Open Level vs. Open World Games: Smaller Zones Suit Some Gaming Genres Better

Open World
The tension and apprehension of Alekhine’s Gun wouldn’t work as well in an open world, where freedom of movement trumps confined quarters.

Open world games are some of the most popular of the moment. Games that weren’t open world before are getting in on the trend, creating worlds that can be explored at the player’s leisure rather than funneling them along through a storyline. Despite the popularity and prevalence of the trend, that doesn’t mean it’s right for every game—using open level design instead of true open worlds can have much of the same effect but while still giving some drive to a main plotline.

There are benefits to both truly open world design and open levels. Though open levels might seem like a limited version of open worlds, there are many good reasons to prioritize compact, well-designed challenges over larger ones, depending on a game’s genre and gameplay.

Open World
Though Dragon Age: Inquisition features large zones, it’s not truly open world. Image Source: K Putt via Flickr.

Open World and Open Levels Consist of Key Differences

Open level design refers to levels that are designed to be fully explored and navigated non-linearly, but on a smaller scale than a truly open world game. It’s the difference between Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition—while the former lets you run straight from one end of the world to the other, the latter contains huge zones boxed in by mountains or other obstacles. The difference is scale; Skyrim and Dragon Age both have limitations on the size of their worlds, but Dragon Age is separated into zones with loading times in between while Skryim only loads when entering a building or cave.

Though Dragon Age‘s levels are huge, it’s not truly open world, which was a point of contention for many fans who were disappointed with the loading times and divisions. But for a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition that’s driven primarily by its story, it would be easy to lose the plot thread in an open world like Skyrim‘s, which is what happened for many players distracted by sidequests in the game’s early Hinterlands stage. Creating a world that features an incredibly in-depth story at every turn, as well as exciting gameplay and gorgeous environments, requires a lot of time and resources, so compromises have to be made—in this case, it’s sacrificing a true open world for beautiful, developed zones.

Open World
Alekhine’s Gun‘s open level design prioritizes sneaking and strategy, using large levels rather than an open world.

Stealth Gameplay Performs Better in Open, But Small, Settings

Open world games are great, but not every style of gameplay will work in such large settings. Stealth and open world games are often seen to be incompatible with one another, given that stealth requires places to hide and scope out enemies—while that’s not necessarily true, there is something to be gained from basing stealth games in tight quarters rather than huge worlds.

Alekhine’s Gun, the upcoming stealth game from Maximum Games, makes excellent use of open level design to capture the tension of Cold War-era espionage. The environments are as detailed and interesting as they would be in an open world game, but being enclosed in a particular environment—a bar or a Nazi compound, for example—makes each level truly feel like a mission rather than a job you happen to stumble upon. As a spy, you can’t just run away and wait for your enemies to reset; in Alekhine’s Gun‘s conspiracy-ridden history, you’re the only person who has the skills and training necessary to save the world from total chaos.

Alekhine’s Gun‘s open level design means that players can move around levels on their own, scoping out the most opportune path for attack and searching for hidden secrets to aid them in their mission. The nonlinear nature of open world games is its own kind of fun, but for stealth, it can be hard to capture the fun of suspense if you can just run away afterward. Instead, you have to use the space you’re given to your advantage, leading to more player creativity and experimentation—something stealth games encourage as many other genres favor a one-solution approach.

Open World
Open world games like Fallout 4 attract fans who like exploring a huge new setting. Image Source: Midhras via Flickr.

Open World Settings Offer Freedom to Wander

Open world design does have its draws, as well. In games like Fallout 4, the open world is a huge part of the draw for players. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the game allows players to wander throughout a unique but familiar landscape rife with dangerous mutants and retrofuturistic relics. Immersing yourself in that world as a character of your creation is what intrigues players, and the scale and scope of the world as well as its nonlinear story design mean that the player has control over their actions and how the story progresses.

This is an entirely different method of playing than something like Alekhine’s Gun, where the focus is on thrills and challenge. Neither is better overall than the other, but Fallout‘s open world is better suited to the nature of the gameplay, while Alekhine’s Gun‘s open levels make for an environment players use to their advantage. Each approach can be fun, but forcing an open world into a genre like stealth could rob it of a lot of its tension, and it’s best suited to other genres.

Open World and Open Level Design Share Key Characteristics for Different Advantages

Open world games are a symbol of how far gaming technology has come. We’re not limited to two-dimensional sidescrollers anymore, but can enjoy rich and three-dimensional worlds that can take hundreds of hours to explore to our satisfaction. But open world design isn’t right for every game, and many simply won’t work with enormous worlds. Stealth, in particular, is better in smaller, confined spaces that encourage quick thinking and strategizing. While open world is a valuable trend in gaming, it doesn’t need to be present in every game—instead, developers should integrate story and gameplay into their world design in a way that makes sense, not one that’s based on trends.

Alekhine’s Gun benefits from its realistic open level design set in Cold War-era Cuba, Europe, and America. Now available for PC or console!