"Open" worlds with "closed" narratives: 2D storytelling in a 3D world

Those of you who have read the last few posts from myself and Mike about Red Dead Redemption will probably notice that whilst we enjoy it at times, it is full of contentions which we (and others) have attempted to address. Whilst in my last post I begin to address the issues with the way Rockstar implements the story missions, Mike, in his following post elucidated his contentions with the tone and feel of Red Dead, its mashing-together of familiar western cinematic tropes which creates a broken narrative experience. Instead of concluding that Red Dead has taken enough of a beating for now, I wish to look further into the issue of Red Dead’s storytelling and take a brief look at how this can be seen as representative of most open world titles (with only a few notable differences).

One of the first real open world games which I ever encountered was The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, a first-person open world RPG which was originally released in 1996 and still (to my knowledge) has the largest area for the player to explore (62,394 square miles!!). The idea behind Daggerfall was simple, the world had a comprehensive lore and landscape (even if it was randomly generated for the most part) and it placed you (the player) in the personal service of the Emperor to try and battle something or another… To be honest, I really can’t remember a lot about the game other than the buggy dungeons, nudity and undead enemies which you have to kill. Although, being given such a huge world meant that I didn’t have to follow the road which was crafted for me, I could just learn to climb walls, rob shops then strip off and wander off in any direction and see what I could find. It was the size of the world which was prohibitive and liberating at the same time, you could explore ad infinitum, yet it would accomplish nothing other than to satisfy your curiosity, something which would be ultimately cut short by its own lack of form.

Following (and preceding even) Daggerfall was a huge amount of RPGs which followed the open world, quest/sub-quest model and offered what was generally considered to be quintessential of the genre. Grand Theft Auto made considerable waves when it first appeared, it provided an open world setting without the dungeons, dragons and dwarves, somewhere where the emphasis wasn’t on saving the world or fighting undead, it was on making money, killing people and stealing cars. Understandably it also sparked off outrage because of its “unwholesome” approach which would teach kids that robbing and killing was actually a pretty good fun and could earn you some money. The mission structure was similar to that of Daggerfall and other open world games with you taking jobs and progressing through the earning of cash. However, any discernible narrative was absent, the goal being achieving points rather than seeking out any long lost brother or stopping some huge plan to take over the world.

Just Cause 2 is another prime example of open world games which just get the storytelling wrong. This may sound like an unfair claim to those who haven’t played it, or to others it may even be a moot point as storytelling simply wasn’t on the agenda when it was in production. Quite simply, you were archetypal Hispanic action-hero, working for the US government trying to stop the dastardly government on the Asian island of Panau. How do you do this? Easy! Just create as much havoc as possible and eventually the true enemies will rear their heads and you then go and tackle them. There is a narrative framework, albeit a loose one, with agency members, rival gang leaders and bad-guys, most of whom speak in dreadful pidgin English and are full of terrible one-liners which you really shouldn’t be proud of. Although the game world was pretty large, not the largest, but still very commendable in those terms. But again, as with Daggerfall it appears that the scale of the world has meant any cohesive narrative has been lost.

Although RPGs could be seen as considerably more progressive in terms of narrative and its engagement with the open world which has been created. Bioware are arguably the most progressive in the non-linear progression of it’s open world titles with Dragon Age being seen as the best example of these. Although, even Bioware have been see as edging away from the traditional RPG formula towards a more action-centric approach in which the open world takes a back seat. Mass Effect 2, for me, is a linear game masquerading as a non-linear one, it has all the optional elements which effect how the game plays out, but the end-game is simply a series of seemingly arbitrary elements based on your perusal of the sub-quests during the game and some simple “command decisions” you have to make throughout the final mission. My gripes with Mass Effect 2 and other RPGs aside, whilst they are open world titles, It isn’t these which I am concerned with here. Their dialogue-centric elements and the playing-by-numbers mentality lend themselves towards the non-linear elements more than an action game is able because of the “show, don’t tell” approach.

It could be said that Just Cause 2 and many other games like Red Faction Guerilla, GTA IV, and Crackdown are actually “sandbox” titles, which create an open playground for the player rather than trying to force them down the narrative path too heavily. For a while this experience was quite liberating, not being pressured to take on a quest which you don’t feel inclined to do is always a plus point. However, what this does mean is that the game then needs to have a compelling world with plenty other elements to get involved with, to keep you occupied while you’re ignoring the central missions. The term “sandbox” has really damaged open world games in the sense that it seems to remove the responsibility for producing a compelling narrative. You wouldn’t expect to be read a story whilst playing on a slide or monkey bars, and in sand box games it really isn’t any different. However, it just seems that it is gaming following the traditional, sidestepping or ignoring narrative convention because they’re not sure where to take it.   The redeeming point here for Red Dead Redemption is that it has reduced the “sandbox” elements as well as the size of the world. Another way of looking at it may be that Rockstar have distilled elements from open world RPGs and “sandbox” titles to make a more focused, yet relatively free game which ultimately would be more able to cope with a more compelling and believable narrative.

