In the beginning, games presented simple hurdles: Save the princess! Make a line out of those blocks! After fully achieving said goal, the game would display a fancy win screen and send you on your way.
Over time, we started seeing games with optional collectibles and achievements. Instead of being dismissed, the player is invited to stick around for a slew of different tasks after they completed the main objectives.
Now more than ever, video games are being designed as sandbox / open world experiences. While games such as Grand Theft Auto exist to tell a story, they do so in a way that encourages the player to go totally off script. At any moment, the player can halt their progress to simply explore the game’s mechanics and world.
Originally, it seemed as though the allure of open world games came from how large a world map could become. Earlier open world games like the Elder Scrolls series feature dauntingly large game worlds. At the time, it was one of the main reasons for their popularity. As the genre has progressed, it’s plain to see that sandbox games have evolved far beyond simply being overgrown playgrounds.
It’s time to explore what sits on the horizon of this trend.
When attempting to tell a story, there’s a such thing as an audience with too much freedom. What would Tarantino’s Kill Bill have become if the audience had full control of the camera. Would The Bride’s exploits have been as engaging without the specific direction in each scene? Everything we saw in the film was crafted and fine-tuned with the sole purpose of depicting the character and her actions in the way which the creator saw fit. Anything else would have been a different and possibly nonsensical experience.
This is the challenge that game developers accept when deciding to make an open world game. If done incorrectly, the world they create could be cheapened by the actions they’re allowing their audience to take.
When assuming the role of Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston, we get a taste of how open world storytelling can go awry. Although previous entries in the Red Dead series have seen our anti-hero performing as any outlaw would, this game depicts a John Marston who has settled into family life. Behind him are the days of ole which brought both bloodshed and bounty. But, wait… this is the wild, wild West! Clint Eastwood! Will Smith! What better time to get on our horses to shoot up a saloon or hold up a stage coach? Sounds like a ton of fun, but partaking in such heinous deeds would be out of character for our hopeful pacifist of a gunman.
During the story, John Marston eventually winds up in familiar situations. In his boots, we commit crimes, get into gun fights, and so on. The game’s narrative constantly reminds us that John is forced into the positions we find him in. As such, going on a random shooting spree would be completely out of character. The whole time, we’re cheering on Marston as he attempts to distance himself from a life of crime. Acting as a gun toting maniac would be to tarnish his new lease on life. Yet, the player is free to do so in spite of Marston’s character.
While Red Dead Redemption’s story and gameplay are incredible, the flexibility it grants to the player can be considered out of place.
Of course, there are characters who can capitalize greatly on the prospect of such open-ended worlds.
Consider Fallout 3’s Vault Dweller: a character who we interact with from their birth. The player’s first actions involve deciding precisely what this person will look like, what their name will be, and what skills they’ll excel at. There’s no question: this is the player’s avatar – not a role we’re taking on.
We begin 19 years after our character’s birth; by embarking on a quest to find our father, James. He’s a leading scientist of the Vault, and could possibly save the world from the mess it’s in. As heroic as this mission is, the strengths of Fallout 3 lie within side stories that detail other parts of the game world’s events. Outcomes of these scenarios are swayed by player-made decisions, leaving lasting impressions that ripple throughout the entire game.
It’s so easy to get side-tracked from the main story that you may forget to do it at all. And it’s totally okay if you do this. In Fallout 3, we have a world where freedom is required and rewarded. There’s no right way to do things, and that’s what makes it a successful example of storytelling within open world freedom. Without you, there is no story to be told.
As more open world games are made, it’s going to be interesting to watch video game storytelling evolve to complement this amount of freedom. Over time, even more stellar examples will continue to pop up.