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.

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  1.  Excellent question. I've asked myself the same. I mean I love the fact that Skyrim is huge and I can do whatever I want, but with my play style I got about 90 hours into it and hadn't done diddly squat for the main story. Essentially I got my enjoyment out of it (meaning I started to get a bit tired of it) without ever advancing the story any. I can't decide if that's good or bad. Maybe there's such a thing as too many sidequests or maybe it's just that I have an obsession with doing them all before I get to the plot.

  2. I hit the same problem. Only gave up after 60hours. That's where the game failed me most.

  3. Gave up after 32 hours…

  4. "overwhelming"? you can say that again!

    I think I hate open world games now, because they are just TOO big for me and not only that, the stupid mini games just distracts me so much.

    I played Batman Arkham City, I didn't even play 5% of the game, the complex controls that takes 30min to 45min to get used to and the open world just put me off. 

    The thing about these kinds of games is that, when you pour certain hours/time into the game, you know well and take in so much info for the game however when you stop playing it for a long time and go back. Everything is just a MESS, you don't know what you were doing before, what happened etc.

    I mean if it's a Linear game with sandbox in it then yes I can consider that because the game doesn't allow me to get distracted by anything. OPen world games should only be for RPG and mini game fest like GTA.

    For an example the way Ninja Gaiden Sigma did it, with linearity and mini sanbox of connected world was very interesting. Or the way DarkSiderRs did it with linear+mini connected world. I love it when games does something like this. But when it's a full open world game, it can be too much to take in.

    1.  Definitely agree with some of your points. I've really begun to just start treating open world games as linear experiences, completing the main storyline, exploring a bit and then just entirely dropping the game.

  5. kudos to mentioning Gothic! It's still one of my absolute favourite games!

  6. Excellent point. I really like big worlds like Skyrim and Amalur, but the completionist in me makes me want to complete every single side quest and yes, I do tend to stray away from the main story for long periods of time. So when I get back to it, it takes a bit for me to remember what was going on lol.

    But I don't know if I'd consider Mass Effect as an open world game, but I see your point. The side quests seldom make you loose track of the main quest… tho scanning in ME2 was…. time consuming.

    I picked up the Gothic series over the holidays, haven't had a chance to play it yet tho, too much backlog from last year. I didn't realize it was this good tho, I think the game just moved up on my list =p

  7. Well,.the real world can e just like that, ended,and distracting when you want to be on track.I prefer having such a realistically huge world to travel through,and people who need a bit of help along the way.I hate being pointed here then there,..unable to take my time and just not even do the main quest,until I feel like it. I enjoyed Morrowind(my fave game of all time) for the same reason.Hated Oblivion though,cos it was too hard to do any decorating in it.I know,silly reason,but its mine. I like to remove all the items in a building,and set things back in place easily,ingame,and Oblivion makes you fling stuff off your hand.It kind of sticks.Also,the one thing in Skyrim I dont care for is the problems again with physics,like setting things in place.What was the thinking?/ As to the gameplay,..I'm fine with it.I have no problems getting lost along the way,and winding up doing something totally different than I started out to do,..cos that's life anyway. Isnt it?

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