Conflict of Narrative and Open World RPGs

The fantastic Hero story is one that we are all too familiar with. An  simple character with an ordinary life who then becomes extraordinary in courage, skill, and cunning and eventually saves the day. This is perhaps one of the oldest stories we know. From Gilgamesh to Lord of the Rings, this archetypal story has also firmly rooted itself in open world role playing games, and I am starting to fucking hate it.

Skyrim loads up with an expansive game map and promises of player agency. The game design encourages exploration and decision making based on what the player wants to do or accomplish. Side quests? Check. Snowy, mysterious looking mountain over there? Let’s climb it They are called open world games for a reason. Yet, somewhere along the line, I will be reminded that I should be a hero, because I am the dragonborn, or the Nerevarine, or whatever. Maybe I have to find my dad who abandoned me for the wasteland of D.C.

The game’s design encourages exploration, so why do I have to be part of this Hero story? There are a significant number of players who never complete these main quests and they still like the game and would probably say that they enjoyed the game more doing so. With all the side quests and hidden areas that exist, one could even argue that the main quest line is not even a large part of the game. Yet I feel that I have to complete the main narrative to get to the actual game. Regardless, the countless players who try to wade through the world of Skyrim with the sole purpose of killing every shopkeeper, or the heroes bent on destroying the lives of every poor guard, are making their own story and taking the road less traveled.

 Main Narratives do not Belong in an Open World

I can either ignore the narrative and explore the world, or join the narrative and forego the exploration. At the extreme, I either go to each unexplored location marker or I ignore all of them. The game appears to gives me choice while strongly suggesting I go down this particular path. Either you can ignore the narrative and explore the world, or join the narrative and give up the exploration. At the extreme, one can go to each unexplored location marker or ignore all of them. The game appears to offer a fork in the road all the while strongly suggesting a particular path. It’s like a waiter informing you that everything on the menu is good, but you should really have the ravioli. The ravioli is to die for.

A main narrative and an open story do not go together. At all. One look at Skyrim’s map and you know that whatever ridiculous story this game will be about, it will not take place all over the map. And it won’t because the writers do not want it to. The game wants us to explore, to find all the cool tidbits and have lots of fun little emergent gameplay experiences. But here’s the problem – world design directly conflicts with the narrative because one part of the game is telling me to do what I want, and the other is telling me what I should do.

But the Main Narrative Contextualizes the Player Character!

A fundamental part of an RPG is the progression of the player character, usually through leveling. As they complete more parts of the game, they become more powerful and gain access to stronger skills. In Skyrim, I am the dragonborn so it contextualizes my super awesome abilities in the game world. And when my character becomes a total badass, it makes sense in the game world because I am that elf that eats dragon souls. Through the narrative, the very existence of my character does not break the world setting.  Now, I can choose not to follow the main narrative and still reach levels of total badass. However, without a narrative propping up the reasoning of my powers, we get some immersion breaking situations. For example, when an NPC comments on the supposed weakness of our character even after we reduced his companion to dust with the wave of a hand. The main narrative can only contextualize the power of the character if the player chooses to follow it. If the player opts out, then the main narrative loses all meaning, which raises the question of including a main narrative in an open world game at all.

One of my fondest memories of Morrowind was when I, low level and eager to explore, ventured into a creepy dark cave. There were no warning signs of the danger lurking within. Suddenly a lich appeared from the dark and almost killed me. Burning through my potions I escaped the cave and started licking my wounds. I had not been able to hurt this lich and I had almost died. I continued down the path, looking for some rats to kill and avoiding every cave for a while. Later in the game, , I made a point to return to that cave and I struck that lich down. That moment and experience made me feel like a powerful character who had grown and returned a hero. Chasing after Dagoth Ur, not so much.

This situation, and many like these, are not written or scripted. The game gives the player a world where such interactions have the possibility to happen and it is these events that stick. Many small stories that happen in a very, very large world. We don’t need a narrative to tell us why we became strong or why we are heroes. We just need to feel that way. We, the players, can create better stories ourselves.

But the Stories are SOO GUUUUUUD

No, they are not. It is difficult, almost impossible, to create a gripping narrative in an open world setting. It goes against the principles of storytelling. A compelling story can’t have much substance when the storyteller has no control over the narrative.  If we want compelling narratives in our RPGs, we play linear games. A lot of linear RPGs nowadays offer plenty of choice for the player that will affect the outcome of the story. The story is very clearly structured and rigidly enforced to the point that no matter what the player’s decision, the story has to go forward and reach a determined end. Whether we side with one faction or another in Dragon Age: Origins for example, the narrative is written and designed in such a way that we cannot opt out of it. In an open world game, such a narrative cannot work because once the game prevents the player from going to explore that random but interesting looking ruin across the river, it no longer becomes an open world game. If games were books, a linear game would be a novel, a linear game with player choice would be a choose your own adventure, and an open world game would be a blank book that comes with a pen.

So not only does the main arc of the story conflict with the message of an open world, it also becomes increasingly difficult to enforce when you give the player open ended choices. I feel that a game as large as Skyrim would function just as well, if not better, without a main narrative. My favorite part of Bethesda’s games are the parts not connected to the main narratives at all. The small locations with their own stories. Choosing to blow up Megaton or not is a great example of what I want to see more of. Events and effects which have an impact on the world, but are not tied into some Hero story or over-reaching narrative.

The joy of open world games is the immersion and emergent game play created by the players. While having a main narrative thread has in no way hindered emergent gameplay, it does not add anything to it either. It sits there, an annoying buzz in our ears pulling us away from what we want, and breaking immersion in the process. In the end, it is the stories that we create ourselves that are meaningful to us in these open world games. And someday, game writers will realize it too.

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