Once upon a time, games were all fairly linear – either fetch and carry quests, puzzles, shooting or fighting. You would run along the set path until you either reached the end of the road or died trying. ‘Story’ in games was generally found either in the manual or on the back of the box the game came in. As games have developed over the years, the quality of storytelling, as well as the paths you can take through them has become much deeper and wider. The current generation has had a good deal of narrative games and a similar amount of open world experiences. On the eve of the next generation, developers seem to be displaying a preference for the latter. Open world games made up a large proportion of games shown at E3 such as: Destiny, Witcher 3, Mad Max, Asssassin’s Creed 4: Black flag, Infamous: Second son, Metal Gear Solid 5, Watch Dogs and Tom Clancy’s The Division.
This does raise a couple of questions though: is there a price for such freedom in games – and is this the direction games SHOULD be heading?
In a game driven by narrative, the writers and developers can craft something truly spectacular – making you feel happy, sad and angry. You feel the tension between characters, the romance and compassion that drives you to help or save them. Knowingly accepting to play a game like this obviously forfeits the ability to have total freedom; to do what you want, when you want. But does this make for a more memorable experience? Would you remember the countless hours that you’ve put into developing your character on Skyrim as a blacksmith – or will you remember the lengths you went to rescue Elizabeth in Bio-Shock. Will you remember the hours you spent collecting pelts in Red Dead Redemption – or the final charge against the Reapers on Mass Effect.
All good things come to an end however, and more often than not this is a downside for narrative games, the ending. Endings are the killer as it usually means less replay value, something where open world games tend not to suffer. On the vast majority of open world games, even if you do complete the main story, you’re usually left to your own devices and people have the freedom to plod along and find other stuff to do (Easter egg hunting, exploring, collecting, finish up side quests, etc).
However, I think it’s fair to say that some narrative games stand the test of time much better than their open world brethren. They can certainly provide the type of experience that lingers in the memory, while others become forgotten. Developers pour their time into telling a beautifully crafted story and providing moments that you’ll always remember in a game series. For me, it was the Mass Effect 2 opening –
when the Normandy got attacked. Any time the series is mentioned I always remember walking into the main hull of the ship and seeing a gaping hole displaying an unknown, bright and beautiful world, a moment of tranquility among the chaos that’s tearing my ship apart, knowing what I did in the first game and the efforts I went to really made it that more spectacular for me. Losing the Normandy was like losing a friend.
Open world gaming, however, can give the user the ability to create these incredibly intense moments that can’t be scripted; it feels so unique that it’s a talking point to your gamer friends. I can honestly remember a few times sharing my Skyrim tales with my brother, telling of how I got ripped apart by 3 dragons simultaneously, or once saw a battle between Giants and Orcs. You experience things that sometimes only ever happen to you – and it’s this quality which can give open world gaming the edge, an added dimension that gamers adore.
And while you may argue the point of either side, one company seems to be the closest to getting the balance right. Rockstar Games, with extreme heavy weights under their belts such as critically acclaimed Red Dead Redemption and the hugely successful Grand Theft Auto series. These games offer you freedom in their worlds as well as having excellent narratives. Unfortunately, these unparalleled levels of freedom can give players the ‘freedom’ to completely break from the narrative (i.e. pressing mission, time a factor – but we go hunting instead or decide to become a taxi driver for half an hour).
So with the new consoles allowing gamers to do more than ever, will companies finally be able to give us the perfect balance or will they head to more open world than story, I guess only time will tell. The one thing to take away from this piece is, while it may seem gamers are leaning towards the large open world environments, it doesn’t necessarily mean that gamers don’t love a good narrative game. It’s down to how the developers shape our experience, next time you pick up a game and see it’s not open world, don’t throw it down, because it could be the best game you’ve ever played.
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