We have reached a point in today’s gaming market where buzzwords like “open-world” have become something of an expectation, rather than a novelty. Whilst this is not necessarily a standard used across the board, as yet, it is certainly the case that we now see features along these lines being pushed by developers more often than not. Why? Because we, as gamers, enjoy the freedom and perception of choice that comes along with being able to do what we want, when we want in our favourite gaming worlds.
In many cases, the system works to great effect. Games from series such as The Elder Scrolls or Fallout would simply not be the same without that aforementioned freedom of choice and direction. However, Bethesda’s games are the perfect example to use for this argument; an argument in favour of linear titles. What Bethesda recognise that some other developers have lost sight of, is that sometimes a linear world and story can carry a game much better than giving players an open world to explore in their own way. The reason for this is simple; storytelling.
Consider, for example, one of your favourite childhood story books. If you had been given the choice of how the story proceeded, or rather the perception that you indeed had a choice, those stories would not have been as memorable to you as they are today. You might remember the joy that came from the interaction with that story’s world, but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to share that joy with another person, in that their story would be very different to your own. Now, take for example a Bethesda title like DOOM.
DOOM follows a character through a linear story arc in a very specifically designed and ordered world. Players who enjoyed DOOM can discuss and share its story with accuracy and familiarity, because they all played it in the same way. Players who equally enjoyed a game like Fallout 4, however, might be able to share their tales of a particular quest, but another player may never have experienced it, bypassing said quest altogether. That is not to say that the ability to pick and choose your story is a bad thing intrinsically, but humans do thrive on shared experiences. If no two experiences are the same, how can we hope to achieve this?
I may sound as though I am coming across as something of a cynic, so I want to make clear once again that I enjoy both open-world games and those with a linear persuasion. The reasoning behind my argument is simply this; one is not better than the other. The correct method of play is a very subjective factor, based on the nature of the game in question and the type of story it hopes to tell. My issue, instead, is that we seem to be sliding increasingly towards the open style of play and leaving linear games somewhat behind.
It is the expectation of players that a game “should” be open-world that is causing this shift. This began with the advancement of technology, which made an open-world-style game possible. Possibility facilitated anticipation, enjoyment, and subsequently our present position; expectation. Naturally, if the market clearly shows that open-world is generally the money-maker, that is the direction in which the majority of studios are going to go. This isn’t really a problem, until we reach the point at which we forget what makes storytelling special in the first place; the story.
A story, be it factual or fictional, is by definition “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment”. The “account” part of this statement is the crucial element to what I am saying. A story is a recollection of a set of events in the order in which they happened. Giving players a perception that they have ownership, or even persuasion, of a game’s story is an exciting revelation, indeed. That being said, I strongly feel that we should never stray too far down that path, forgetting what it is to be told a good story, rather than presume to persistently influence one.
Of course, some gamers will disagree with me. Some will say that it is genre dependent whether a game should be open-world or not. My argument, in that case, is that you are wrong because you have used the word “should” here, and not “could”. Remember folks; just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you always should. Predominantly, yes, in genre terms this argument applies largely to RPG titles, in that other games such as multiplayer-driven shooters like Rainbow Six Siege have a lore but little genuine story to speak of. That, however, is another kettle of fish altogether. Are we right to put so much stock into games with no story to tell us at all? Another argument for another day, perhaps…