Three Observations About Open-World Experiences

As I’ve visited more open-world experiences recently, I’ve recognized a few patterns. I’ve observed these three elements add a lot to my experience as a player.

The shows and locations I will be referencing are Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and The Burnt City, Wizard Quest, Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return and Omega Mart, Phantom Peak, and Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser.

Richard, Heather, David, Moss, Lisa, Theresa, and Brendand talking at a table in the Sublight Lounge of Star Wars Galactic Starcrisier.
Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser

1. Customers can augment the cast

Some of the experiences I am talking about are shows with professional performers that customers can watch and even interact with. Some of them involve deep and interesting lore that customers can really get into. When these two things happen together, a bit of magic happens.

There is a tipping point where the other paying customers stop detracting from your fun and begin to add to the cast of characters in the show. Customers interacting with customers, in world, makes that world even bigger and more alive. 

The Punchdrunk shows are both set around familiar lore but don’t encourage guests to take on any role other than that of a silent viewer of the events. People often need to physically jostle and move around each other to get a better view of the action. Meow Wolf and Wizard Quest tend to pit customers against each other for access to spaces and interactive elements. Bottlenecks and long queues can suck the enjoyment out of the experience.

outdoor area at phantom peak. there is water trickling down into a pond. surrounding the pond is a walkway filled with people. in the distance we can see brightly lit bars and shops.
Phantom Peak

In contrast, both Phantom Peak and Galactic Starcruiser invite customers to take on the role of a visiting tourist. They both offer significant lore for customers to tap into. Guests can do as little or as much character-building as they want. The shows will roll with whatever you bring to them. A town or a starship full of tourists, each with their own story, motivation, and allegiance eventually turns into something much more interesting. On the Galactic Starcruiser, we talked to the other guests in character, in world. That helped shift the cast-to-guest ratio into an area where anything was possible; full immersion became possible.

The immersive show The Speakeasy deserves a mention here because their strict dress code requirement resulted in my total inability to differentiate guests from cast. Anyone could be anyone. It was sort of a wild feeling, but (at least in my visit) it lacked the guest-to-guest interplay.

2. Performers teach customers how to act

More specifically, performers interacting with each other demonstrate to guests what is allowed and expected. 

Getting dropped into a fictional open-world environment can be confusing. Being singled out and forced to improvise with a professional performer can be nerve-wracking. Customer onboarding becomes much smoother when guests can watch cast members perform and interact with each other.

In a Punchdrunk show, it doesn’t take long to realize that the performers will ignore you when they want to ignore you or look you in the eye when they want your attention. You’ll need to move out of their way at times; they will teach you this. When they quickly exit a room, your instinct is to follow them. You become more relaxed as they show you what is expected of you as a guest.

The performers I met in The House of Eternal Return made it clear that I should be curious and snoop around, and that they would be happy to tell me about the house and its inhabitants. In Omega Mart I felt the cast members fell short of helping me understand what I could or should be doing.

Omega Mart

Wizard Quest sufferers with their lack of performing cast. Reliance on interacting with inanimate figures causes customer buy-in and immersion to waver and fade in and out.

Scenes and bits between cast members at Phantom Peak and aboard the Galactic Starcruiser quickly set the tone and create familiarity and an approachability that eases guest interaction. They help teach the local slang and lingo while exposing details about their own characters that customers can use as conversation entry points. They demonstrate personal space boundaries and show if it is okay to touch someone on the elbow or shoulder. They teach us how to act and how to play, with them and with each other.

3. Nothing aids immersion like time in an experience

This concept really hits home for me as I visit more and more high quality shows and games of varying lengths.

Admittedly, this idea is very quality-dependent. Extra time in a place you desperately want to leave can be excruciating. So let’s just consider that we are talking about good quality immersive experiences.

The three one-hour loops structure of the Punchdrunk shows is relaxing for me. I have the confidence to explore and get lost – I was already lost, after all – because I know I will have another chance to see the scenes I am missing. Three hours in, watching familiar characters do familiar things gives me a sense of belonging and calm. With Punchdrunk, understanding what is happening takes time and repetition.

The world of Wizard Quest takes time to explore. Well over an hour after entering, it can still be easy to get lost in there. Mastering the landscape takes effort and it is rewarded with the fun of moving through the space with purpose when you know just where to go to find the next item for your quest.

Some Meow Wolf visits buck the trend of this theory for me. The unlimited time mechanic works against immersion when customers are competing for space and resources and they just keep letting more and more people into the place. Meow Wolf’s open worlds also suffer somewhat from a lack of structure to the experience. More open is not always better. 

A room decorated magnificently as a mosaic of assorted items like bottle caps, CDs, and cellphones.
The House of Eternal Return

4.5 hours is not always long enough for a visit to Phantom Peak. For me, back-to-back shows on a Saturday feels just about right. The characters are endearing to the point that you just want to stay in their world and see what happens to them. It doesn’t take long before you also start referring to the outside world as “over the ridge” and realizing that what is happening out there doesn’t matter, because you are in Phantom Peak where suspicious things are happening and further investigation is needed. During the break between shows I used my Jonabox to post a message to everyone over the ridge to let them know that, “I am in Phantom Peak. I live here now.”

The Galactic Starcruiser is something special. I’ll admit it took 2 to 3 hours for the real world to drop away, but once it did, it was completely gone. We were IN a Star Wars movie. The only things that mattered were the things happening on that ship. And it was a ship. Folks, we took a voyage on a starship. 

All that time created opportunities for all sorts of magic to happen, even in the downtime. Friends could gather for a drink and then, just like that, someone would receive a private message from the ship’s captain and they would need to sneak off to join her for a secret meeting. After 44 hours on board, living that adventure, it was incredibly hard to leave.


These are just three of the many observations that I have made during my visits to open-world experiences. They are some of the things that I think make this type of entertainment interesting and exciting. As creators contemplate higher throughput models that still encourage agency, gameplay, and interaction for their future projects, I hope we can continue to have discussions about more open-world ideas.


    1. Part of me would be really, really curious to know what Jenny would make of Phantom Peak. I suspect she would give it the same sort of treatment that she gave to Galaxy’s Edge and essentially be balanced and fair about it, but everyone pays 20% attention to the very objective review and 80% attention to the top-class zingers.

      My head canon, based on no evidence whatsoever (and this lack of evidence should reasonably be taken as counterevidence) is that Jenny has been to Phantom Peak, enjoyed it and decided that there wasn’t enough for her to make a video on.

      I have just subscribed to her Patreon and she has made a two-and-a-bit hour video about a revisit, which I look forward to watching at some point…

  1. Fantastic commentary. Much appreciated as I deconstruct why I didn’t really like my Convergence Station visit and anticipating my next foray into Open World.
    Since Evermore was brought up I will need to consider a trip since it was close. Not many glowing reviews from those close to me but they are improving, I hear.

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