The most commonly repeated criticism of open world games is that there isn’t enough content to fill the vastness of the world. Or, perhaps more accurately, the content that is there simply isn’t fun.
Ubisoft and Rockstar are disparaged for repetitive side quests and lack of meaningful loot. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is faulted for its reliance on korok seeds in order to give the player something, anything, to find as they scramble through towering cliffs and glide over muggy swamps. Even though these games consistently feed their players new characters, locales, and stories, the worlds themselves almost never possess enough of that sought after sense of genuine discovery. In each of these instances, is it really “emptiness” that is the issue or is it a problem with the substance?
To create engaging and interesting open worlds, perhaps developers need to embrace emptiness.
Form and Void
In opposition to Western, maximalist sensibilities, the Taoist ancients cherished blankness. In the above landscape painting by Fang Congi, the canvas is dominated by a lack of ink that swallows the mountains and lake into obscurity. This technique brings the brush strokes all the more meaning, as their fight against the haze of the clouds makes them simultaneously more esoteric and mighty. In the Taoist conception of balance, void is as necessary as form, a notion coined as xushi (emptiness-substance). My favorite verse in the Tao Te Ching addresses this, as Lao Tzu writes:
Thirty spokes converge on a hub
but it’s the emptiness that makes a wheel work
pots are fashioned from clay
but it’s the hollow
that makes a pot work
existence makes a thing useful
but nonexistence makes it work.
For Lao Tzu and Fang Conyi, the space in-between substance is what gives it function. The possibility that absence implies is its value. Blankness is meaningful because it is malleable, while form is fixed.
Open worlds are meaningful because they are open, not because they are full.
In an open world game, events are only meaningful because other points in the game lack these events. Exploration relies on a the absence of discovery to make the moment you finally do stumble across an enemy camp or hidden chest mean something to the player. If they are constantly finding the same fetch quest that nets the same amount of gold, or the same collectible that will eventually allow for an upgrade, the player loses a sense of satisfaction and thus feels the world is “empty”. The void of landscape is a canvas for developers, ideally, to place masterfully crafted locations and sequences of substance. Void should be void, and substance should be substance. Developers need not pretend like each inch of their world is brimming by filling it with tedious tasks.
Balance in Modern Gaming
An open world game that I believe embodies the Taoist concept of xushi is Outer Wilds. This game has no collectibles that serve only to fill your inventory, no endless procession of NPCs requiring your help. Yet, the desolate world still feels as shockingly full. As you explore the reaches of your known and unknown solar system, emptiness seems to dominate and dwarf your ship. The vastness of the sun, the endless expanse of sky, and even the barren soil of some planets make discovering a hidden ruin or a fellow explorer all the more impactful. As Lao Tzu imagined, the hollowness of Outer Wild’s world makes it “work”, as the developers utilize the emptiness of their environment without insisting on stuffing it for the sake of stuffing it. In all fairness, the outer space setting lends itself particularly well to this form of thinking, as the genre’s best works often draw upon the melancholy of its endlessness for dramatic effect (see: Cowboy Bebop).
I’m not saying that open world games need to include a lack of content to be worthwhile, but rather that they perhaps need to stop pretending like they are chock full of meaningful activities and loot. Of course $60 dollar games should justify their price point, but it shouldn’t be by crafting a massive world just for the sake of maximalism, but instead by embracing the balance of xushi and the possibilities of absence. If they can navigate the ambience of void and focus on engaging discoveries, perhaps these sandboxes will start to feel a little more complete.