Game worlds keep getting bigger. The arenas for our play keep expanding and expanding. As game systems become more powerful and developers are given ever increasing budgets, the future of gaming seems to be the open world. Though they are great achievements, open world games are not necessarily the best kind of game for all types of stories.
Take, for instance, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim did a great many things that were absolutely astounding. The size of the world to explore and the life that it had are still blowing minds to this day. However, if Skyrim had one flaw, it was the story it tried to tell.
Now, there was nothing wrong with the game’s story. It was a solid fantasy tale full of dragons and other assorted awesome things. However, the nature of the open world does not lend itself to good storytelling. The urgency of a quest is somewhat lost when you have to traverse a massive game world to reach the next objective. While perhaps more realistic, it does a disservice to the pace at which the narrative must move in order to keep the player’s interest. The story of dragons returning to spread devastation across the land is a big deal. That story should take precedence over helping a farmer find his daughter, but progressing the main story almost always takes a back seat to the mountain of side quests that present themselves.
The open world genre excels at generating player-driven experiences. The strength of the games lies in the sense that it gives the player the freedom to do whatever they want. It’s a true sandbox where the player can experiment and discover the world laid before them. New adventure lies around every corner and down in every cave. The true narrative of these games is the one that the player creates for themselves. Allowing the player to be a pioneer who explores, documents, and interacts with the game world.
That freedom, though, makes it exceedingly ineffective at conveying a scripted narrative. If the true joy of an open world comes from the freedom of doing whatever you want, why even bother having a main story? Or, if there must be a written narrative, let it reflect the lack of attention it will receive. Don’t make it about saving the world, as in all likelihood the player will get distracted and completely forget about the imminent apocalypse.
The bottom line of this column is that open world games should stop trying to be things they aren’t. Or, perhaps, scripted games should be the ones to stop pretending they need expansive worlds to tell their stories. Don’t give me a whole city to roam in Watch Dogs, make the environment focused to allow for the best use of hacking techniques. An entire galaxy to explore in Mass Effect is amazing, but why would Commander Shepard be exploring uncharted worlds when there are giant death robots killing every organic being in the galaxy? Asking those kinds of questions only serve to weaken the experience and break the immersion of the player.
For some players the journey to get from one cool thing to the other is a tedious chore, and for others the journey is why they buy the game, with the story only serving to unlock more areas. The gaming industry should stop trying to make games that appeal to both types of gamers and focus on crafting separate experiences that make the best of either the story or the game world. In trying to do both one will suffer, and its usually the narrative that gets the short end of the stick.