Open Worlds vs. Authored Narrative: The Battle for the Next-Generation
Open Worlds vs. Authored Narrative: The Battle for the Next-Generation
Written Friday, July 19, 2013 By John Robertson

Some trends are easier to spot than others. Financial markets, social media evolution, sports tactics; these can be difficult to predict. Others are easy; the trend towards cloud computing, the death of the high street and child stars becoming drug addicts. If you can spot a trend, you can predict the future. If you can predict the future, you can make a lot of money.

This past E3 featured an obvious trend. New consoles may have been the talk of the show, but on ground level it was open-world games taking up the majority of floor space. They were everywhere, as faceless and uniform as the Guy Fawkes mask in their promise of grand scale, superior replay value and emergent gameplay. Virtually every major publisher jumping on the band wagon and pumping money into making sure they get their slice of the future profits pie.

Destiny, The Witcher 3, Mad Max, Assassin’s Creed 4, Infamous: Second Son, Metal Gear Solid 5, The Witness, Watch_Dogs and more promise to entice, excite and entertain by dumping you in a free and open world. Getting on with gameplay as and when you see fit seems to be the order of the day and the order of next gen consoles. 

If the current console and PC generation of games ushered in the open world, the next one seems to already be taking its best shot at making it entirely standard fare. It looks like jaunts in massive faux borderless environments are to become the rule, rather than the exception to it. What’s behind this obsession with providing hour-long treks to the next waypoint, day/night cycles and – presumably – an abundance of emergence-breaking, randomly designed collectibles?

The obvious answer is money. Isn’t it always? Fallout, Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row et al are clear and living proof that players want open-worlds to explore and interact with. One of the easiest ways for a big publisher, investing big money, to turn a profit (at least in the short term) is to replicate elements that have proven to be a market success and can be advertised to consumers in terms that are easy for them to understand. It’s easy to promote the next open-world fantasy RPG. Promoting the next turn-based tactical melee ‘em up by no-name developer is more difficult and therefore more risky. 

Other reasons for the drive towards ‘freedom-led’ gameplay include the need for developers and publishers to demonstrate to players that they’re making use of the extra processing power that the PS4 and ridiculously named Xbox One afford them. A 2D side-scrolling shooter that takes place in a rigidly defined world just doesn’t seem worth $60 anymore. The trade-in battle is another reason, with open-world titles usually taking an enormous amount of time to complete and therefore they keep you involved long enough for the resale sale price to drop lower than Cilla Black’s breasts. 

Cynicism aside, though, open-worlds are about emergent gameplay and what makes the good ones good. Make your own story, do things your own way, create/destroy/experience at your own pace and to your own tastes. Why include cut-scenes when you have the potential to organically or inorganically create/witness events that are unique to you?  

The question is whether or not this drive towards emergent gameplay and open-worlds is really a good thing? Clearly, if this past E3 was any sort of an indication, open-worlds seem to be usurping many of the spaces that would have previously been assigned to ‘traditional’ authored experiences. 

Many of today’s gamers would answer in the affirmative, that open-world prevalence is a good thing and that the fewer authored/linear games there are the better. Games can provide emergent experiences that are unique to each and every player (to an extent), it’s one of the ways in which the medium is able to distance itself from other entertainment forms. However, just because a medium is capable of a given thing, does that mean the industry as a whole should push so strongly in that direction?

At the risk of seeming any more subjective, the answer is no. In particular, the possibility that the traditionally authored video game (think more linear experiences along the lines of Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid 1 and BioShock) may become a triple-A game rarity is a frightening thought.

Today, ‘linearity’ in video games is a dirty world. Somehow, the idea that game designer/writer is unable to provide an experience as meaningful and engrossing as those we can create for ourselves has taken grip and refuses to let go. 

Why have a writer feed us an authored story when we can create one ourselves? Answer: because a good writer is a better storyteller than at least 99% of video game players. 

In all but the rarest examples, the characters, stories and narrative events that we remember from video games have occurred in linear, authored stories. Unless your name is Rockstar or Bethesda, the chance that you’ve provided an open-world with truly engaging characters and story arcs is slim.

