Open World Storytelling

I don’t know how important a role in gaming history the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 will ultimately play but it seems to me that we will look back on this as being the open world generation. This style of game may have been introduced to the mainstream in the days of the PS2 but it’s become incredibly popular during the current console cycle.

Games like Crackdown, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Faction: Guerrilla have all featured large, expansive playgrounds as have RPGs like Oblivion and Fallout 3. Titles such as inFamous, Prototype and the outings of more traditional characters like Spider-Man and The Hulk have been set in sandbox environments to more effectively showcase the super-powered abilities of their protagonists.

The developers of these games have tried to create worlds without walls. Of course virtually all game spaces are finite; there are always some obstacles or boundaries that prevent you from falling outside the game world into the abyss. Open world games, though, try to give the player realms so vast, so detailed and realistic that they forget they are inside a digital cage.

But the bigger the developers make the worlds, the emptier they can potentially feel, particularly from a narrative point of view. Open world games bring a whole host of problems when it comes to storytelling.

Too often, in my opinion anyway, open world games tell their stories by letting you experience events in a very linear, pre-determined manner. You might have the freedom to go anywhere and do anything in the city but often you have no real influence on the path of the story. The game world might be open but the story is anything but.

One way developers try to add both an illusion of choice and also attempt to fill up the empty narrative landscape is by including additional story arcs. The open world Spider-Man titles, for example, have always had a main storyline, following whichever film each game was based on, mixed in with several other comic-inspired side stories.

Fallout 3 does its optional missions particularly well. An arguably disappointing main story is bolstered by the inclusion of a multitude of interesting side quests. The missions in Fallout 3 work well because they add to the overall story of the game world. They also allow players to forge their own path through the content of the game. The overall destination is always the same, they have little choice about the actions in the main quest, but the freer choices in the additional tasks allow players to personalise their game experience.

inFamous, on the other hand, does its side missions quite badly and they quickly become extremely repetitive. Obviously gaming is a pretty repetitive activity anyway, but the side missions in inFamous are also repetitive from a story point of view. To give an example, several of the side missions early on in the game require you to go round and destroy infected water towers. That’s the exact same task you’ve just done and completed in the main story, where it looked like you’d eliminated that particularly threat. These missions don’t actually add anything to the tale or your appreciation of the game world and, if anything, they just weaken the overall narrative.

Another way developers try to make their open worlds seem less empty is by shoe-horning in mini-games. You know the sort of thing; point to point races, timed treasure hunts, random destruction or escort missions. Tasks pretty much unrelated to the main narrative. Some games successfully manage to explain the mini-games existence in the game world but too often they just feel false. Unless the environment is pitched as a playground rather than a narrative space, such as in Crackdown for example, the mini-games just spoil the illusion of the world the developers have tried so hard to create.

Of course, if your game is built around a single, strong story arc then does it really need to be an open world game? Some developers seem set on creating a sandbox experience whether it’s the best way to deliver their narrative or not. There are other ways of telling the same story.

Fable II, for example, has the feel of an open world game but you’re only really getting selected chunks of the world to walk through. Peel away the environment and you can reduce the game world into a series of carefully designed paths and tunnels. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can have more focussed storytelling and less empty spaces. It ensure the optimum use of the developers time as virtually everything they create will actually be seen and used by players. Compare that to a title like Oblivion where whole chunks of the landscape, including any associated missions and other content, will be unexplored by most that play the game.

Even the developers of inFamous realised the advantages of a more traditional level based approach over an open world environment at some points. Any time they wanted to do something really dramatic in the story you were transported to a hemmed in area where they could control the tension and action a lot easier than out in the open city.

I’ll end this random collection of thoughts with a plea to developers. If you’re determined to produce an open world game then please make sure you create enough story to fill it. In a big city there’s a story to be found on every street corner. In an open world game it should be the same.

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One Response to “Open World Storytelling”

  1. Very nice piece. Interesting point you made re: side missions contributing to the world’s story in Fallout 3, something I hadn’t considered, but I think it might be another factor that made me prefer it to Oblivion. Maybe it’s as simple as every mission tieing in to the concept of a post-apocalyptic world – something that made each of them belong, and not feel superfluous.

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