Playing through Mass Effect 3 got me thinking on the subject of open worlds and linearity in games. We can often classify games by their genre, but today there is a tendency to judge them on the aspect of how open they are and how much freedom the player is being given. There are lots of those kinds of games which offer vast open worlds, ready to explore; Skyrim, GTA4 and Assassin’s Creed to name a few.
There are also games which seem to be going in completely the opposite direction, taking the morestructured and linear approach. All these have different purposes and are supposed to enhancethe player’s experience with the game – however, some seem to be doing a better job than others, and choosing how much freedom you are willing to give to player can hugely impact on how the game is going to be perceived.
I am a big fan of games where players can freely roam around the map, exploring as they like, but this approach is often criticised for spoiling the narration and storytelling. A good recent example of that is Skyrim. Bethesda Software did an amazing job at creating a beautiful detailed world, but throughout my experience I’ve learnt that I felt overwhelmed from almost the very beginning. The idea behind it was to let the players take the lead, allowing them to continue the journey as they saw fit, but instead we were dropped into deep waters without much of guidance and it resulted in us losing the plot, forgetting the pressing matters of main quest. A simple walk to the nearest town usually meant being asked to complete tons of other side quests, some so silly and meaningless that it kept us away from the main focus and shifted the feeling of being the saviour of Skyrim. I fully support side questing – it’s a great way for players to get to know the universe of the game better, and it can be a good distraction. But, like with everything, there should be a balance to it. If I am being asked by almost every town villager to help them with their tiniest problem such as delivering cabbage to their neighbours, how does that help with game progression, or establishing yourself in the game universe? The answer is, it doesn’t. I feel like the developers felt they need to desperately fill up game content with as many quests as possible, but quantity doesn’t always mean quality.
On the other hand, the gaming community knows titles which focused so much on main plot, they were criticised for their linearity. Namely, Final Fantasy 13. Square Enix were supposed to be “influenced by western genre FPS games [Call of Duty]” and as a result of that, players were forced to move along simple corridors without much freedom. The game would open up eventually at some point, but that wasn’t enough to save the entire experience. And although this way it kept a heavy focus on main storyline and character development, it simply took away the fun from playing the game. The game was often been described as an “interactive movie”.
So where do you go from here? How do you satisfy all kinds of players? Is it possible to create a game, which is compelling in its storytelling aspects and at the same time offers enough freedom to create an immersive experience and expand the gameplay? I think there is a number of games that were able to crack this, and got the best out of both. An example that most would be familiar with is Mass Effect. It’s really hard to think of a game that emphasis storytelling so much; during my playtime with this game, not once have I lost track of what my ultimate goal was, and not once I’ve felt like additional side quests I was doing were slowing me down. That is thanks to the game’s quest structure. They weren’t there to slow me down, or for the sake of being there: instead, they aid us on our main quest. Completing them wasn’t essential but contributed toward the final goal and really helped to grasp more of the Mass Effect universe and its characters.
Another good example would be the not so well known Gothic 1, released back in 2001. This game really showed amazing storytelling and character attachment. It offered a unique and intriguing world ready to be explored. It was full of interesting characters and side quests players were able to take, none of which felt like an unpleasant necessity. They helped your character to establish itself in the world it was thrown into (quite literally) and they were put together neatly enough to fit well within the bounds of the game universe. You had the freedom to go and explore anything, but smartly some areas would be guarded by enemies which were stronger, making it harder to access. But there was no limitations whatsoever to where you can or cannot go! And it worked. And I am sure there are plenty of examples like this out there.
There is no need always to create a world so big and so overwhelming if it doesn’t serve a higher purpose if it doesn’t fully support the player on their journey. Sometimes compromising storytelling and open world quest structures can create better results. Generating hundreds of side quests and places, which the majority of players won’t visit or won’t benefit from makes no sense. But to create an experience so immersive and unforgettable, one that the player is eager to explore and one that can offer enough freedom for those of us who like to check every corner is an entirely different story. We cannot always demand access to the whole world, because it doesn’t always help. There is a thin balance between how much we can explore and visit before we lose ourselves completely and finding this balance should be every developer’s focus to ensure the best possible gaming experience they can offer.