Grand Theft Auto V

I am a huge fan of open-world games. This has been true since Rockstar defined the parameters of the genre with Grand Theft Auto III, setting the template for a long tradition of open-world games (that continues to this day). From open-ended mission structures to side content and collectibles to simply just tooling around in a stolen whip, causing untold amounts of property damage, the open world is pretty well-defined at this point. And with so many game studios adopting the formula, some even fusing it with properties that were otherwise more traditionally linear experiences, it is a great time to be a fan of the open-world format.

That being said, the aspect I enjoy the most is simply being inside the game world. I love exploring side streets and popular avenues, taking in all of the sights and sounds. I love comparing the digital versions with real-world counterparts for games set in actual locations or cities, as you can do in Marvel’s Spider-Man and the Watch Dogs series. Having spent even just a little time in the Bay area, I was able to mostly navigate the in-game version in Watch Dogs 2 well enough to successfully get from one part of the map to another without relying on the in-game map.

But therein lies the rub, so to speak. Very few games offer you the option to simply freely roam — a free roam option, let’s cheekily call it — to basically just be a character without mission markers or initiation points, without boundaries set by enemy encampments or rival gangs.

So what do I mean by this? Well, take the recent Mafia: Definitive Edition specifically (although every entry in the series offers this as an option). In Mafia you have the traditional story mode, where you complete missions and ultimately get through the main story. But you also have the free roam option. This mode turns off the story parts and just lets you drive around the city. There are minor collectibles, but this serves mostly as a means to explore Lost Heaven, maybe kick the tires on some of the cars you’ve been collecting, and really just enjoy interacting with the city without fear of accidentally starting a mission, or even feeling the pressure of furthering the story due to a nagging mission update or requirement in the upper corner of the screen.

Mafia: Definitive Edition

Better yet, you can even do cabbie missions, which is a great way to get familiar with the layout of the city by learning routes across certain areas and navigating using the in-game landmarks. This was something that I enjoyed in the older Grand Theft Auto titles before they mostly scrapped it in Grand Theft Auto IV.

Rockstar and Team Bondi’s 2011 open-world L.A. Noire offered a similar feature. By removing the story elements completely, you were given the option to simply meander around in the painstakingly recreated version of 1940s Los Angeles — to window shop at the various storefronts, to wax historically about the “Nixon for Senate” posters strewn about, to marvel at the quaint, old-timey nature of the trolley car turnarounds, to hear the sounds of the times. Again, all of this without the fear of a mission objective or worry that you might fail and have to restart something.

There are, of course, some open-world games that manage to walk a fine line between free roam and story mode without too many intrusions. Grand Theft Auto V is a fine example. Whereas Grand Theft Auto IV kept pestering you with those insufferable phone calls, GTA V manages, for the most part, to allow the player to skirt any mission givers or prompts and just exist within the game world (mostly for the simple cause of wreaking havoc).

To some extent, Ubisoft’s educational tour mode for Assassin’s Creed Origins falls into this category, but it is also constrained by the very nature of its setup as a historical tour. You are not actually in the time period the game proper takes place during; you’re merely a normie with a history fetish.

I would love to see the free roam feature added to more open-world games, especially those with more colorful and rich settings. A great example would be the Yakuza series. Although I do enjoy the intrigue and honor-steeped lore and stories in those games, I would love to just bum around Kamurocho, ducking into convenient stores or arcades, hearing the cacophonous din on the streets as the whirring machines and ambient NPC chatter bleed together into one fuzzy, comforting white-noise salad.

Grand Theft Auto V

But in order to enjoy that aspect of the game, I must also endure the random combat scenarios and NPCs that inundate me with requests to help them with their side missions or who simply want to brawl. Can’t a dragon just enjoy a beef bowl and marvel at the lewd photos posted on the exterior of a nearby massage parlor?

I really hope that free roam becomes a feature that more developers embrace and even get creative with. They could basically create more relaxed, content-light versions of their games for when you want to soak up these game worlds and enjoy all the sights and sounds they have to offer. It is a great way to encourage reflection and discovery, and I think it helps players acknowledge and appreciate all the hard work that goes into creating these heavily detailed worlds in the first place.

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