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Escaping Escapism: The Impact of Digital World Scale on Realism in Games

An analytical research essay exploring the impacts of digital world size on realism and success of games.

Noah Koecher, Blogger

November 30, 2016

18 Min Read

“My mom didn't let me play video games growing up, so now I do. Gaming gives me a chance to just let go, blow somebody up and fight somebody from another dimension. It's all escapism.”

– Wayne Brady

Ever since their transformation from the arcade accessory of Pong to the digital world of Adventure, video games have been a means of escaping reality and living vicariously in a more interactive way than books or movies. As technology has grown more sophisticated, game designers more ambitious, and consumers more anxious, the world-building of games has become more difficult, competitive, and crucial to the success of a title. In 2001, Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto III, featuring an archipelagic city roughly 3 square miles in size, and was met with critical acclaim, outstanding reviews, and the profits that would establish the series as a global success. Fifteen years later, No Man’s Sky debuted, offering quintillions of life-size planets, each presenting individual breeds of flora, fauna, and biomes. Yet the game was called lifeless, boring, and repetitive, and lost over 80% of its player base within a day of release. This clear shift in the industry at last opened eyes, shining a light on an ugly trend which has arisen in the developing world of games. The gaming community has become obsessed with the concept of a realistic game world both massive in scale and endless in immersive content. Yet the track record of various games and series, both archaic and modern, reveals the folly of such a goal: games which strive to captivate their audiences with both scale and detail are doomed to fail, while those which embrace unrealistic space and content often establish a world more mesmerizing than reality itself.

The last several decades have showed innumerable changes in gaming, but perhaps the most vocal and tangible of these is the ever-present desire for “bigger, better” games. Unsurprisingly, this movement has manifested in developers who slowly but surely have been questing for larger environments, believable travel times, and more realistic atmospheres. The Grand Theft Auto series, which strives to mimic our own world in its setting, is a prime example of this motion. GTA III is lauded as “Rockstar’s greatest achievement” by IGN and “A benchmark game that future games will both try to imitate and be judged against” on Metacritic, receiving overwhelmingly positive ratings of 9.7/10 with the former and 95% with the latter. The world of the game, centered in Liberty City, is only 3 square miles in size, and could be driven across in a few minutes. In comparison, GTA: San Andreas featured a map four times as big — still traversable in several minutes despite its intention to represent an entire state. But where every street of GTA III was vibrant with life, homes, and NPCs, San Andreas’ buildings were almost unanimously locked from entry, and interactions felt sorely limited despite the larger world, earning the game more mixed reviews, such as a mediocre 66% rating on GameRankings for the Xbox 360 version.

However, GTA IV corrected this hiccup in the series, returning to a smaller map and focusing on fleshing out the new Liberty City in maximum detail. According to Critical Distance’s Michael Clarkson, “The incredible level of detail built into the game’s systems make the simple act of exploring this space a magical experience” (Clarkson). The world Rockstar creates in GTA IV is a true sandbox with both breadth and depth, enclosed only by the bounds of a believable story. Because its developers sacrificed the concept of an extensive and realistic world, the game is brimming with visceral content, and players went away with an experience of escapism far more satisfying than an expansive map could ever have been.

Image 1: Large Video Game Worlds by Unknown Author

In contrast to Rockstar’s deliberate abandonment of larger worlds, however, Avalanche Studios successfully creates immersive worlds of an impressive scale in their Just Cause series. As Game Studies author Lisbeth Klastrup states, “the way we make sense of gameworlds in general follows not from what we are told, but from how we experience gameplay and the architecture of the world itself, the way we are forced to act in certain ways as players, the way we simulate that we live in this world” (Klastrup). Just Cause, Just Cause 2, and Just Cause 3 paint the picture of a world 400 square miles in size, over 30 times larger than San Andreas’ lackluster rendition. But rather than attempting to flesh out their huge world with sufficient detail, Avalanche provides the player with opportunities to speed across Panay so quickly that the details don’t matter.

Image 2: Rico Speeds Through the Skies by Rmihawk, Oplssteam

In his IGN review, Ryan Clements praises Just Cause 2 for its overwhelming travel options:

 “There were times when I simply didn't know how to get from Point A to Point B because there were so many options at my disposal. Do I hijack this villager's slick motorcycle and get there in style? Do I just parachute my way down the cliff? Or do I hang from the bottom of a passing helicopter and enjoy the sights along the way?” (Clements)

And indeed, with an 8.8/10 from IGN under their belt, the developers of the Just Cause franchise show that recycled content and inaccessible buildings become blurry and lose relevance when Rico Rodriguez is sailing by at 300mph. The game doesn’t offer the realism that gamers have been craving, but it’s not meant to. Each game of the Just Cause series is an action movie with a player at the helm, and as Jackie Chan articulates to J. David Slocum in Violence and American Cinema, action movies are less about the details and more about the “BOOM BOOM BOOM — big explosions” (Slocum 91).

