Every video game genre begins somewhere, but it’s not always easy to identify the true roots of even gaming’s biggest and most important genres. Open-world games are one of the best examples of that sometimes frustrating fact.
Whenever gamers dive into a modern open-world title, they usually know about what to expect. A multitude of NPCs and missions, countless side activities, and a large world have all become hallmarks of the genre. For a time, the desire to build ever-bigger worlds seemingly dwarfed developers’ abilities to populate them with worthwhile content. Some relied on the phrase, “wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle” to summarize the problem. Of course, the history of the open-world genre is filled with instances of one studio trying to make a technically larger world before they even know what to do with the extra space. Indeed, the one constant in the evolution of the open-world genre has been that there is usually some game that comes along that ultimately realizes ideas that another game previously brought up but couldn’t quite capitalize on for various reasons.
Part of the reason it’s tough to pin down the first real open-world game is that there is no definition for an open-world game that will satisfy everyone. The heart of the genre is a large world that you can explore as freely as possible, but even that concept covers a lot of ground (no pun intended). For instance, some very early games allowed you to move around a larger environment (such as 1970’s Jet Rocket and 1975’s Western Gun) but there wasn’t really a lot to do in those environments. They were closer to “free roam” games that utilized a lot of smoke and mirrors to hide how linear they actually were. Similarly, quite a few early adventure titles offered non-linear gameplay but typically didn’t allow you to actually explore large digital worlds via anything other than the occasional incredibly basic text command.
Even though those early games are important to the evolution of the open-world genre, they really only match the genre’s most basic criteria. If you’re looking for the earliest example of an open-world game that is closer to the definitely open-world games we know today, you need to put a few more parameters in place. It needs to be a game where the size of the world is designed to contribute to a sense of immersion. It also needs to be a game where the player’s decisions regarding where to go and what to do have as much impact on the gameplay (and preferably plot) as possible. When you start to look for early games that basically feel like technically less advanced versions of more modern open-world games, you may find that there is one title that stands out from the rest.
In June of 1981, the California Pacific Computer Company released Ultima 1: The First Age of Darkness. Developed for the Apple II home computer, the game tasks players with defeating an evil wizard. Even though Ultima 1 has an end goal, players can go anywhere they want on the map at any time. This freedom, coupled with a multitude of optional quests and equipment, gives Ultima 1 the honor of essentially being the world’s first open-world RPG.
Of course, because Ultima 1 was built for 8-bit computers, so it was obviously bare bones by modern standards. The game unfolds from a top-down perspective, and combat never progresses past “awkwardly bump into enemies to attack.” Plus, Ultima 1 is extremely short; anyone who knows what they are doing can finish the game in about three hours, and the story never deviates from the initial mission. Still, the sheer freedom and general lack of direction gave early gamers a taste of what would eventually blossom into the open-world RPG formula.
Since Ultima 1 laid the groundwork for more advanced open-world concepts, one might expect the genre’s next big leap to essentially be an Ultima clone. After all, once Doom hit the market in 1993, many subsequent FPS games tried to mimic its formula while also improving on it. That’s why those games were often called “Doom clones” and not FPS titles. However, the next noteworthy leap into the open-world frontier after Ultima 1 played nothing like that game. Instead of adventuring in a land of swords and sorcery, gamers took to the stars in 1984’s Elite.
When you Google search for the game Elite, odds are you will instead find Elite Dangerous. Unlike Arkane Studios’ Prey, this isn’t another case of a studio utilizing an old game’s name to produce an unrelated product; Elite Dangerous is a faithful, updated version of the original Elite. The games are both open-world (or “open-space,” if you want to be technical) titles that give players the freedom to explore procedurally generated galaxies as they see fit. When the first Elite game was released, players were given a then-unheard level of agency. The game’s only goal is to become an “Elite” pilot, and players can reach that level of in-game fame however by diligently hauling cargo, raiding other vessels, other hunting down space pirates. Plus, Elite features one of the first examples of 3D wireframe graphics, as well as procedurally generated star systems. Yes, Elite was both one of the first examples of an open “world” title and a procedurally generated one.
Up until this point in the gaming industry, open-world titles had primarily if not exclusively stuck to computers, but in the early-to-mid 1980s, home consoles grew in popularity, thanks in no small part to the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was only a matter of time before the open-world genre would transfer to living rooms and television screens, and one of the first examples was none other than the seminal classic The Legend of Zelda (although 1984’s Hydlide and a couple of other titles from that era certainly helped pave the way for that game).
It’s easy to forget these days given the scope of modern open-world titles, but the original Zelda epitomizes many of the design philosophies of the open-world genre. At its core, the game is a sandbox experience that lets players find their own path, accidentally open secret chambers, and tackle dungeons in any order. One could argue that the original Legend of Zelda was a little too open since it was far too easy for players at the time to miss valuable items. That might be why Nintendo course-corrected a little too much in subsequent titles and produced more linear Zelda sequels. However, the company returned to the open-world formula that started the franchise in Breath of the Wild.
While Ultima 1, Elite, and The Legend of Zelda are some of the earliest examples of what many would consider being open-world games, but the genre still went through a few more iterations before it more closely resembled the modern open-world experience. For example, many open modern world games create giant sprawling cities, but none of the aforementioned games tried that. The racing titles Turbo Esprit and Vette! pioneered the art of translating large cities into video games. After those games, open-world titles started mixing and matching features from previous titles, essentially creating the first “modern” open-world titles. 1991’s Hunter, for instance, was the first open-world game to offer a large, sandbox experience with plenty of weapons, vehicles, and explorable buildings, almost two decades before Ubisoft released Far Cry 2. And in 1996, players got to see just how big open worlds could get thanks to Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall. At over 209,000 square km with 15,000 towns and 750,000 NPCs, the game is still one of the biggest on the market and encapsulates much of what we think of open-world titles.
Just like everything else in the world, video games are an iterative process. We need to learn how to walk before we can run, and video game developers had to learn how to create open sandbox titles before they could add branching narratives and multiple vehicles to the mix. Had titles like Ultima 1, Elite, and The Legend of Zelda not helped forge the path, open-world games might be in a rougher state than they are today.