My toxic trait as a gamer is that I am constantly seeking the most vast, expansive, and frankly overwhelming open world type of games that I can get completely lost in for weeks and often months at a time. I want to be so engrossed and consumed by the world that I want to dream about it whenever I’m not actively playing. It’s probably some weird and expanded form of escapism that is also probably not very healthy. But it does provide a pretty satisfying rush of dopamine if you’re an open world enthusiast like myself.
When I played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and found myself dropped onto Hyrule field for the first time, it felt like I was living out all my most grandiose fantasies in real time. A massive world to explore on my own terms, at my own place, however I want. In hindsight it’s amusing to think about, considering the map in Ocarina of Time is minuscule in scale to the worlds that would come later. But when you’re 10 years old and the most vast plane of play you’ve seen is a Super Mario platformer, your mind is being blown no matter what.
Since then I’ve played hundreds of games, always with a particular fondness and leaning towards open world games. Sadly, the good ones always seem few and far between, a needle in a haystack of giant disorganized gobs of content without any rhyme, reason, or structure, and always just end up as repetitive slogs. But wow, when you do find that gem that sticks out above the rest, it goes on to live in your head rent free for the rest of time.
I don’t want to presume that I am in any way the master or expert on open world games, but I’ve played enough of them to know a good one when I see it. For this list, I chose 5 open world games I consider to be among the best of the genre, in no particular order (it would be impossible to do so justly anyway). I also opted for just one game per developer; didn’t want Bethesda or Rockstar monopolizing the list! In any case, here’s my list of the best open world games to play, whether it’s to get lost in an exciting story or immersed in a world filled with side quests and irresistible distractions.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
The most recent release on this list, and the current frontrunner for “greatest chokehold on my free time in 2023.”
You may be wondering, “Why Tears of the Kingdom and not Breath of the Wild? They use the exact same map!” They use the same ground level map. Tears of the Kingdom comes with three unique biomes to explore; the Zonai ruins in the sky, the land of Hyrule you know and love, and more Zonai and Gloom infested ruins in the depths, miles below the crust of Hyrule’s earthly plane. These three unique and varied biomes come with their own challenges and tactics for exploration; aptitude for building flying machines if exploring the sky, adept horsemanship for Hyrule, and strategic thinking (plus a whole lot of Brightbloom seeds) when traversing the pitch black depths.
The game is wonderful in that by essentially tripling the size of the map, there are now three times as many ways to do everything except the main quest. So whether it’s hunting down shrines, committing war crimes against koroks, or even making yourself a nice little house, there is no shortage of things to do in the latest Zelda title.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher is certainly one of the most popular and dense fantasy franchises within the last decade, complete with books, games, and even a popular Netflix show. So when the game series’ third installment hit shelves nearly a decade ago, there was substantial hype, and the game did not disappoint. The map and biomes open to exploration on the Continent are actually overwhelming early on, not helped by the fast travel system that is a bit confusing early in the game. However, once you get your bearings, the Continent is ripe with adventure, whether you are eager to roam the dense and bustling cities for work or trouble, or to explore dark forests teeming with dangerous monsters or bandits.
The game follows Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, as he works to track down his protege, a girl named Ciri, who is being hunted by a spectral force known as the Wild Hunt. The main quest alone is dense and complex, and easy to burn dozens of hours in, but it’s just as easy to hop aboard your trusty steed Roach, admire a gorgeous sunset, and then seek out what sorts of mischief you can get into in the local tavern. There’s always been a richness and excitement in the world of Geralt, and it’s just as palpable here as it’s ever been.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar has arguably created the best open world ever with the release of Red Dead Redemption 2. And no, I’m not exaggerating.
After several delays, the game finally launched towards the end of 2018 and took gamers by the throat, and hasn’t let up since. From the diverse and multifaceted cast of characters, to the varying biomes, to the vibrant and seemingly sentient NPCs, the open world of Red Dead 2 is an absolute triumph of gaming development.
To boot, as you play through Arthur Morgan’s story, you are more deeply immersed thanks to the mechanics that force you to respond to the world itself. If you aren’t wearing warm clothing up in the mountains, you’ll lose health and stamina. If you don’t clean your guns, their ability to operate efficiently dulls over time. If you don’t take baths, Arthur will slowly look more and more disheveled and dirty. The beauty is not just in the world itself, but how you respond and react to the world around you. Nature is just as likely to kill you as any bounty hunter, so best to always be prepared, partner.
I mean obviously, it’s an open world list, I’d be remiss not to include this gem of a game. Despite being 12 years old, Bethesda’s triumphant open world fantasy epic Skyrim continues to thrive as a comfy, nostalgic, immersive experience. As a unique warrior known as “Dragonborn,” with the spirit and gifts of a dragon, you traverse the perilous landscape of Skyrim in search of fame, glory, and cheese wheels.
Whether you want to unlock the mysteries of what it means to be Dragonborn, become a thane in every hold, become the greatest archmage in the land, or just build a lovely homestead in the countryside, it’s all there with Skyrim. Over the past decade, I’ve put thousands of hours into the game on various different consoles; starting over is always exciting, a fresh slate that can take you in a completely different direction than the last.
Oh, and the soundtrack has been in my “work music” playlist for so long that it’s basically ingrained in my memory, and I love it.
Does Skyrim feel a little too easy? Do you ever wonder what it would be like to have an exciting open world to explore that could also absolutely eviscerate you at every turn? Do you crave the feeling of terror as you walk out into the open plains, unsure of what foul creatures seek to destroy you this day? Does the thought of riding a horse that’s mostly a magical mountain goat sound riveting? Then boy, do I have the game for you.
FromSoftware is notorious for their extremely difficult games; the likes of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and now Elden Ring. With the latter’s release, players for the first time were immersed in a fully open world, with the same intensity and high level stakes that die-hard players have come to know and love. As always, the world is rich with lore and terrifying adversaries, but the open world model is a bit more palatable to newcomers to the franchise, allowing them to get a feel for the mechanics of the world early on without being subjugated by foes that are too out of their skill level.
Overall, for someone that has historically avoided FromSoft games like the plague, I found Elden Ring to be exciting and unique. I might be on my way to a big shiny castle I saw in the distance, only to be distracted by a cave I saw on the way, and wondering what treasures lie within. Such curiosity is nearly always rewarded with experience, loot, and even a side quest you weren’t expecting. It’s definitely worth exploring, and now I finally get what the appeal is about, because it is VERY satisfying to claim victory in the Lands Between.