Is one unifying narrative worth having? Or perhaps its just the idea of a couple of linear missions and some unrelated side-quests are unable to actually help produce a cogent narrative, or at least give the main character some continuity. In the case of the latter, Red Dead Redemption really falls foul, having Marston on a mission to rescue his family and then stop to do some really facile, unrelated side questions not only ruins the pacing, but it repeatedly stretches the characterisation to breaking point. At times he’s a likeable rogue who is gracious, polite yet is understandably focused on his ultimate goal, and at others he is a ruthless killer who is the antithesis of everyone he meets. The distillation that I previously mentioned has been negated by the designers over-zealous introduction of western elements which produces a game which feels a little schizophrenic at the best of times.

Still, I believe we’re missing the real point here though and it is a remarkably simple one; having an open world game with a closed narrative simply doesn’t make all that much sense. Okay, we all know that games are huge endeavours which take a considerable amount of time, money and resources to produce, so a non-linear narrative is really the most obvious way to go as it means you need to produce the least possible amount of content. A non-linear narrative on the other hand is very different, if it were really present in Red Dead Redemption, chances Rockstar would have had to produce three or perhaps four times the amount of content in order to make even the most bare-bones non-linear story. As myself and Mike have identified, it appears that the most compelling aspects of Red Dead are actually random elements which you encounter, largely because they have solid mechanics behind them and really fit the setting which you’re placed in. Now, imagine if these random encounters had larger ramifications than simply adding or subtracting from your moral value or fame. The arbitrary values given to these encounters do have “real world consequences”, but not enough to make any real difference to the game beyond the cost of items, bribing etc.

This is what non-linear stories are made of...

It’s not only the random encounters which could feel more integral to the player’s experience rather than simply something you have to do. If instead of partaking in missions on McFarlane’s ranch because you have to, consider an optional approach. Before you get shot by Bill at the start you could have chance to free roam to see the different settlements around the map, if you choose to stop by at the ranch and help them first, it would then lead them to come and rescue you when you get in trouble. If instead of helping the ranch you decide to rustle their cattle, it could be a gang which comes to your aid for financial reasons. The central goal of killing Bill Williamson could easily remain, but your journey there could be a richer and considerably more varied one which would ultimately lead to a more gratifying gaming experience.

How would I create a non-linear good-bye?

Chr15 6r33n (Follow me on Twitter at chrisgreen87 and for Chronoludic updates click here)

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  1. Joel
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    If you played Elder Scrolls II, then you must have also played Elder Scrolls IV. That is a pretty good example of linear narrative in an open world done very successfully. I think Fallout 3 worked out pretty well, too. OK, so maybe only Bethesda does it.

    Still, inFamous did a pretty good job of incorporating your actions in side quests and random encounters into the primary narrative. Granted, it was entirely binary and certainly flawed, but I definitely see the potential there.

    You’re talking about an entirely different kind of game where you create your own narrative entirely through what amount to random encounters and side quests. I think I would certainly enjoy such a genre, though I believe it would succeed on its own merits, not because linear narrative in an open world is somehow doomed to fail.

    • chr156r33n
      Posted June 3, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

      Linear narrative within an open world isn’t a combination which is doomed. I’ve very much enjoyed playing a lot of games which include said elements, however, in terms of narrative development and execution I believe that the current trend within sandbox games isn’t doing the games industry any favors.

      I have played all of the Elder Scrolls series except for Arena and on the whole enjoyed them very much. The central narrative was linear, however the games contained vast amounts of narrative through the sub-quest, and whilst they didn’t contribute to the end-game, they did however contribute significantly to who/what your character becomes. Linearity within the central narrative, in this case, is forgivable when it does such a good job at supplementing it. Still, I believe that considering the Elder Scrolls as a straight non-linear experience is probably pretty unfair on them, their writers do more than that.

      I can’t speak too greatly for inFAMOUS as I’ve only played small amounts off it, however I believe it follows the same trend as the other sandbox titles I mentioned. Alright, so tarring them heavily with the same brush is reductive, as they all succeed at different points to different extents, although my central concern is carried by the majority of them.

      Thanks for the comment Joel, it’s great to have people engage with our opinions here on RRoD. Please don’t hesitate to to refute everything I say, It makes things more interesting that way.

3 Trackbacks

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