On Open World Game Styles (A short rant on the virtual thug)

GTA-5-20-610x400On 2001, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto 3 on the Playstation 2. It was an open world game where players took control of a thug and did thug-life missions in an open world. The main appeal of the game was the open (sandbox) world [1]. Players could follow the quest lines and become mob bosses, or they could run around randomly killing people who would later re-spawn.  Several sequels followed this tradition, and the open world game became so popular that several other franchises were developed around the concept. While the open world is a great design choice for designers who want to focus on the creation of a world and its lore, I fear that GTA 3 and its sequels have given rise to an open-world-thug mentality, where players assume that being in an open world means that you have the option of freely roaming around killing people with no consequence [2].

The open world thug mentality dictates that if there is a choice the player will make the bad karma choice, if there is an object the player will steal it, and if there are some innocent people the player will kill them. This is pretty much what players are expected to do in GTA-inspired games. However, because a game has an open world doesn’t mean that it’s a thug-based game. This should be obvious to anyone who plays games, but I’ve lately began playing some of the current-gen games with my nephew, and his comments are somewhat disheartening.

L.A. Noire (2011) is a game published by Rockstar Games, creators of the Grand Theft Auto series. However, instead of controlling an aspiring mob boss, players control an aspiring troubled detective. Players can explore the world of 1947 Los Angeles while searching for clues and questioning witnesses in order to solve crimes. Driving recklessly through the streets will warrant players a fine that will be deducted from their salaries at the end of key investigations, and shooting innocent bystanders while roaming the world is impossible. Being a cultural studies person, I was interested in the game because the aesthetics and plot reminded me of Film Noir and detective fiction (a friend wrote an interesting graduate thesis about it – you’re welcome ^__^). It also looked like an interesting game. I started playing it, and after a bit of story I was off on my first mission. My nephew, who was watching me play, said “DUDE get in a car and start running people over!”, to which I replied “I’m a detective, I shouldn’t do that. It’s not GTA”. He then kept prodding me to “see if you can kill people off the streets”. If I had been playing GTA 4 I would have rampaged – in fact, when I finally got around to playing GTA 4 that’s the only thing I did. But in LA Noire I wanted to play the detective. I gave him a chance to play and the first thing he did was “steal” (confiscate) a car and try to run over people. The game discouraged him from doing so, and when he tried to shoot random people he found that the game was programmed to prevent this kind of behavior. After a few minutes he said “this game sucks”. If I had not kept playing, he would have been completely turned off by the game, but I kept playing as a detective and he eventually got around to enjoying the game. The open world thug life mentality, however, almost prevented him from enjoying one of the current gen masterpieces.

Sadly, this is the case with many players. People who go over reviews of the game, comments on forums, and youtube commentaries will notice the repetition of an idea stated by many people – “this game sucks, it’s not open because it doesn’t let you kill people”. And so, it seems to me that gamers have come to equate “being able to thug-life” to “open world”, when this is certainly not the case. Perhaps it’s time that this sector of the gaming community re-evaluate how they approach games. I’m aware it’s fun to sometimes “break” games, but shrugging a game off because it’s not like the one it sort of reminds the player of is something that will lead to many not being able to enjoy some of the best games out there.


As I write this I’m watching my nephew play Fallout III. He quickly went through the main story making some questionable choices. In The Enclave’s base he decided to start killing Enclave soldiers before they began shooting at him, and when he went to Point Lookout he killed both Desmond and The Professor, and then he went to the church to kill all de Punga Fruit Cult. Given Fallout’s design, which allows players the freedom to play any way they want (I gave a talk about this last year), I could see his character doing this. When he finished the game, however, his game thug life mentality kicked in. He said “I’m going to go to all the cities and kill everyone”, and so he tried. First he went to Megaton, then Rivet City, then Tenpenny Tower, and right now he’s at the Brotherhood Outcast base randomly shooting at the Brotherhood. Some of the comments he’s repeated most often include “Why does it say I lost the quest?” and “how come this guy just fainted and isn’t dead?” He seemed really disappointed at the concept that some characters were so integral to the story of the game that designers decided to make them “immortal”. Now, I understand this takes away from the realism of the game, but Fallout 3 isn’t only about the world, it’s about what has happened and is happening in the world. It’s as much about the world as it is about the stories that inhabit it. Killing random people is honestly not as fun as actually doing the quests and being selective about who you kill. He doesn’t seem to get that, and maybe that’s why right now, as he’s being assaulted by hordes of Gatling-Laser-Wielding Brotherhood and fighting for his life, his eyes look empty and bored, while when he was doing the quests earlier he looked engaged.

I guess it has to do with how meaningful the experience is. It certainly seems to me that in GTA 4, killing all the civilians is part of what gives the game meaning. However, doing the same in Fallout 3 (or Assassin’s Creed) doesn’t have as much meaning and somehow isn’t as fun as actually completing the quests. But hey, maybe that’s just me ranting about narrative.


My nephew is an amazing human being. He would never harm anyone, has several achievements under his belt, and is currently studying to be a computer engineer. The way he lives is in no way affected by how he plays, although it certainly seems that the way how he plays some games is shaped by his previous play experiences, which only makes all the sense in the world.

Addendum 2

He just got to the cocoon in the Brotherhood nest where players are immersed into the Anchorage quest. He said “can I activate this if I want to?” I said “if you had decided to help them, sure. That’s their quest”. He then had a dull look in his face. “Oh… I guess I’ll just go back to rampaging then”.After 5 minutes he said “you wanna kill some people? I’m bored already”.

I think he might slowly be getting it.



[1] I know, I know, GTA 3 didn’t invent the open world. Elite (1984) is credited with inventing the concept, and several other games like The Legend of Zelda (1986) and The Elder Scrolls (1994 – 2012) have successfully used the open world mechanic. However, it was GTA 3 that brought it to the forefront of console game design and made it a “cool” thing.

[2] No, this does not affect real life behavior. It only affects how players think about open world games.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on January 9, 2013, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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