Published on December 22nd, 2016 | by Andrewsarchis0
Open World vs. Story Driven: A Tale of Two Styles
“Three more months,” I keep telling myself. “Just three more months until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” I’ve mentioned in past articles how much I love the Zelda series and will probably never shut up about it, so it’s no surprise that I’m looking forward to the next entry. It seems like the majority of people are excited about this game, even friends of mine that had previously written off the Zelda series or were never fans of it to begin with. But two words that have been used to describe Breath of the Wild have me skeptical…
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of open world games. Morrowind was my introduction and I still remember being completely enchanted by the freedom I had the first time I played it. From other games in the Elder Scrolls series to Fallout to Grand Theft Auto, stepping into a massive world and being given little to no instructions on what to do makes for an actual “choose your own adventure” game (albeit within the confines of what’s been made available for you). I’ve put hundreds of hours into the games mentioned above and have enjoyed every second, but even so, they’ve never seemed to scratch the occasional itch I get to play a game with a strong narrative.
It seems like in most cases, and I fully admit that there may be exceptions that my life is simply bereft of, open world games sacrifice a strong narrative to provide the player with nearly-limitless freedom. I don’t know anyone who played Fallout 4 and beat the main storyline and was blown away by it. In fact, I don’t even know that many people who beat the main storyline at all. But I did. And while it was enjoyable to see the main narrative unfold and come to a conclusion, it didn’t provide any kind of catharsis.
Think of it as watching an episode of a TV show, where the stage is set and the plot unfolds, peaks, and concludes in a neat little package that doesn’t leave you feeling anything, versus how you feel after watching a feature-length movie. One experience is designed to provide short, concise entertainment, that comes to a conclusion that leaves you free to think about and do other things. The other is designed to stick with you, to make you think, or, in some cases, to haunt you.
Open world storylines tend to be more on the side of a television drama like Longmire, where story-driven games with a strong narrative are more akin to something like Se7en. Longmire’s episodes are designed with closure so that by the next episode, you can explore a new aspect of that world, just like side-quests or subplots in an open world game. They’re all designed to be good enough that you want to continue playing or watching, but not so good that you’re totally satisfied with the experience and move on to the next TV series or game.
That’s where they differ from story-driven games which, similar to feature-length movies, feature a strong narrative, fleshed-out characters, perhaps some side-quests here and there, but provide a beginning, middle, and end that’s consistent for everyone that experiences it. Because they aren’t focused on setting up more adventures in a world, they can focus on stronger character development, which can then lead to a more emotional response to events involving those characters, and a stronger conclusion to the story, which is its entire focus.
Now any critics of Zelda are probably reading this and thinking, “The Zelda series never features a strong narrative. It’s the same ‘You’re the hero, gather these things, save the land,’ plot it’s always been.” And I acknowledge the validity of that. While I could spend all day arguing that each entry has its own charm and unique feeling, the bottom line is the Zelda series (with the exception of the first game) has never been known for a large, open world.
With Metal Gear Solid V, we saw a previously story-driven series depart from form and embrace an open world. It sacrificed what it was known for, leaving long-time fans disappointed and new players thinking the experience was just good enough, but nothing special. That switch (endorse me, Nintendo) didn’t work for that series and I’m terrified of the thought of my all-time favorite series meeting the same terrible fate (seriously, endorse me. I can do this all day).
What are your thoughts? Do you think an open world game can feature a narrative just as compelling as its story-focused counterparts or do you think one has to be sacrificed for the other? Which do you prefer? Let us know in the comments below or via Twitter @KBMODGaming.