Authored games take us on a journey. Authored games are akin to sitting on a tour bus as it travels through a city, allowing you to take in life and events as they take place all around you. The driver decides where to go because the driver is the expert; he/she knows the best places and the best order. Open-world games are different, they ask you to drive the bus yourself – despite you having no knowledge of the world and no idea how to drive the bus.

The fact that a fully authored game is able to point you in a direction and know for certain where your attention is going to reside at a given moment means that the writer can feel safe in crafting  moments that are spectacular, dramatic, romantic, sad, scary and rage-inducing. As a player you have to be willing to give up control in order to be fully absorbed into the story being told. 

Open-worlds are not able to do this to the same extent. Instead they rely on optional exposition and bore-you-to-tears audio logs in a vain and lazy attempt to give weight to the events you’re playing through.

Sure, you can do what you like in Skyrim. You can define your own story by being a blacksmith and working iron all day, but is it meaningful aside from the stat increases? Will you look back with fond memories in five years at all those hours you spent defining your ‘character’ as a blacksmith? No, of course not, because there is no character to read into there. On the other hand, will you remember the adventures you had as Drake in Uncharted? As Snake in Metal Gear Solid? The turmoil of Rapture in BioShock, or the fate of Metro 2033’s survivors?  

Yes, because story and character resonate in the long term. Stories touch us emotionally and pose question about ourselves the world around you, they pose ideas and theories and characters that we couldn’t see or hear about otherwise. Failing that, it’s exciting and engrossing to be lead down the rabbit hole without control and go on the ride that has been written for us.

Unfortunately, the best stories have an ending. How else could a story be a story? Definitive endings means less replay value, another dirty idea in video games. It’s a shame that quantity is so frequently used as a measure of quality in this industry, a measure that open-world games will invariably score higher than a linear experience. 

Hopefully, in the drive toward open-world experiences, publishers don’t forget that it’s narrative and character that make a good story and that authored games are the superior option as far as that’s concerned. It’s telling, as far as open-world narrative games go, that the next game is always the best game – older games quickly forgotten. The reason for that is because games relying on emergent gameplay rely almost entirely on technology to absorb and engross. As soon as a better physics model comes along, your emergent open-world is suddenly not so fun anymore. It’s like an old toy, abandoned for the newer, shinier one.

Good storytelling withstands the test of time, no matter what physics engine, frame rate and game world it was told within.

Open-world games are exciting prospects as far as excitement is concerned. However, if history is anything to go by, their narrative impact is limited and, therefore, their potential emotional impact is greatly weakened. If games want to be taken more seriously as a respected form of narrative entertainment they need to think more about engrossing through narrative, and less simply about giving us bigger and bigger sandboxes for us to throw our toys around in. 


User Comments
Forum Posts: 333
Comment #1 by texas_ride
Friday, July 19, 2013 @ 03:48:41 PM
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Regardless of genre, I think it all comes down to the writers. If Nathan Drake reminded me of risk-blind frat boy I would have hated the series. Good writing helped me relate to the character as though they were real. I came to understand how his flaws (alcoholism, womanizing, risk taking) influenced who he had become. It's like any good book, TV show, movie, you want good writing to make the characters and the world believable no matter how how unbelievable things get.

With that said, in an open-world vs. linear sense, I personally prefer open world. It lets me put myself into the game. I personally prefer characters with a blank or limited slate (the Fallout games, for example) because I can build myself into them. Or, more likely build a side of me that I would likely not show in real life. I can play with the self-indulgences of life without truly harming another person. It's like letting an alter-ego loose for a little bit, then reigning it all in to maintain social norms.

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Comment #2 by texas_ride
Friday, July 19, 2013 @ 03:53:32 PM
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Reining it in rather, and I'll put a mental asterisk on all the other errors in that post.

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Comment #3 by mjc0961
Friday, July 19, 2013 @ 04:52:43 PM
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Vide ogame players are indeed bad writers. Just look at fanfics. :p

(also you put the space in the wrong place at video game players)

Forum Posts: 82
Comment #4 by Damoxuk
Saturday, July 20, 2013 @ 02:59:56 AM
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I prefer a mix of both types of games.

