Freedom vs. story in gaming

First of all, I owe all y’all a big apology for my extended absence. It was nothing earth-shattering, nothing you really want to hear, just the usual ‘life happened.’ However, I will try very, very hard to be better about posting, and get at least two new articles up a week. (I actually have another scheduled for tomorrow–a review of the movie adaptation of Dolan’s Cadillac, and then a Half-Life catch-up post to go with the new LP: Half Life episode that should be up hopefully by tomorrow, but on Friday at the latest.) Now, enough of my blather. On to the article!

Adam Sessler, as he is wont to do, posted a fantastic edition of his gaming commentary webshow Sessler’s Soapbox. In a nutshell, he discusses the balance of the freedom that open world games provide, vs. the difficulty they have telling a complete and coherent story. And while Ses doesn’t delve as deeply into the issue as he sometimes does, its still an excellent episode, and well worth watching.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
The video source can be found here.

This did get me to thinking, though, because I’m a sucker for a good open world game–even ones in genres and about stories, characters and settings that I otherwise couldn’t care less about. For example, I am about the farthest from the target demographic of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas you could possibly get: I’m old(er), female, lived in rural communities most of my life, and despise the “gangsta” lifestyle that GTA: SA recreates.

I know this. I am aware of it. And yet, I cannot stop playing it. I don’t play it all that often, you understand–but every now and again the siren song of that huge, expansive sandbox world calls to me, and I have to answer. The same is true (only much, much more so because of my inherent love of RPGs and high fantasy) for Oblivion, Morrowind, Shadow of the Colossus (which IS a very open world game…there’s just not a lot to DO there.) The list goes on. Maybe its just the vicarious way I express my longing to explore this world–I can’t afford the time or the money to travel to Venezuela and climb Mt. Roraima, (secret dream of mine), but dammit I CAN go mountain climbing and dungeon delving, and wandering and world-exploring in Cyrodill. Is it the same? Hell no. But I’ll take it over nothing any day of the week.

(I know the title promises this article would be about freedom vs. story, and I’ll get there I promise, but bear with me a little longer.) This brings me to Just Cause 2. I was mildly excited about this game when I saw the rather impressive videos that the developers showed off a year or so ago. Then I heard it was a huge, expansive, open world game…and I pounced on the demo the day it came out. From what I understand this game is supposed to involve mercenaries and sabotage and shooting things, but I wouldn’t know–I spent the entire half-hour of my allotted demo time climbing mountains, base jumping off towers, looking for little caves and nooks and crannies to explore…it was frigging awesome. I didn’t fire a single shot. It’s well worth the $50 in my opinion. (Personal finances being what they are, I won’t be able to pick it up ’til Steam discounts it or puts it on sale, but c’est la vie.)

In his Soapbox, Sess used JC2 to make an interesting point not just about this game, but about the open-world genre in general. (And yes, as he observes in the video “open-world” has become a descriptor that transcends genre at this point; in fact, it IS its own genre, regardless of what mechanics–shooter, RPG, etc–allow you to function within the world.) He makes the point that the major pro of this kind of game is, of course, allowing the player almost complete and total freedom to do what they want, when they want (within the limits of the game’s scope and engine, of course.) He also noted, though, that this comes at a rather large price: a well-paced story.

Note that he didn’t say GOOD story. The writing for an open-world game could be the best script ever written. But it won’t unfold BEFORE the player in the way the writer intended. In a very open-ended and non-linear game, its the player that sets the pace. You might step out of the sewer in Oblivion, see a dungeon that catches your eye, and become sidetracked for dozens and dozens of hours with exploring, side quests, and the like, all the while forgetting that amulet that needs to be delivered. You know, the one that the dead king entrusted you to deliver safely. And RIGHT AWAY. Because the FATE OF THE ENTIRE WORLD DEPENDS ON ITS TIMELY DELIVERY.

Now obviously the creators can’t ACTUALLY impose a time limit on a mission like that, especially not in a game like Oblivion. But it does lead to some odd moments–like the one where I had left the sewer, set off exploring, found a great town, settled down, did some side quests while making a living hunting game…and then, many hours later, realized I hadn’t even started the main quest yet, in spite of the NPCs dire warnings. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this from a game play perspective of course; that’s why its called a “sandbox” game. The toys are there for you to pick up and play with as you choose.

As a writer and would-be novelist, though, I can tell you that this is a disaster from a storytelling point of view. Not only does it drain a huge amount of tension from the story, you run the very real risk that the player will actually FORGET large, sometimes very important, chunks of the story along the way as the wander off and get side tracked. Oblivion’s main quest, while not breaking any new ground, is actually quite good, and the missions it puts you through are pretty varied and interesting. I dunno, maybe I’m just easily pleased, but I do often wonder if the ‘ho-hum’ quality most players attribute to that main quest is due to the sporadic way in which they played it. Not only is a sandbox game like trying to read multiple books at once, its like trying to read multiple books at once, while also writing your own book as you decide what to do and where to explore–and try to keep the plots and characters of the main quest, its various sub-quests, and all your side quests, in your head at the same time. All the while while remaining emotionally invested in all of them, please–if all you wanted to do was read your journal and mechanically follow the map icon to your target, you could go play Oregon Trail.

