Open-world video games are all the rage these days. The number of video games touting the label is huge, from Skyrim to Far Cry to the Witcher 3. They can be very fun to play, but they do have downsides, especially concerning storytelling.
Defining an ‘open-world’ game
An open-world game is a game that features a game world the player can roam freely. The player should also be able to interact with the world, meaning that there should be subplots, tasks or world-changing events. In short, the player should have a world where they can move to different places and have stuff to do in those places.
This is in opposition of linear games, where the player moves through a linear set of scenes where they have to do fixed actions to move forward.
The non-linear problem
Before I continue, I have to say: I like open-world games. However, I’m very critical when it comes to storytelling (in case you hadn’t noticed yet from my reviews). And storytelling often suffers in open world games.
Open-world games are by nature non-linear. You can go to places in whatever order you like, meaning that events in those places can be executed in any order.
Storytelling is usually linear. You set up a story to have a build-up that leads to a climax. Normally, you integrate a character arc that starts with a character with certain problems and builds toward a climax where they manage to overcome their problems. Those two things are hard to combine.
Making a plot non-linear means branching off plots based on player decisions. That’s hard. Most games don’t even try, but instead carve the plot up into different fixed parts that are inviolate to player actions. The player triggers the plot parts one at a time in sequential order by going to a certain place or talking to a certain person. That way, the plot is linear but the world is not. That does lead to its own problems, though.
Let’s look at both of these approaches in turn.
Problems of branching plots
Some games try to create an open plot based on an open world, but usually only to an extent. Each player choice makes a branch, which will make the story exponentially more complex.
When developing such a plot, the climax must be based on all those player-chosen branches while still giving a satisfying pay-off. This is extremely tricky. The Mass Effect series went a long way with this, but they screwed up royally in the climax of the story. I wrote a more in-depth analysis of that a while ago.
Another problem with this way of storytelling is that you have to integrate a character arc with a plot arc and make that work with the setting. When the plot branches, that has to be reflected in the story world and the character arcs. So the open-world has to change, as do the characters. That’s a lot of work.
Problems of sectioned plots
Many games opt for creating a linear story and triggering different parts of it in sequential order in different areas of the game world. This works well in a lot of ways, making it possible to create a good story and still linking it to the open world.
However, it does create problems with pacing. In between the different parts of the story that the player is doing, they get to free roam and do other stuff (usually side quests or gathering collectables). That freezes the main plot in place, killing the pacing. The more stuff the player can do aside from the main story, the more the main plot gets bogged down.
Another problem is that the main plot can get very disconnected from the world. It could happen that the player visits a fort to gather some loot and kills all the inhabitants. Then, later a section of the game starts where they have to conquer the fort again, because the villain was apparently there all along. The villain was apparently just taking a leak when the player conquered the fort the first time.
Some general problems
In both linear and non-linear plots, the main plot can become a side attraction to the open-world content.
If you look at the later assassin’s creed games, then the main story has taken a back seat to roaming the world and finding collectables. I loved the first two of those games, but found I cared less and less about the later ones. The games have increasingly become a collection of mini-games and collectables that you have to check off. It’s about the game length they can put on the box, not the quality, apparently. I hardly remember Assassin’s Creed 3, except that it was more a chore than a fun game.
There’s nothing wrong with open-world games. However, they are not the end-all of gaming. The story will usually suffer for it, and developers (or more likely their executives) should really think about what they want to achieve with a game.
You can’t tack on open-world and think it will automatically make things better.