Letting Go: Relinquishing Authorship in Open World Video Games

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With the release of both Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn I have spent some time with open world games recently and have come to understand a few things my interaction with them. One: I enjoy simply walking around aimlessly hoping to find new and shiny things and two: My enjoyment would not be massively reduced if the main plot simply didn’t exist.

When it comes to open world games, curiosity that key to the enjoyment. So said Todd Howard of Bethesda when discussing the creation of an open world experience. I agree with this statement whole-heartedly, the entirety of a game like Minecraft for example thrives on the curiosity of its players; their desire to build new things and to try out new combinations.  This extends to a game like Witcher III as the tantalising possibility of finding a new monster to slay, or discover hidden secrets scattered across the world.

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The game needs to intrigue its players by making them wish to search high and low throughout the map. It encourages players to sink hours of their time into a game and therefore become much more invested in the game’s world and theme. A lot of the time this is achieved by simply enrapturing an audience in a narrative that they wish to experience, but this certainly isn’t always the case. Skyrim and Fallout are not as popular as they are for their main plotlines, but instead the weird, wonderful and dare I say beautiful things one can find within their worlds.

Fine detail added to a game is something that is often taken for granted. We rarely consciously recognise that each part of the world has been meticulously designed in order to make it feel like a genuine place you could actually visit. I find myself appreciating the cupboards and drawers being half open and scattered when moving through a house post-apocalypse, or finding a shrine with offerings before it in the middle of an isolated plot of trees. Little details like this give the illusion of a world that exists regardless of your own actions, which sucks you in to its experience.

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Open world games that have set narratives have the major issue of pacing. As I argued in a previous article games that attempt to portray a living and breathing world are often stymied by a lack of interaction with the areas denizens and a seemingly unlimited amount of time to solve the world’s problems.

One open world game that I rate very highly is that of DayZ, a game which is devoid of all story line or narrative, which to me should be the way in which most open world games are designed. Without a solid story, the game becomes filled with individual tales of survival; players have to adopt the role of a ruthless bandit if they have no food but know that another player nearby does. The game actively encourages player interaction (mainly through shooting) that leads to very interesting encounters. A player might well hunt in the woods and trade raw meat to a group of raiders for supplies, or maybe charge players to use a local water source. The interactions lead to effectively having to role-play in order to actually play the game at all. In DayZ the players can’t put off the quests for when they feel as if they’d like to complete them as the only quest is simply surviving.

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For me, open world games are at their best when you spend your time simply exploring the wilderness. I would simply pick a direction and keep moving in it, encountering new areas and enemies and loving every moment. In some games it is in the hopes of finding loot, in others perhaps to gain XP; a game like DayZ differs in that you are potentially forced to look for new areas in order to find supplies, having to move on if you find nothing of use. Compare this experience to having 16 sets of armour and 30 weapons in your inventory in Skyrim and having to decide which you have to drop to get home. The constant need for finite items leads to interactions between players that speak of desperation weaves its own narrative and one that is constantly evolving. If DayZ had a narrative component it would only serve to get in the way of the game’s open world experience and ultimately detract from the overall enjoyment of the product.

The issue of telling a story in a game is that a game is an active experience controlled by a player. A story crafted by a team of writers and developers will often (if not practically every time) will not gel with the way the player plays through the experience. Developers will often find ways to guide the player to follow the story beats and so to speak ‘stand in the right place’ in order to allow the scene to progress. Take the example of The Last of Us and the inclusion of the “press R3 to look” button which centred the camera on something happening in the game world. It is a thinly veiled slap in the face to every gamer playing the game, proclaiming to them “hey, stop looking at that and look at this!” I do not have a particular problem with this mechanic, but it seems to highlight the problem of games, namely: shared authorship.

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It is unsurprising that developers compare their narratives to that of the movie industry, many games aim to be as well respected as a movie, and some certainly are recognised as such. But the main question to ask from this is: why? Why is it that games try to be more like movies, to the detriment of the game itself? Narrative driven games can sometimes find a good balance between story and gameplay, like the game Portal where no cut-scene (except for the very end) simply dumped its exposition and expects you to be interested. Portal’s story simply comes out through conversations and the occasional graffiti tag. In short Portal is able to create a compelling world with a charismatic antagonist without filling in a lot of the blanks. This is the model that open world games should strive for, as unlike Portal they can offer a multitude of experiences rather than just the one.

When a developer steps back and allows the players to simply play their game, the stories unfold and frankly become the best that gaming has to offer. Unlike an experience that all gamers will share, like the ending to a AAA title, open world experiences without overt plot lines or story arcs create their own stories due to player investment and the freedom to see what is out there. Games developers are not able to retain their authorship of a game’s story due to it’s interactive nature as a medium, and so should specialise instead in creating the tools to build a compelling narrative, such as an interesting world to explore. Open world games that have a primary objective that never changes, like that of DayZ, help to drive the gameplay by forcing player movement. In so doing the open world will become filled with players all of whom are desperate to simply survive and therefore likely to open fire rather than risk some sort of meeting. Games like Elite: Dangerous have the capacity to allow for a real-time universe with an economy similar to EVE Online but perhaps not so mind-numbingly tedious.

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In short, a open world game with a narrative is often at odds with it’s narrative component, due to the very nature of what a good open world should be. A world created that deserves to be explored inspires exactly that, and not following through a pre-set narrative that ultimately serves to only hem in the adventurous spirit that should instead be utterly fostered.


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