Sometimes i'm in the mood for heavy story based games ala LAs of Us/Bioshock Infinite without thinking about 101 other quests/collectibles/distractions.

On the other hand sometimes I want an expansive game to get my teeth into. Open world games tend to give more BANG for your buck so to speak.

Then there's the few what are good with both like Red dead.

Forum Posts: 2970
Comment #5 by dante_kinkade
Saturday, July 20, 2013 @ 03:21:14 AM
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I do like a strong narrative over a open world and just look at games like The Last of Us that shows that there still is a place for games like that in this day and age. Though in the end a mix of games that can play both would be the best because both have strong points.

@3 That's not 100% true some video game players ca write great things, as long as they never write about video games and fanfiction, it tends to be fan fic writers at large are the bad writers from what I remember when i read them when was a teen ended up groaning or laughing my ass off most of the time of how bad they can be.

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Comment #6 by Terminator
Saturday, July 20, 2013 @ 04:08:41 AM
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I completely agree with you. I like both types of game but ultimately it comes down to the story as not every story is open world material.

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Comment #7 by c1ned1ne
Saturday, July 20, 2013 @ 06:02:59 AM
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@6: I don't think it's about the story, but the game play behind it.

Just Cause 2 or Mercenaries 2 have a very forgettable story, but the open world complements the main focus of "screwing around" perfectly. The same for TES and Fallout 3 / NV - as long as you don't wander off into the bland wilds, there are enough things to explore and find even without quests to give you an alternative progression besides strictly following the main quest / guild quests.

On the other hand you have games like LA Noire and The Saboteur where you're more inclined of following the story because the additional gameplay is near non-existent and/or terrible repetitive but the open world feels still like a nice addition. It's those game which offer the best compromise of story and exploration IMO.

Point is, a good narrative and open world doesn't have to be mutual exclusive. If the story is interesting enough or you're well steered into its direction (like -not- running across half the map to start the next mission) one will just burn through it and forget about vanity activities, side missions and exploration.

Side note: Non-linearity doesn't have to be equal with broader worlds either. As long as there are different ways of approaching a challenge (avoidance, stealth, diplomacy, fancy traps, or blazing guns) I'm totally happy with running through floor-like levels. The thing I can't stand about most games. No matter how well written the story is and the characters are - you always end up as a one-man-army.

Forum Posts: 365
Comment #8 by Aboelsas
Saturday, July 20, 2013 @ 08:44:41 PM
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i prefer a good story to keep me attached to the game and always remember it than a dull one with awesome game-play and amazing open world choices that will always be fun while i am at it.

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Comment #9 by Mellenthin
Sunday, July 21, 2013 @ 10:33:43 AM
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When I think on the open world games I've played like Fallout 3 I hardly consider those superior solely due to the freedom of movement you're granted.

The entire concept and the quality of the game, except the freezes naturally, is what makes the game good. That means atmosphere, excellent dialogue and fun game play.

This couldn't be more true when it comes to titles as Dragon Age. It's perhaps semi-open world at best though it serves the game well nonetheless.

For any game to be truly good you can't really thumb on the quality too much or it will just bring down everything with it.

It would be best in my opinion if the developers stopped taking shortcuts and really put some effort in their games. Perhaps then they would reach their ridiculous selling quotas and everyone would be happy.

Forum Posts: 109
Comment #10 by Jooles
Sunday, July 21, 2013 @ 02:26:49 PM
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#1 - Since when is womanizing a flaw...?

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Comment #11 by texas_ride
Sunday, July 21, 2013 @ 09:08:40 PM
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@10 It depends, but in the case of Drake I saw it as a fear of commitment based in some thinking that uncovering his family secret would solve. It seemed as he realized that putting everything into one answer wasn't the answer he found more happiness in his relationship with Elena. Womanizing also seemed to leave him exposed and weak at different times in the story.

That element of the story is what I perceived anyway, that's why I'd include Uncharted as a series that has good writing.

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Comment #12 by AshtimusPrime
Monday, July 22, 2013 @ 11:29:09 AM
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As awesome as open world games are, we don't want to be bombarded with them like this generation's Modern Military Shooter.

