When it comes to how a game’s story is organized, there are two popular approaches. Approach number one is the story-driven game: there’s a specific plot that the writers and developers have created, and they are going to walk you down a specific path in order to tell it. How you play the game may be open, but where you go and the choices you make won’t be up to you. Then, there’s open-world: the developers and writers create a world for you to explore and you dance around in that world making your own choices and creating your own story. You do you. There are pros and cons to both approaches and so I thought I’d take some time today to discuss my own opinions.
As a writer, the story-driven approach appeals to me for a lot of reasons. When someone has a strong story in mind, they want to tell that story exactly the way they envision it. And as a reader/gamer/movie-goer, experiencing a grand story is really satisfying. Watching in awe as the characters grow and change, evil plots come to fruition, beautiful symbolism becomes clear and morals are learned – that’s an incredible experience. Story-driven games are great when there’s a message to communicate.
Of course, there are problems too. As a player, there’s nothing more frustrating than being boxed into a certain path. Having to do things in a particular way when you clearly want to make a different choice or climb this one box that you are apparently not allowed to jump on takes away the immersion of the game. And some story-driven games put you on rails so tight that you feel like you’re playing a sidescroller (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XIII). It can be frustrating from a character perspective, too – I wrote recently about the game Bravely Default and how the game punishes you for out-of-the-box thinking because that kind of thinking doesn’t cause the storyline to reach fruition. When you can’t play your character the way you want to just so the story works out a certain way, it takes power away from the player.
Conversely, in an open world the player has all the power. You can go wherever you want, kill whoever you want, be good or mean, rich or poor, whatever you can achieve. If you decide to explore a specific place, there’s nothing stopping you from going there. You can go to the most dangerous part of the world or the most peaceful, and what you do when you get there is your decision. And in most open-world games, every possible place you could choose to go is packed with things to do so that no matter what choice you make, it’s an interesting one.
Of course, in such a game you often lose the satisfaction of seeing a deep, powerful story come to fruition. With no clear goal in sight, it’s possible to get muddled and lost. You may even feel that the game is impossible to beat, because when there’s always something new to accomplish, you may feel that you’re not accomplishing anything at all. I’ve expressed in the past that I don’t play Elder Scrolls games for the story because most of the time the story is just not interesting to me. It’s hard to create a strong, compelling story in a world where you can’t control the choices that the players might make.
Naturally, game developers can choose to create games that are some compromise between these two strategies. Sometimes, that makes something brilliant. Other times, that makes something ugly.
My favorite way to combine these two ideas is to tell a prepared story, but to give players the option of how they get to it. Everything in between is in their control. This is the approach seen in games like A Link Between Worlds or Dishonored. In the former, you have a specific goal – defeat certain dungeons. However, those dungeons can be done in virtually any order, and all the space between them is packed to the gills with stuff to explore. In the latter, you have limited areas to explore and specific enemies to overcome, but you can explore those areas and defeat those enemies in any way that you choose – violent, passive, or any path in between. Your different selections of powers allow you to explore the world in a different way each time you play.
Of course, there are bad ways to combine story with open world. I’ve typically seen this in older games, specifically in JRPGs. The game has an open world to explore, yes, but the only place you can go where anything happens is in the one place where the story will progress. With no guidance as to which place that is, you’re forced to explore every nook and cranny of the world until you get lucky enough to find the one town or dungeon where you’ll manage to move the plot forward.
All in all, I enjoy a game with a strong story or a great open world. What’s really important is that whether you’re experiencing a predecided plot or making your own choices, the process of getting there is full of fun.
What do you think, adventurers? Do you prefer games with strong plotlines or open worlds? Discuss it in the comments and be sure to suggest some games that you think have strong examples of the style you prefer!