If you for a moment consider these questions; what makes a good open world map? Does the game have to justify the map in some way? If yes, does the game have to offer up incentives or can the exploration come organically?
I ask those questions because having finished Mafia III and pondered how I tend to fall on the odd side of the discussion on the Mafia franchise. A lot of people argued that Mafia's maps are pointless because there's no reason to explore them. Maybe that's the case, maybe not. But it made me think about a long standing idea I've had regarding open world games and their maps. Namely the negative spaces. Those places you rarely ever go to because you either have no mission there or optional incentive to explore the area. I am sure you can think about any open world game you have played and nod because you remember that one alley, park, field or factory that became window dressing more than a place you actually visited.
When we discuss open world games and their maps it's often with the distinct agreement that there need to be things to do in order for you to explore the map, otherwise what is the point? In your every day life, do you explore every area around the place you live for no reason? Of course not, that would probably not yield all that much of interest to you with possible exceptions. But we expect games to be crammed with those things to motivate us to explore, even though a lot of those games are designed to mimic real life to a certain degree. They are exaggerated, of course, but still aim to be a simulated city in a bottle.
I would argue that the motivation to explore an open world map beyond what the developers ask you to explore needs to come from the map itself. I rarely enjoy side activities in these games, because they're often pretty pointless. Collectibles are usually too many for my taste and often more feels like a map clearing checklist than a form of exploration. Consider the Elder Scrolls series and how exploring the map often reveals interesting places, stories and quests. Sure, compared to Mafia, there isn't anything like that to find in Mafia but I'll get to that later. The Elder Scrolls franchise wants you to explore its map, because it's packed with things to find. But that may also be one of the notable exceptions. I would argue Witcher 3 does a good job of this also, but that game also reveals a lot of it's points of interest on the map which makes the act of exploration less organic because you're drawn to markers on the map. Even so there are plenty of things to find.
But if we focus on the open world crime genre that often takes place in cities and the surrounding areas the reasons to explore those maps become smaller much faster because there's very little to actually discover. So the game needs to show you the map because it can't rely on your sense of curiosity. And here's the point where I think Mafia shines and a lot of other open world games don't and I'll explain with an anecdote from my time with Mafia III.
I was tasked with bringing in a shipment of electronics from out in the Bayou. I'm not going to lie, being far up in the map and being tasked to drive down to the Bayou can feel like a hassle. But I got to driving, did some fancy drifting around corners and eventually came to a fork in the road and I looked at the sign that pointed me in the right direction and I stopped the car. I stopped the car not because I missed the turn but because when I saw the sign I realized I had driven all the way there without looking at the signs. Having looked at the map where to go my internal sense of place within the game's map had already drawn a route to drive. And so I started thinking about why that was and I came to the conclusion as I played the game that they make sure you see that map by design.
Missions begin and end in such a way that you have to drive back to your points of progression using different roads. When I finished that game, I had probably driven on most if not all the streets of that map. What I came to realize is that the map had very few negative spaces (but it does have some) and I began to feel at home in most areas and how they were interconnected with each other. I didn't need a reason to explore the map, the game was built in such a way that I would be doing that organically through playing the game beat by beat.
This may all sound like a defensive speech in favor of Mafia, I realize, but I found it an interesting jumping off point (and I am sure plenty of you will disagree with my experience and that's totally cool). That being said, I am interested in your thoughts regarding the subject matter and if you have ever thought on the concept of negative spaces in open world games or what motives you to explore open world maps in general.