Image 3: Falling Playerbase of No Man’s Sky from SteamSpy

In stark contrast to the success of Just Cause, perhaps the most monumental failure of a game in recent years is awarded to a game of the most monumental scale: No Man’s Sky. By early August of 2016, when the game was released, players had been promised a diverse multiplayer universe of over 18 quintillion full-size planets, each complete with individualized flora and fauna. Instead, head developer Sean Murray was ousted as a fraud, the game was disparaged for its poor content diversity and innumerable false promises, and No Man’s Sky’s player base dwindled by 90% in the first 10 days after its release. Players were in such uproar that, according to gaming blog Polygon’s Allegra Frank, the Advertising Standards Authority has launched an investigation into the game, and “holds responsible both developer Hello Games and Valve. . . for No Man’s Sky’s controversial advertising” (Frank).  

But false advertising or not, the biggest reason for the game’s flop is its inability to produce either realism or magic for its players. The world is certainly large, and boasts years of potential content — 2,526,951,242,973,911 years, in fact, by RedBull’s calculations — but that content is repeated within a few planets of exploration, and players were rapidly bored with the simplistic “kill and gather” mechanics of the game (Cook). In fact, the scale of the game only heightens this feeling of emptiness: a section of a planet might feel dull, but so would all quadrillion of its clones. As the highest-rated review of No Man’s Sky on Steam puts it, “if you took 11 things and came up with 50 variations for each, that is close to 18 quintillion combinations… once you’ve seen the first dozen planets, you’ve seen them all.” The game may achieve the “realism” of a truly expansive and vast universe, but the content that fills the universe is dull, lifeless, and monotonous, and No Man’s Sky will be remembered not as a hallmark of world-building, but as one of the biggest and most controversial failures in the gaming industry to date.

Unlike the foolhardy effort of Hello Games to create a game world both as broad and deep as reality, CCP Games focuses entirely on the size and complexity of their game space in EVE Online, and leaves the content to the players. Although EVE features a mere 66,856 planets compared to No Man’s Sky’s 18 quintillion, the size of the playable map is still far larger than most every other game of its generation. But with so much emphasis on the scale of the universe, to flesh it out with a realistic level of immersive content is infeasible. Rather, EVE lays the infrastructure for the interactions of its players, and lets its content create itself. As CEO Hilmar Pétursson describes to Bloomberg News’ Ashlee Vance, “We very much think about the game as a construct to inspire the manifest destiny of mankind, which is to grow beyond this planet. We kind of look at EVE Online as the closest thing you have today to live in space” (Vance). CCP intends for their creation to be an emulation of humankind’s eventual foray into space, and what better way than to provide players with the universal sandbox and let them build their own cosmic castles? Despite its “lack of content,” EVE still boasts over 30,000 concurrent players and a 9/10 overall rating on Steam, 13 years after its release. If you jump into EVE as a new player, you will find that you can’t land on planets, or look around space stations, or even leave your ship. It’s not realistic. But it excels and captivates through the freedom that it affords players, establishing a sense of magical surrealism more important than realism could ever be.

Image 4: Galactic Map of EVE Online from EveOnlineShips.com

As some game series struggle with increasingly expansive maps, either finding innovative ways to work around the details of content or failing altogether, other series and games have downsized their game worlds over the years, focusing on strength of immersive content and succeeding in mesmerizing their audiences despite a lack of realism. The Elder Scrolls series is a prime example of this. When The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall was released in 1996, it boasted the largest map in a video game ever, and holds that title to date. On a real scale, Daggerfall’s playable area spans over 62,000 square miles, covering an area larger than Great Britain — and 800 times larger than World of Warcraft — and featuring 15,000 towns and more than 750,000 inhabitants. As Gamespot’s Trent Ward puts it in his 1996 review of the title, "The sheer size of this product is staggering, and even the most open-minded player is certain to be overwhelmed at times by the thousands of people to talk to, the scores of weapons and spells to keep up with, the hundreds of books to read, and the vast amount of landscape to cover in the game” (Ward). By utilizing the low-polygon, low-resolution graphics of the era, Bethesda was able to flesh out both size and depth of the game. Even in the unrealism of the pixelated world of Daggerfall, plays were able to immerse themselves in a peculiar dichotomy, and come away feeling satisfied with the escapism it provides.

Three games and six years later into their series, however, and Bethesda released Oblivion, featuring a map more than 4,000 times smaller than that of Daggerfall. Rather than expanding their colossal map, the developers chose to improve the density and quality of their content, upgrade their graphics, and enhance their user experience. The results are self-evident: in a series of 15 games and expansions, Oblivion remains the highest rated and most well-received to date, boasting a GameRanking score of 94% on PC. On this smaller map scale, cities only have a few houses, and the distance between them was quite compressed. But despite this sacrifice in realism, the immersive gameplay and fleshed-out atmosphere of the game world make for a mesmerizing experience, and one that has withstood the test of time.

