Open world environments are a gaming concept employed in many games to give the player a more “in control” feeling while playing the game. Open world games typically consist of very large settings with many different areas and structures that can all be visited by the player at any time they choose to. This style of gameplay is different from linear progression games because in a linear game the player is often forced to travel down a scripted path events and levels that come one after the next and are always in the same order.
Many modern game players prefer the open world concept because it is an evolutionary step forward in the way interactive entertainment can pull a player into the story. Open world games offer a sense of control to the player, they allow a player to visit the places they want to visit when they want to, and it is that level of control that helps the player feel more intertwined with their character. Free roaming open world environments is still a relatively new concept,and as the popularity of it increases more and more games are utilizing the concept to attract more players.
These games were all very important to the evolution and rising popularity of open-world environments:
Jet Rocket - The first open-world game was Jet Rocket, an arcade game released by Sega in 1970. It introduced free-roaming flight movement over an open-ended 3D landscape, with players able to fly around and shoot at various landmarks across the game world.
Western Gun - Taito's Western Gun (1975), localized as Gun Fight in North America, was the first open-world video game. Western Gun had two cowboy gunslingers who freely roam across an environment littered with cacti and mountains while attempting to shoot each other. The North American version Gun Fight limited each player's movement to their own side of the screen, whereas Japan's original Western Gun allowed players to freely roam across anywhere on the screen. Gun Fight also reduced the scale of the environment, with mountains no longer being present.
Rally-X - Rally-X, released by Namco in 1980, was the first scrolling open-world game, and the first open-world driving game, a distant ancestor of Grand Theft Auto. Rally-X featured a vehicle driving around a multi-scrolling game world, becoming the basis for Miami Vice (1986), which in turn became the basis for Grand Theft Auto (1997).
Action RPGs - Rather than being limited to an indoor location, or using an overworld or hub world to connect areas, Courageous Perseus and Hydlide in 1984 introduced a fully interconnected outdoor open world that can be entirely traversed by foot, making them the first on-foot, fully-scaled, outdoor open-world games. Hydlide and Courageous Perseus inspired the continuous open-world designs in a number of later games, including Tritorn (1985), The Legend of Zelda (1986), Ys (1987), the Metal Gear series (1987 onwards), and Scalebound.
Metroidvania - A portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, two of the franchises (both debuted 1986) that played an important role in the development of open-world gameplay. "Metroidvania" style gameplay, however, predates both franchises, dating back to Brain Breaker (developed in 1984), Xanadu (1985) and Tritorn (1985).
The Legend of Zelda - The original Legend of Zelda (1986) on the NES was arguably the first game to truly utilize the concept of non-linearity as the game world Hyrule had to be discovered and explored in an open adventuring style as the player would have to discover certain aspects of the game world without direct instruction or explanation from the game. Zelda was the most influential open-world game, inspiring the continuous open-world designs in many later games, including Times of Lore (1988), the Ultima series from Ultima VI (1990) onwards which in turn inspired The Elder Scrolls series (1994 onwards), the Mana series (1991 onwards), and the Grand Theft Auto series (1997 onwards).
FREE - "Full Reactive Eyes Environment", introduced by Shenmue (1999), refers to an ambitious style of adventure game that was a major step forward for 3D open-world gameplay. Considered the originator of the "open city" subgenre, Shenmue was the first fully 3D urban open-world game. It was touted for offering unparalleled level of player freedom, giving them full reign to explore an expansive sandbox city with its own day-night cycles, changing weather, and fully voiced non-player characters going about their daily routines. The game's large interactive environments, wealth of options, level of detail and the scope of its urban sandbox exploration has been compared to later sandbox games like the 3D GTA games, Sega's own Yakuza series, Fallout 3, and Deadly Premonition. Interestingly, this "FREE" style of adventure gameplay was anticipated by the little-known Mizzurna Falls.
Grand Theft Auto - The GTA franchise is most well known for its violent and controversial in game content, but the thing that made GTA the monster hit it is today was its successful employment of open world game play. The series is often considered one of the most important in terms of this concept, especially GTA III (2001). According to creator Sam Houser, its open-world gameplay was inspired by The Legend of Zelda series.
The following diagram shows the roots and influences of various open-world games:
"Open World Jank"
As a result of the players freedom to play how they like anywhere in the large game world, even very well received open world games are criticized for a large amount of unpolished and buggy content. These are usually a result of technical limitations and/or prioritising quantity over quality. This also extends to loose controls that don't always respond accordingly with the large scale environments.