Fallout 4 PS4 PlayStation 4 1

"You see that nondescript object way over there in the distance?" a game developer in an ill-fitting outfit says as they wave their hands in the vague direction of a comically oversized projection screen splattered with images of their latest open world adventure. "You can walk all the way over there!"

The crowd goes wild.

It's a scene I've witnessed more times than I care to count, and one which is symptomatic of a culture so obsessed with size that it's willing to forgo – or even simply ignore – interesting design in a bizarre bid at ensuring that everything is as big as possible. However, at the risk of indulging in unnecessary innuendo, when it comes to open world games, it really isn't the size: it's how you use it. And no game demonstrates that better than Fallout 4.

Fallout 4 PS4 PlayStation 4 4

First, what is it that we really want in open world games? What do we want to see? And more importantly, how do we want to feel? For most people it seems to be about immersion. We want to be able to lose ourselves in gorgeous massive worlds; worlds familiar enough to be intuitively traversable, but alien enough to be exciting and new.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the key to immersion is scope, but as I mentioned, that simply isn't true. Fallout 4 is an incredibly immersive experience, and its map certainly isn't the biggest that we've ever seen. By most metrics, Skyrim – a title released four years ago – was significantly larger in terms of physical real estate.

Fallout 4 PS4 PlayStation 4 2

Indeed, Fallout 4's success is a product not of its size, but of its density. You can't walk one hundred metres in the wasteland without coming across something new and exciting to do. Explorable buildings and caves litter the dusty planes like post-apocalyptic fire crackers – each one waiting to entertain and excite you in an explosion of blood, dirt, and gunfire.

Often these will play host to a quest or a new enemy to take out, but arguably some of the game's greatest discoveries are little more than visual accoutrement. You'll crest a ridge, only to see it dip back into a valley full of settlers. You'll stumble across the lurid silver and red skeleton of a crashed aircraft. You'll find two vaporised corpses stretched out in armchairs on a balcony, their last seconds immortalised in pillars of radioactive dust.

Fallout 4 PS4 PlayStation 4 5

Another thing Fallout 4 absolutely nails is responsiveness – everything and everyone in Bethesda's latest responds to what you're doing and saying. On a large scale, the wasteland is positively packed with opportunities to change the geo-political landscape through intrigue and assassination. But again it's the clever interpersonal interactions which really steal the show.

In one of my recent outings, I accidentally fell into a small river, only to be told off by a nearby fisherman for disturbing his hunting ground. Obviously my encounter with this aggravated angler carried no real narratorial heft, but it served to cement my position as an inhabitant of the Commonwealth.

Fallout 4 PS4 PlayStation 4 6

Naturally, too much of this density and detail can be just as bad as not enough. I'm still having Vietnam-style flashbacks to the monstrously crowded open world from Assassin's Creed Unity. Apart from a map so resplendent in brightly coloured objective icons it was nigh on seizure-inducing, the experience of existing in that environment was simply too claustrophobic to be enjoyable in any way.

But why are we so obsessed with size? Armchair pundits speculated over the scope of Fallout 4 until seconds before its release. What's more, a leaked video apparently revealed that you could walk from one side of the wasteland to the other in approximately eleven minutes, and the reactions to this revelation were, perhaps appropriately, nothing less than apocalyptic.

Fallout 4 PS4 PlayStation 4 3

Thankfully, this obsession is much simpler to understand, and much easier to parse without unintentional double entendre. Put simply, people who play and follow video game culture expect a lot from their video games. Some call it entitlement, others consumer awareness and advocacy – whichever you believe, the fact remains that 'gamers' are interested in their games constantly pushing into uncharted territory.

It's easy to see where this obsession with size comes from, then. We want bigger and better games, and making larger open worlds seems like a natural way to do this. But, as I've suggested, in most cases the literal size of a game's real estate has very little bearing on whether it'll fulfil all of those things that we want games of this type to fulfil.

We should instead focus on what it feels like to just wander around – the moment-to-moment experience of actually existing in a game's environment. Because at the end of the day, maybe it does only take eleven minutes to walk across Fallout 4's dystopic vision of the Commonwealth. And maybe that is a bit disappointing. But I really wouldn't know, because every time that I try to find that out for myself, I get side-tracked exploring the game's exquisitely dense, detailed, and responsive open world.

Do you agree with Kell that world density is essential – or do you feel that bigger is always better when it comes to open world games? Get lost in the comments section below.