Image 5: Even Larger Worlds by Unknown Author

The “Oblivion-esque” concept of scaling down worlds while developing their vibrancy has been replicated to great success in more modern titles as well. A hallmark of the Legend of Zelda series, for example, is Nintendo’s production of small, compressed atmospheres: towns with just a few homes, islands no more than a few minutes across, and sailboats the size of bath tubs. Even the art style and NPC interactions of the game are childish and unrealistic in many ways. But the travel and distance mechanics of the game feel real, visceral, and even magical despite its shrunken size. IGN’s Matt Casamassina, on the other hand, praises Nintendo for establishing a huge atmosphere, saying of Windwaker that they have “created a gargantuan world that seems to overflow with mystery and challenge, an epic undertaking that streams across a wide-open sea and through countless islands, into several dungeons, and more” (Casamassina).

Image 6: Link on the High Seas of Windwaker by OHagan from Giantbomb.com

Luke Plunkett, too, praises the game’s lack of boundaries in his Kotaku review, saying that “if there's an island you can visit it, if there's a door you can open it. You don't need to dock to get out of your ship, you can just...jump out. Or fly over it. Pretty much anywhere” (Plunkett). Both reviewers are suspended in the same magic that Nintendo has woven for its players throughout the series: the mesmerizing impact of a game unrealistic in scale yet inescapably immersive in content. Though the map of Windwaker itself is no more than a few minutes across in any direction, it feels as wide and expansive as Daggerfall ever did, because every moment of exploration adds to the magic of a world brimming with excitement.

Lastly, perhaps the most impact when it comes to the scale of game worlds lies in the MMO genre. In World of Warcraft, for example, major cities and world landmarks are fairly small in scale, and located rather close together. In fact, the entire world of Azeroth can be run across in less than an hour, and flown over even faster. Instead, what holds the game together is the emphasis it puts on each and every zone it includes. Every area of Azeroth is dedicated to certain levels of players, and each boasts its own monsters, items, lore, and sets of quests. Just like The Legend of Zelda, World of Warcraft fleshes out its smaller world in such stunning detail that it feels expansive regardless.

Everquest, on the other hand, made a memorable entry as the first 3D MMORPG on the market, and boasts a far more gargantuan map than Blizzard’s title. The map still fails to feel realistic in size, though, which Klastrup defends in her article “The Worldness of Everquest,” explaining that “the online world is never a complete simulation of the real world. . . rather it is a condensed presentation of what a world can be like” (Klastrup). But with the map size it does establish, Everquest uses the interesting technique of parceling it out slowly to players. As Eric Hayot and Edward Wesp summarize it in their essay, “Towards a Critical Aesthetic of Virtual-World Geographies,” Everquest players go through a progression of presence in the world:

“As players move through the game’s levels, their relationship to Norrath changes. Zones that were at one time impossibly dangerous become at first,navigable sites where players can gain experience and treasure and then, as the player gains levels, largely irrelevant collections of monsters to be moved through on the way to somewhere else” (Hayot).

Image 7: Original Everquest Print Map by Rick Schmit from Project1999

When a player begins their journey in Everquest, they will find that the vast majority of the large world is closed to them by the difficulty of beasts which stand in their way. Comparatively, mid-range players slowly gain access to more advanced part of the map, and spread out across Norrath as they progress towards the higher levels. And finally, high-range players have the entirety of Everquest’s sweeping map open to them, yet as Hayot and Wesp consider, “since players have to fight monsters close to their level in order to gain experience, very high level players will find that the “useful” portions of the game world shrink to a very small percentage of its actual space” (Hayot). Through this mechanic, the “miniature vastness of Norrath” is experienced in manageable chunks by players, allowing them to fully value the hand-crafted content at each stage. Though the realism of the game is broken by the lack of open access to Everquest’s extensive realm, this small-world exposure to a large-world game instills the magical unrealism that has immortalized Everquest as an MMO for the ages and once again illustrated the monumental impact that scale and detail can have on a game.

Games are judged in countless different ways. From aesthetics, to gameplay, to soundtrack, to difficulty, to story, to presentation, and even to price, a perfect game must truly tick all the boxes, and such an experience will likely never be created. Rather, as gaming takes center-stage in the expanding world of modern technology, developers will be forced to cater more and more to the whims of their consumers. Slowly, as with literature and film, the age of exploration is coming to a close in game design. Innovation will still find its way through the cracks, and be lauded when it does, but largely, the gaming industry will be driven by expanding and improving upon the old. For the last few decades, gamers have craved the “bigger,” “broader,” and “more realistic.” Yet as we drift towards hyper-realism, we lose sight of the innate purpose of games: to pull us from reality, to tell a different story, and to offer a different world. And perhaps that is what the downsizing of The Elder Scrolls, the speed of Just Cause, the failure of No Man’s Sky, the freedom of EVE Online, and the wonder of The Legend of Zelda are warning: as we strive towards digital worlds that mirror our own, we strive towards the fall of magic and the rise of reality. But there is time to change, and change we will. The world of gaming has just begun, and as Sir Alexander Ferguson so aptly affirms, “As long as there are games to play, it is not over.”



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