My love for open world games is especially puzzling to be because if there’s one thing I want my game to do, its tell me a good story. That’s why I love the Final Fantasy series–most of them are on rails, plotwise (you can explore the world map, sure, but nobody’s going to confuse flying from town to town in an airship with the open world of a Morrowind or GTA) but–at least in my my mind–they also create some of the best stories and greatest characters in the business. The good ones are very well paced, too–something that just can’t happen in a fully open world game.

What’s the solution to this problem? I wish I had one. I would be interested to see a game company simply put out a big, GTA style sandbox game without even incorporating the main quest. Often the main quests are looked at as the weakest part of a sandbox game, and the developers certainly don’t seem to spend much time on them (well, unless you’re Bethesda). And gamers CERTAINLY don’t come to a sandbox for the main quest either–or if they do, it takes a back seat to the freedom and exploration the world provides. So why not drop the pretense? Give me a world, and let me explore, and ditch the unnecessary exposition!

There’s only one game I can think of that even began to approach this style, and that is Shadow of the Colossus. Sure, its not exactly a “sandbox,” since that implies actually having something to DO, but it is an open world game without a doubt, and a brilliantly executed one at that. We get only very small servings of plot at well spaced intervals–never long and never annoying. Besides that, we’re free to roam, explore and hunt Colossi (albiet in the proper order) as we see fit. It works beautifully, and I see no reason why creating a more populated world, and dropping you in similarly unshackled to an intrusive main quest, wouldn’t work equally well.


8 responses to “Freedom vs. story in gaming

  1. Interesting thoughts. I think Shamus Young has said similar things on occasion–I can remember his annoyance with Fable 2, which had a brilliant sandbox and quite possibly the worst main plot ever to exist in a sandbox game ever.

    (There are a couple of open-world games which enforce the FATE OF THE WORLD DEPENDS ON YOUR SWIFT ACTION thing, actually–in Fallout 1, I believe, the main villain would go ahead with his diabolical master plan after 200 hours whether you were present or not, wiping out the entire gameworld in the blink of an eye while you’re busy noodling around with chocobos or whatever. And then there’s Majora’s Mask, of course, although that might stretch the genre quite a bit.)

    • Ah, I love Shamus! Always one of my first stops on my morning site browse. If I did echo him a bit it wasn’t on purpose because I don’t remember reading that particular article, but I probably did at some point and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if some of his always-apt thoughts worked their way into my subconscious. I want to find that article now, though–I’ve never played Fable 2 myself, or heard much about it for that matter. Now I’m very curious, if the main plot was indeed that bad!

      I haven’t played Fallout 1 either, but that time limit blows my mind. On the one hand it makes a whole lot of sense–or at least, its logically sound. (More logically sound than my Oblivion examples, anyway.) But in terms of game play and enjoyment, its far, far worse. I can’t think of a much crueler thing to do than give players a huge sandbox world to play in…and then impose a time limit. 200 hours DOES seem like a very long time, but even so…yikes. Is it clear from the outset that there’s a real-life time limit, or does it just happen? Because I’d hate to be the guy who had fun leveling up and exploring for 200 hours, only to have it all taken away without warning, and with no way to fix it.

    • Well, I haven’t played any of the new Metroids–and by “new” I mean that the last one I played was Super Metroid on the SNES. But Metroid and Super Metroid were two of my favorite games, so I’d have to say I like that style very much. Problem was I was never much good at them; my memory for maps and locations is terrible so I ended up spending more time bumbling around and trying to get my bearings than anything else. Still, the games themselves were so good I never really minded too much.

      • Aha, I was hoping you’d say that. Because now I can say this:

        You have GOT to check out Aquaria. It’s… really, really good. Valve-level good, even, if not better (and that’s coming from a rabid Valve fanboy). Well worth its normal $20 price tag–and for the next two days, in a bundle with five other indie games, it’s available for any price you can name. Here:

        Seriously, go check it out. You won’t regret it. Although I might, I suppose; it’s quite possible you’ll click that link and no one will hear from you again for a week and a half, and what would become of your Half-Life series then?! πŸ˜›

        • Well, I compromised: I went ahead and bought the bundle (what finally sold me on it was the charity aspect too), but I won’t start playing for a while. Really, really looking forward to it though. And to World of Goo too; I’ve heard great things about it.

          • So… you get an awesome Metroid-style game and all the other stuff in that bundle, while I’ll get slightly-more-frequent RSS feed updates because one person on my list of subscriptions won’t have been swallowed whole by said games! Sounds like a win-win situation! πŸ˜‰

            World of Goo is indeed very entertaining, if on the short side (it is an indie game, after all). Gish is also quite good, in an Invader Zim sort of way. (I hadn’t really heard of the others before now, and haven’t played them yet either.)

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