Every game has it’s boundaries. Certain eccentricities that may prevent a player from fully exploring an environment. For instance a door that can’t be opened. A path blocked by seemingly innocuous and totally negotiable debris or an NPC stood in the middle of a road remonstrating the loss of an item or persons that will not step aside until you, a random stranger procure the missing trinket. In most cases these environmental concessions are logical impediments designed to moderate player momentum. That encourage you to engage with your surroundings. To really explore and embrace the vicarious pursuits of your character in a fully formed alternate world. The game doesn’t want you to rush things. It wants you to sample and sip, get a taste of its world. RPG’s are notorious for utilising banal abstractions as a means of corroling player impulse.
A great game however will give the impression of player autonomy, even though every decision is entirely predetermined. Skyrim for instance, despite its significant floors is a perfect example of a game that stimulates the prerogatives of its player. After escaping the games structurally confined opening, Skyrim emancipates the player, allowing us considerable latitude to embark on whatever journey we desire, without the manufactured limitations of its composed narrative. The Witcher 3 is another example of a game that conceals its innate scripted persuasions in an environment that feels organic. The objective is as always to save the world, but isn’t conceptually a time sensitive priority. You can amble from one errand to the next, lining your pockets with gold, or whatever a Witchers’s equivalent for a pocket is, some kind of pheasant lung I’d presume, without the guilt that you should be doing something more important.
Gaming is an inherently selfish hobby. It doesn’t lend itself well to an intimate pursuasions of the individual playing it. We each interact with these worlds in distinctly opposing ways that doesn’t always adhere to the limitations imposed by a games narrative. When there’s an emphasis on the severity of a particularly contentious, world altering cataclysm it kind of breaks the immersion of a fully functioning, open world map when it won’t let you explore the next area until you’ve completed some trivial errand. I’ve got a world to save here guys?! Finding a game that balances the fixed narrative with the spontaneous proclivities of the player without diminishing the formers regimented story arc into a benign, extraneous circumstance is a rare thing to find. And perhaps not entirely possible. Maintaining that engagement through the primary story as well as our own wandering curiosities is difficult to accomplish, but the duality I enjoy the most.
There’s a subtle, yet critical distinction between an open world and free roam. And it’s rather unfortunate that they don’t coincide as often as they should.