Forum Posts: 421
Comment #13 by January-Embers
Wednesday, July 24, 2013 @ 08:36:01 AM
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I can think of one example of an open world game that had an engrossing narrative: Red Dead Redemption. Some people said the game was boring, whatever, but the story was fascinating and kept you driving forward while also leaving you wondering was on the other side of the hills. Rockstars magnum opus if you ask me.

Forum Posts: 2290
Comment #14 by vikebone
Wednesday, July 24, 2013 @ 02:23:36 PM
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Great article. I would much rather play an engrossing game with a fantastic story than an open world game, even if the game is shorter it doesn't matter. My favorite two games this generation are Uncharted 2 and Heavy Rain because of their amazing stories. Personally, I prefer games with a great story, regardless of their length or replay value.

Forum Posts: 11707
Comment #15 by Metdevil
Thursday, July 25, 2013 @ 12:19:22 AM
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It was not a surprise to hear that Assassin's Creed IV and InFamous would be open world. I think that most would agree that the shock was from MGSV. Can't wait to see how that is going to play out in a free roam game style...

Forum Posts: 1900
Comment #16 by weephilymcvey
Thursday, July 25, 2013 @ 08:42:13 AM
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I'm definitely open to more open-world games but linear games still have their place, would not like to see a 'one or the other' mentality for next gen games; there is room for both.

Forum Posts: 40
Comment #17 by Equirah
Friday, July 26, 2013 @ 09:02:34 AM
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Sleeping Dogs, that is all.

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Comment #18 by oversoul53
Monday, July 29, 2013 @ 04:15:36 AM
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To me it's all about the story. Linear or open world, if the story is good, I will enjoy it. That's not to say I don't enjoy games like Saint's Row The Third where I have the freedom to run around and cause hell as I see fit. Cuz I do enjoy that, very much. But Sometimes, i just want a linear game with a good story, like Bioshock Infinite. Now, if an open world game has a good story, like say... Assassin's Creed II, then I feel obligated to do all the sidequests, and get the collectibles, because I enjoyed the game, and the replay value adds to my enjoyment.

Personally i do enjoy games where after the story I can run around and do whatever I want. Half the classic Final Fantasy games are open world and allow for post-game exploration. But the game still has to be good. That's the important part. There are crap games of both sides, and amazing games of both sides. That's why we have the freedom to pick and choose.

Side note: it doesn't get more open world than Skyrim. lol.

Forum Posts: 41
Comment #19 by Skydancerofchaos
Wednesday, July 31, 2013 @ 12:22:57 AM
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Something people don't understand about open-world games is this. Red Dead Redemption is probably the only one with a top class story. No, GTA doesn't count. The main characters are always complete devoid of cause for empathy, unless you grew up like those characters, in which case you have other issues. Bethesda's games are not very good on story either. Every one of their games has been essentially the same and like a light version of Game of Thrones. They're generic fantasy at best.

The open world mechanic revolves around the premise that "you build your journey" and this goes entirely against the basis of good storytelling. A great writer must build his/her story with an ending in mind from the start. Very few great writers don't know how they want the story to end. If authors gave you a novel and let you pick all the middle events and the order they went in, the dramatic build up, cause and effect, and the character arcs would be destroyed. There is such a thing as dramatic pacing and this is why stories like Bioshock, The Last of Us, or Uncharted succeed where others falter. These stories are written by real writers, people who understand how to tell a story so that you are emotionally invested in the characters so that you care about what happens to them. This causes you to slowly lose account of the fact that the stories are completely linear. You don't care because you have been pulled in the journey and become the character because of *how* they delivered the story.

This is largely impossible with open world titles. I used RDR as a great example, but the game only holds the illusion of open world. The story missions are 100% linear. You have no real choice how the story goes. You can go off on sidequest tangents but the story itself begins at A and goes from B to C all the way to Z no matter what you do.

