Once upon a time, in the near past, gamers cried out against the flood of linear, set-piece heavy games. It wasn’t worth the money to play a game that lasted 7 hours, involved limited choices and a crippling amount of hand holding.
Sandbox gaming brought with it a much-needed reprieve from the boredom of most AAA action games. Players could go anywhere on the map rather than being ushered through narrow corridors, we could ride horses or drive cars, there was a renewed sense of exploration in gaming. NPCs entered the frame and memorable quotes and animations not to mention glitches became the fuel for countless memes. Sandbox gaming rose to become the dominant force in gaming.
But with all this freedom and choice there is one area that inevitably suffers, the narrative. When developers seek to give us a wealth of experiences they seem to either offer us clichéd stories or stories so vast in their complexity that they are hard to follow and ultimately fall flat. In comparison when developers like Tell-Tale choose to focus our attention on the story but offer a simplified gameplay experience, we find ourselves drawn into these worlds and are unable to tear our eyes away from our screens.
Now I understand that there are many gamers who love the countless fetch quests, hunts, escort excursions and good old start a fight with that guy missions, but I find that many of these side quest detract from the main story and only offer minimal opportunities for advancement and add little to my enjoyment of the game.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a game where all too often side quests and the illusion of a dynamic world detracted so much from my experience that I found everything hard to follow and ultimately uninteresting. I love the chance to jump and run my way through beautifully recreated historic sites and I love random events unfolding in front of me that I can either watch or get involved in. However, following the story in dribs and drabs if I happened to try a detective mission, or do a co-op mission, or jump through to another time period which at best is a disjointed experience and at worst is a confusing jumble of good guys who are bad guys and bad guys who are good guys and a bunch of characters and factions I couldn’t give a fig about.
Many of us don’t want the interactive movie style of Call of Duty or the clumsy on rails feel of The Order, we want a bit more freedom. But if open-world freedom is constantly presenting a massive list of distractions then inevitably the story is going to suffer.
In my opinion well-structured and interesting narrative should be a major focus in games. We are so impressed by the technology that offer dynamic worlds but all too often these nuances act as nothing more than padding and add nothing to the narrative.
So what is the true gaming utopia we seek?
Balance isn’t easy in games. If you have narrative that is too self-indulgent or convoluted you could end up alienating potential players, the Metal Gear series risks this with their flair for the dramatic. However, the Metal Gear series has got the right idea generally – make story and characters highly important, full of twists and turns and character development, coupled with gameplay that complements the story. Just don’t overdo it with cut scenes.
Game environments are also something to get right. Sound and setting are very important but many open-world games cut and paste locations to accommodate the vast amount of side missions, NPCs and miscellaneous happenings.
What’s more, they stick to one location with a minor sub-location to make it look different. In Assassin’s Creed: Rogue we had snow, water, forest, towns, forts, but these were repeated throughout the world ad nauseum. One of the best parts in my experience was the adrenaline-pumping run through Lisbon during an earthquake. Guess what? It was linear and the only place away from the wilds of North America, which we largely explored previously in Assassin’s Creed III.
City-focused games like InFamous are the same. Once you’ve explored the Space Needle, had fun catching the monorail, and found the few other buildings that look a bit different, Seattle loses its appeal to explore. Then it depends completely on the gameplay experience and story, because you are stuck in that place. The solution is to have less focus on building a massive cityscape with millions of side-options and gimmicks, and instead focus on a tight narrative that grabs you and carries you along slowly, but with more freedom and choice than a film, through a number of beautifully created environments.
Impossible? I don’t think so. It’s about balance. Assassin’s Creed II had a good degree of that balance and diversity despite being open world. Metal Gear Solid 4 felt more open than it was, despite the great variety of stunning settings and largely linear approach, an illusion that allowed differences of gameplay style (stealth or run and gun) encased in a continually progressing story flow. Wolfenstein: The New Order brought both self-aware kitsch and sentimental depth to the shooter story, and if it had a bit more open environment would have had that balance.
Bigger is not necessarily better here. Allow me to point out the painfully obvious – most of us have to work, study, take care of kids or do other things besides sit down and play games. In this ‘time poor’ life, most of us enjoy games in bits and pieces when we can find the time.
This means the story should be strong and easy to follow, even after weeks spent away, with interesting multi-faceted characters. It should be easy to jump back into, gameplay-wise, without having to strain our memories. Ultimately it’s how engaging the experience is that determines if we come back and finish the game or move on, disappointed.