You might not have visited in real life, but you have probably seen The Quality Cafe in downtown Los Angeles before. If you’ve watched the movies Training Day, Seven, Catch Me If You Can, and Gone in 60 Seconds, you’ve witnessed different stories unfold over lunch and a coffee in the famous LA eatery. It happens in movies all the time - did you know the Fox Plaza is both the Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard and one of the buildings that gets blown up at the end of Fight Club?

Modern triple-A games take hundreds of people years to make. These days, we often just move onto the next thing as soon as they’re done. If we don’t do that, the developers use the assets they’ve already created to make another, more focused map - think Horizon Zero Dawn’s Frozen Wilds or the various afterlife worlds of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. It’s understandable - players want something fresh, but there’s a way to do that without creating a new space for us to explore. We just have to look at GTA 4.

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GTA 4’s Episodes from Liberty City are some of the best expansions ever made. Self-contained stories set within the original game’s map, we experience the same world from a different perspective. In The Lost and Damned, we play as a member of a biker club. In The Ballad of Gay Tony, we see Libery City through the eyes of a nightclub’s assistant manager. Not only do we get to see the city in a different light and enjoy an entirely fresh story with new characters, but we see the events of the main game from another angle, too. It all intertwines and - much like how Red Dead Redemption 2 complemented the story of the first Red Dead by being a prequel - it fleshes out the main narrative.

Red Dead Redemption Snow

The Witcher 3 pulls a similar trick. Though you do visit new places in Hearts of Stone, much of the DLC takes place in the original game’s map, and the main draw of that story is Gaunter O’Dimm - a purposely forgettable side character from The Witcher 3’s opening section. Play the DLC and you find out he’s actually the deadliest enemy Geralt has faced yet. Again, Hearts of Stone is one of the best expansions ever made. While Blood and Wine takes us to a whole new location, I prefer the story in HoS because of how it changes your view of the main game’s opening. It’s a companion piece, not a sideshow. Kamurocho from the Yakuza series nails this - it's the same city, it's always recognisable, but it grows in tandem with the characters across the series. Instead of expansions, these are entire games that revisit a space you become as familiar with as any of the cast.

Now think of how many wasted worlds we’ve seen just in the past five years. Red Dead Redemption 2 features one of the most ridiculously detailed and expansive open-worlds ever created. Unless you want to go online, it seems like Rockstar is done with it. The main story barely makes use of the dusty southwest, and there are other large swathes of the map that are underutilised. This is a world with a fully-functioning ecosystem, where you can play for 100 hours before you see two stags fighting over a mate, only for the victor to get its antlers interlocked with the dead stag, forcing it to struggle to break free. You have to really delve into this world to see everything it has to offer, and I would take any excuse to visit it again without a teenager murdering me while I’m picking flowers. The fact we never got DLC where you play as badass bounty hunter Sadie Adler is criminal. Hell, I’d take an Uncle backstory at this point.

Sadie Adler in the woods

When open-world games get polished enough to launch, the developers have already figured out most of the problems. It makes financial sense to create more self-contained stories in these locations the devs just spent half a decade building, rather than starting from scratch straight away. I get wanting to move on, but a good world could support an anthology of stories, deepening our appreciation of the virtual space, the characters we know, and new characters we’re yet to meet. While we can always hop online in Red Dead Redemption 2 and posse up with other players, it feels wasteful to stop there.

Look at how brilliant Spider-Man: Miles Morales is. It’s the same New York we got in the PS4 original, but this standalone expansion offers a more intimate look at the smaller communities that exist in this huge city, focusing on Miles’ connection to Harlem, which contrasts with Peter Parker’s mission to be in all places at once as the city’s protector. In a game built around zipping through the sky using superhuman powers, Miles Morales brought us back down to ground level and reminded us of the people we’re trying to save.

On the other side, we’ve got games like Days Gone and Ghost of Tsushima. Both feature gorgeous worlds and lengthy stories, but it’s unlikely we’ll be given a reason to go back, and that feels like a missed opportunity to me. Where movies are happy to show us that same LA diner over and over again, shooting it from a slightly different angle and framing new characters in different ways, video games are mostly happy to board the diner up and build a new one next door.

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