THis is where I get extremely frustrated with the "anti-linear" gamers. You've been duped into thinking you have true control over the story. No game in the history of gaming has ever allowed 100% control of this and never will. Heavy Rain did a good job, but then everyone complained about the gameplay. You will never be allowed control over the storyline because these things ie cutscenes, scripts, and character arcs have to be made in advance and there is no system in place that can allow a gamer to create content out of thin air and assign their own scenes to complete a story. The story is always written to finality. You are fooling yourselves into thinking a "non-linear, open-world game" is any more "non-linear" than a "linear" title is.

I'm sorry, but I'll take The Last of Us every time over something like GTA or Oblivion. No story can be told without direction and a writer who knows how to pace a story to build dramatic tension. There will never be an truly open-world game that allows a gamer to tell his/her own story. It's impossible unless you yourself make the game.

Forum Posts: 1708
Comment #20 by AverySegaw
Saturday, August 03, 2013 @ 01:39:12 AM
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I think the direction of more and more games going open world is a result of this multiplayer, always connected, always online idea that developers and publishers are starting to implement into their games. People who have done research into the video game industry know that multiplayer is one of the easiest things for developers to incorporate into their games, and often result in a large amount of income due to DLCs as map packs or costumes or whatever else. If they can get players to keep playing their game, whether it be a competitive multiplayer like Call of Duty, a cooperative multiplayer like Borderlands, or an open-world MMO like Destiny or The Division, developers have an increased chance that those players will continue to invest in the game through DLCs.

I felt like E3 was more "MMO" than "open-world." And that again plays back to my mentioning of the ease and cost of developing multiplayer. A traditional game usually consists of a single player component and a multiplayer component that is cooperative, competitive, or both. Developers have different teams working together to release the packaged components as a game, which means paying all the workers on all the teams. With an MMO, all of those various components can be rolled into one component, and means less people needed and less workers to pay. But the DLC potential is still there, so a chance for increased income is present.

The important thing about trends is that they aren't necessarily given a set amount of time to be relevant. Trends can come as easily as they can go. While we may be seeing more open-world, MMO, and muliplayer-focused games, I know that narrative-focused games will always have a key place in gaming, along with the other more-traditional forms of games.

Forum Posts: 1981
Comment #21 by twyz
Monday, August 05, 2013 @ 12:09:58 AM
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"ridiculously named Xbox One." haha

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Comment #22 by sanchezz4387
Tuesday, August 06, 2013 @ 04:38:05 AM
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there shouldn't EVER be one style or genre, that's how things get boring/repetitive and stale.

this generation CoD 4 was a massive success, so every bastard has tried emulating it by churning out fps after fps after fps and to be frank people are now pretty much sick of fps.

dont get me wrong, cod is a great game to play, lots of fun and a good break from other games, but there's so many fps war shooters now that they all pretty much feel the same.

and that right there is the problem, i loved playing MOH and cod 3 and cod 4, the stories were great, the explosions were thick and fast and it was a great breakaway from games like need for speed most wanted, or fight night 3 or oblivion.

we need big open world games just as much as fps or rpgs, we need a massive selection of all these kinds of games, not just one big fuck off selection of one type, that is frankly boring.

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Comment #23 by Banacheckfps
Wednesday, August 07, 2013 @ 05:54:49 AM
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I agree we need diversity not just FPS, i love open-world games, i think the reason next-gen will have more open-world games. Is MMO are pretty big on PC's where as consoles haven't really had them, it'll be new for console players. I cannot wait to start seeing some of these MMO on consoles.

Forum Posts: 13
Comment #24 by bowskillz
Thursday, August 08, 2013 @ 06:49:56 AM
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Open world games are my favourite genre! It's great being able to explore and mess about!
The open world games I currently have are GTA 4 (preordered 5) Red Dead Redemption, Prototype, LA Noire, Dead Island, Saints Row 2+3, GTA San Andreas,Vice City Chinatown wars,GTA Advance,Far Cry Blood Dragon, Oblivion, Skyrim and Dishonored (if it counts).
Basicly it's my favourite genre and as long as open world games continue being interesting and allow you to actually mess around and have fun then I have absolutely no problem with more sandbox games.

Forum Posts: 13
Comment #25 by bowskillz
Thursday, August 08, 2013 @ 04:19:18 PM
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And add Just Cause 2 to that giant list, just bought it today at a supermarket for only £12 new!

