If I could point to one thing in gaming that has definitely changed since I was a kid it's that games are bigger. Yes, we know the budgets are huge but I just mean bigger. Levels seemed to become passe with more games going in the direction of an open world.
We can question the distinctions between open world and sandbox, and between those that are truly open or not, but the gist is still the same: games just feel bigger. With more RAM and better processing power the consoles finally reached a level where you could create these worlds that had not just character but scope, sometimes even a sense of grandeur.
As the generation drew on we went from Oblivion to Skyrim, whose snow-twirl effects still give me goosebumps. These worlds to get lost in. I remember running through Far Cry 3 one night and finding out that flight-less birds were a complete nuisance(that and the weird save system). Or randomly running into a Behemoth for the first time.
Games seemed to be moving away from these narrowly designed experiences and turning into something where you likely didn't have an experience anything like someone else's in a game. Your character had a unique story. Sometimes the games directly wanted to express that, like say Skyrim. However you cut it it seems like every game developer has worked on an open-world game in the last generation.
At some point it seemed to become the buzz word of the cycle. Hell, by the time GTA 5 was getting hyped I couldn't care less-could they really compete with Far Cry 3's weaponized tigers? Who did they think they were kidding releasing a game without an archery component?
Yes, as much as these games have epic potential as the generation began to come to a close I think everyone was tired of using bows. The cliches started to show through, Ubisoft's apparent love for platforming, Bethesda's apparent lack of a voice-acting budget. And more and more games began getting released that while clearly inspired by these open-world experiences created an illusion of open-worldedness.
Really players won't be able to go back. Not completely. Looking at games now even if they have a fairly normal size to them the backdrops are bigger, the skylines go on forever. The pressure to keep up in an industry built on incremental upgrades is showing. Similar to the cut-scene revolution of the late 90s this generation was obsessed with making worlds that at least seemed like they could compete with what Rockstar was doing.
Looking at their latest release it's not hard to see why. And in all reality I can't complain. If games want to add more of a world to explore, or character to be revealed, I'm all in. The classic Ultimas or Final Fantasy titles had these worlds that demanded imagination to appreciate and with modern open world gaming the spectacle of the AAA blockbuster is replaced with a tie back to that internal period. You're traveling the wastes in a Fallout game and anything could be out there.
Yes in Skyrim it's often just a snow tiger, and Far Cry 3 just had tigers, but often it was that one emergent aspect of the world that created the story. If you wanted to fight pirates any game could do that but if you wanted to fight pirates while dealing with tigers this generation had you covered. If you wanted to crawl through dungeons with random dragon attacks this generation had you covered.
So while consoles finally had the ability to make these worlds in the last generation the revolution isn't just these worlds in and of themselves but that this kickstarted other games to compete. This next cycle will likely be as chock-full of explorable worlds as the current one was but this was the time they broke through.