I've been burned out on open world games for years. I pine for the old days when you can 100% an open game in under 20 hours, or just mainline it in half that time. Saints Row III and Shadow of Mordor era design. So stuff like Horizon, Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, and many more are games I just avoid. I always chalked it up to too many icons, too much to do.
But I think I'm wrong. My open world fatigue is related to the story-telling.
I can think of 3 modern examples where open world games have taken over my life and I loved every minute of it. These are Elden Ring, Breath of the Wild, and Hollow Knight. What do these have in common? They have a history to their world, there's a main narrative to pursue, but there's no rush. I'm not sitting there thinking "I should be rushing to find out the fate of this guy that got stabbed in a cutscene, but there's a side quest to chase down first." There isn't a sense of urgency to these games, but there's generally a bunch of lore stuff to find in a wiki or art book (in the case of Breath of the Wild). If I want to go for an upgrade or see the edge of the map, I can, because there's no one waiting for me to help them storm a base.
I've heard players say they're 20 hours into Elden Ring without even beating the first boss. BotW and Hollow Knight reward you for taking completely different paths than your friends. Everyone can play their own way and play the game however they want. There's minimal worry about getting spoiled on a story beat, and conversations tend to be about seeing something cool rather than a character getting stabbed. I feel that this is the place open world games have in the marketplace. And these are the games that seem to have some of the most diehard fans. Even something small like Infernax had a ton of stuff for me to do at my pace, on a smaller scale.
Now thinking back to open world fatigue. Metal Gear Solid will be my example here. I loved the first 4 MGS games due to their storytelling. There'd be 15 minutes of gameplay, then some story, and that's how things would go for 10-15 hours. MGS V came along, and I was there purely to see where the story goes. But now it'd be hours of gameplay between anything happening. I quickly learned to just ignore what was happening and focus purely on the gameplay, which really helped me enjoy the game. The same goes for something like Halo 3 compared to Halo: Infinite. Once I dropped any interest in the next cutscene, I was able to enjoy the game more. Both games had strong narratives in the past, but the transition to open world just felt like they couldn't do everything at the same level. This tendency to be the All Game was jarring for those two, partially because the new stories were stretched thin and partially because they didn't seem like a priority anymore.
What's my point? My point is that designers have been approaching open world games wrong, at least in my eyes. The strength of a giant sandbox to screw around in isn't a well-placed narrative, so let's just put that in the background. Trying to have a good story in a 40 hour action game just doesn't work for someone with limited time. JRPG's are pretty good at that due to ensemble characters and a huge focus on narrative, and the gameplay loop fits that style of storytelling. The Witcher 3 is a standout where you're alone, too, but the game has a ton of great writing in the side quests and main narrative. Even Elder Scrolls and Fallout, games that weren't for me, seem to be more about living in a world rather than getting to the credits. But if I need to spend dozens of hours in a game like Horizon to see a few hours of cutscenes, the pacing is completely broken. And now I have to keep up to have a discussion about this game, since no one wants to hear about me completing checkboxes for 10 hours.
The future of open world games is Elden Ring, it's Breath of the Wild, it's Hollow Knight. That's the solution to open world fatigue. Games you can freely explore and take your time with, where the discussion is the experience and not the cutscenes. The future of narrative games has to bring back some sort of pacing, or at least scale back on endless open world activities (especially when they're required to overcome difficulty blocks). Resident Evil VIII and the recent Tomb Raider games were able to nail a nice mix of story and having space to breathe and explore.
Or does none of this make sense? Is a shorter narrative game that's worth replaying something people don't want anymore? Do we want 50 hour games we play once, that has to do everything, but you need to see the ending so the last third is a slog to finish it? I feel like for many years, it was all about value proposition. But with stuff like Game Pass, we can have shorter games that tell strong stories, and all we need to pay is the monthly subscription. And then we can have gigantic games that let you explore the world however you'd like, without having to balance seeing a propelling story with chasing a shiny thing.
Now that I think about it, Mario's had this figured out for years.