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Comment #26 by TuckNorris85
Tuesday, August 20, 2013 @ 09:47:25 AM
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I don't see how one is better than the other. Gta4 was an awesome sandbox game, however you cannot say last of us was a weak game because it wasn't sandbox. There is room for both, and I will buy into both.

Forum Posts: 126
Comment #27 by Folklore
Tuesday, August 20, 2013 @ 08:22:42 PM
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I prefer Open World as it gives the player more freedom but if the sandbox is bland and dull like GTA4 was for me due to the lack of building to explore, I would prefer a detailed and engaging Narrative driven game which doesn't make you lose motivation to complete the game due to being distracted by the colossal size of the world.

In my opinion, I don't compare games like Uncharted which is a movie style game to that of Prototype, Just Cause 2 and GTA.

Ni No Kuni and many other games which limit your ability to interact with the open world till you reach a certain point with the story is my preference, Kingdom Hearts is another example where you had to earn certain items and skills to be able to access secrets.

Forum Posts: 132
Comment #28 by DragonBone
Saturday, August 31, 2013 @ 05:59:24 PM
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This article is pretty accurate. I still think back to games like Final Fantasy 7 and Crono Trigger and reminisce about the story. But games like GTA 3, which was an excellent game I spent hours upon hours playing, doesn't inspire any specific moments for me. But it can be done in open world games. Farcry 3 has a lot of moving and memorable scenes.

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Comment #29 by poetic_justice_
Monday, September 02, 2013 @ 01:18:27 AM
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As an evolving artform, video games will find their balance between open-world and narrative-driven gameplay. A game like Uncharted could become a mix of both open world and narrative driven storytelling, seeing as the series already utilizes so many different environments and settings. Have a piece of narrative, then have a piece of open world. Choose to continue the story or explore more in the open world. The industry has always been like a pendulum. A few years ago WWII campaign shooters were the hot topic, and then came COD: MW, and suddenly online multiplayer exploded. Now it's open world. If it's fun to play, why not?

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Comment #30 by BeefcakeJax
Tuesday, September 03, 2013 @ 08:04:57 AM
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I enjoy both kind of games. for example I love God Of War every 6 games I played at least 3 times, but I am also excited for games like Division and Destiny. Open world is great to explore, but sometimes its fun to be part of a story that has an ending.

Forum Posts: 85
Comment #31 by TrophyBoost
Saturday, September 07, 2013 @ 10:04:04 AM
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Best article in a long time. Mhy favorite line is:
'Why have a writer feed us an authored story when we can create one ourselves? Answer: because a good writer is a better storyteller than at least 99% of video game players.'

I agree totally with you. I do not like open world recently because they became 1 million stupid arons across an overly big world. Games like Dragons Dogma, was diluted by the vastness of its open world. However, games like Sleeping Dogs were well executed, because the sand box was so small that you were guided indirectly.

What it boils down to for me are epic memories. Castlevania's ending, Last of Us ending, Walking Dead ending, Spec Ops the Line ending... ALL EPIC with a bit of a twist... remisant of the ending of Metroid for NES.

Forum Posts: 21
Comment #32 by Zero132132
Thursday, September 26, 2013 @ 12:28:44 PM
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The assumption here is that you can't have an open world game that contains within it an exciting story. This may be something you see in a lot of the more recent games, but it isn't actually inherent in the game itself. There's a lot of room between the walking-down-a-tube-with-occasional-battles experience of Final Fantasy XIII and Skyrim.

Open world games are still capable of holding linear narratives within them, and there's no real reason that they shouldn't. They just need someone like Red Shirt Guy on the team that checks for continuity issues.

Forum Posts: 936
Comment #33 by cjt417
Tuesday, November 05, 2013 @ 08:21:36 PM
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great article. if the developers aren't careful mass production of open world games will push away the market with over stimulation. the instant appeal of an fps game has worn off. now gamer's are asking the genre "what else can it do?"

when a game's story is good it rises above the game's genre and the question "what else?". satisfaction should be the standard not replication.

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