
TL;DR and to answer your questions:
1. Open world games absolutely feed my sense of wanderlust, but through much trial and error I have found that they have to be open world games with the right mix of story, freedom and the ability to see that my actions have had an impact (either inside or outside of the main plot).
2. My favorite open worlds to explore? Skyrim, explained below; The Witcher 3, explained below; WoW, because there’s no fighting it and Terreria, because it’s a seriously fun time. I’m sure there are more but those are what come to mind.
I’m comfortable with saying that RPG is my genre of choice and all of the sub genres it brings with it: Isometric RPG, MMORPG, JRPG, Action RPG and the sandbox, open world RPG.
When speaking specifically about open world, I think I love it for the very same reason that others perhaps shy away from it: the ability to get lost in a world. To stumble upon some forgotten place in the world and to feel like I’m the first one to set foot there after years of abandonment. To forge a path for my character, to carve my name into the annals of some fantastic history.
With that in mind, I also agree that sandbox just for the purpose of sandbox can be tiresome. A reason to keep going, after I’ve gotten my fill of exploring, is important too. A game like the most recent Mad Max comes to mind, or even Far Cry 5 (that I’m STILL trying to make it through). The story lines didn’t engage me and after only a dozen or so hours into the games, I just got…bored?
Both games had tons of side objectives to explore and accomplish. Since there was no compelling reason to do them though, say one offered by the main plot or story line, I grew distracted and quickly lost any desire to see the game through.
Then there’s open world like The Witcher 3 and the aforementioned Skyrim. The Elder Scrolls V has claimed around 1500 hours of my life since 11/11/11, though much of that was thanks to testing out and tweaking mods. I must have poured in 150+ hours to the Witcher 3 too, just on my first play through. My biggest issue with CD Projekt Red’s master piece was that due to the sheer amount of side quests available, it was very easy to out level and out pace content. Despite that, I felt compelled to complete most if not all of the quests in an area because I wanted to explore every inch of terrain I could find, at least try and fight as many monsters as I could and most importantly I wanted to experience every inch of that story through the various needs and requests of the NPCs from all corners of the map.
The other big piece for me with The Witcher 3 is that I really connected with Geralt and the supporting characters. I was ecstatic that my ending saw all of my favorite characters survive. When I finally put the controller down, it was with a real feeling of contentment and satisfaction that I had left my mark in The Northern Kingdom.
I swear I didn’t mean for this reply to be so long winded. To that effect, I just deleted the start of a new paragraph in which I was going to begin rambling about the different kinds of RPGs and bring up MHW and God of War, lol.
Thanks for the great post!
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Thanks for reading and thanks for the thoughtful comment!
You make an interesting point with the over-leveling comment about the Witcher that I definitely think is important. I think part of what makes Skyrim work so well is that the world levels up with you, so regardless of where you explore or how many quests you engage with, it’s never going to take the teeth away from the rest of the game. It’s still fun to explore because there’s still danger in the world. Combine that with meaningful sidequests (some of which are lengthy adventures in their own right) and all those cool untouched dungeons that you mentioned and it makes for an excellent exploration experience. I said once in a discussion with Athena that Skyrim is kind of a perfect storm of ideas that really make the open world concept sing, and I think a lot of the points you brought up are good examples of how that all works.
I’m not certain if they feed my wanderlust exactly (I wonder if i played a VR open world game if it might?), but i’ve been blown away by a few open world games because of that sense of exploration.
BOTW is probably still the prime example for me, although Xenoblade Chroncicles X and 2 are both right up there. BOTW inspired in me the desire to climb (in a video game sense, not in real life, i’m not very outdoorsy) mountains, just to see what you could see, but it also had that added bonus of being able to glide from the tops of mountains to wherever you want.
Sometimes I’d sit down to play it with a goal in mind (to finish a particular quest for example), but i’d end up actually just climbing a mountain for a while, just to see what was at the top, and I was very rarely disappointed, even if it was just a korok seed!
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Yeah, Breath of the Wild definitely hit the nail on the head when it comes to exploration. The ability to glide as a major means of travel, the fact that it’s so easy to climb (except when it’s raining….), and possessing a variety of tools so you can explore how you want all make the exploration fun and rewarding in unique ways compared to other games.
It’s funny, I stated in the article that BotW was the game I was least likely to return to, but this weekend I was helping my wife on her playthrough and it really made me want to jump back in…
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Awesome! I just bought the expansion pass for my partner for his birthday, he does most of the actual playing of Zelda games but I’m hoping to get a chance to play a bit again soon!
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