Narrative Design in Open World Video Games

Video Games have always fascinated me as a medium, as well as one of my primary forms of entertainment. Before I tried my hand and writing fantasy novels, I was employed as a game designer. I worked on a few commercial titles, even attaining lead design on two projects, but I was never able to sink my teeth into a project that I found truly satisfying. The money was good, but I felt I was better served following my own course.

Now that the Unity 5, Unreal 4, and Source 2 engines (think of them as game making tool kits) are mostly free and easily accessible, I am becoming more interested in the space again. Part of the attraction of writing, for me, was that it is a medium where I don’t have to rely on too many other people. I feel that creative endeavors are best kept small, in most cases. Now it looks like more and more games are being made by smaller studios, which I find very exciting.

Regardless, I recently saw a job posting for “narrative design” at a large game studio that makes games that kind of interest me, in a city close to where I live. That posting came with an essay question which involved narrative in open world games. I love essays, and so the question stuck with me, even though the job posting seems to have disappeared (sorry V), here are a few thoughts that have been swimming around in my head as I was formulating how I would write this essay.

Open world games come in many flavours. Rockstar, Ubisoft, and Bethesda are the dominant AAA producers of Open World games in my mind, although there have been very string entries by other companies. Take Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim, and Assassin’s Creed as examples. In these games the player directs most of the action, with the story acting as a framework more than the driving force behind the game.

Narrative in these games is difficult. The story has to provide the player with a beginning to situate them and provide a compelling chronicle to guide them into the experience, but the point of an open world is to allow the player to explore and create their own moments. The only game company that seems to be able to do it well, over multiple systems and game types is Bethesda. Their elder scrolls series established their reputation, but it was Fallout 3 that proved to me that they had mastered the form. I will use their games as my primary example.

Personalization of Character

The ability to choose the appearance of the player avatar is a big deal. Part of telling your own tales is creating a character that look appropriate to the part you want them to play. Sometimes that manifests as the user making a character that looks like them (proxy), their favourite actor/star (director), or simply fits the concept that they are thinking about. Bethesda’s open world games always offer a lot of options for the player in creating and customizing characters.

The difficulty then becomes how to fit a very broad array of characters and backgrounds into the story and also overloading the design. Some open world games strike a balance by creating a character that can be customized but always has the same background (Shepherd in the mass effect games).

Exceptions abound, of course, Red Dead Redemption had a strong open world but the story and the personality of the main character were fairly set. It was still a wonderful game.

Non-Linear Gameplay

Most stories are linear. If you read one of my books, i will follow the same path through the story every time you read it. Linear games are similar, following a fairly set path through the story and the game world. Open World games strive to be non linear, trying to avoid shoving the player down a particular path except at very key, brief moments.

The ideal is something like Daggerfall, where the player can do whatever they want, even ignoring the main story to the point where the titular city burns to the ground, becoming a haunted ruin as the main story progressed without player input. This kind of immersion and story is awesome, creating a world where the player engages with events as they progress throughout the game and gets the experience they want from it.

The problem here is that it is hard to create a sequel to that kind of game. Bethesda had to fiddle with continuity quite a bit to get fit Daggerfall’s six(?) possible endings into the story for their next elder scrolls game.  I can’t imagine how that would work with franchise open world games these days.

Living World

Open world games require that the world have a fair bit more detail than other games. The world has to react to the player character, but ideally it also has to have a sense that it is progressing on its own when the player is not there. Shops have to open and close. NPCs have to move about and so on.

I still remember coming across battle between two sides of NPCs in one of the old Ultima Games. The idea that I could join one side or another, attack both, or even just move on and ignore them filled my young mind with exciting possibilities, of course. But what strikes me as most memorable about that moment was the feeling that these two groups were doing something that had nothing to do with me, and yet I could get involved. It made that little digital world feel very lively and it still thrills me to see groups of NPCs acting and reacting to one another. in an unscripted fashion, without my input.

A living world is one that reacts to what the player character does, but also one where the world can spontaneously create events for the player to react to. This last bit is worthy of a full post, so I’ll get to it later.


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