Open Worlds vs. Authored Narrative: The Battle for the Next-Generation

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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. 

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