“Wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle.” I’ve heard that phrase thrown around a lot when talking about Skyrim, the latest entry in the Elder Scrolls saga, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out if the phrase is meant to be praise or criticism. I can’t exactly disagree with the saying. The game has enough sheer content to keep a player busy for hundreds of hours of real-world time, but aside from a couple notable faction storylines, no quest is particularly engaging in and of itself.
The Elder Scrolls games have made their fortune in massive game maps. Hell, the first two games used randomly generated terrain to make maps as large as 62 square miles, almost three times the land area of Manhattan. It makes sense, then, that if Bethesda wants to fill huge areas like these with gameplay, this content is going to have to be spread pretty thin. If every region of an area as large as Skyrim’s map were filled with deep, rich storylines, the game would take 10 years to make and would have to be stored on four Blu-ray discs. So, with that in mind, what is most valuable to have in a game’s storyline? Should developers shoot for sprawling, open-world gameplay with a relatively shallow story, or do you go for the linear game with a deep, well-written, deliberate storyline?
Games these days fall all over the continuum of linear vs. open story. At one far end, you have games like Minecraft. The developers give the game a set of rules, physics and basic boundaries, and the player is free to do whatever he or she wants from there. You can build. You can adventure. The story becomes whatever the player wants it to be.
On the other side, you have more traditional, linear games. Gameplay leads you down a set route, and the story arc is set in stone. One of the best current examples of these games is the Uncharted franchise. Cinematic cutscenes separate linear, planned levels. The gameplay is still fun and engaging, but players have very few choices to make outside of what kind of weapon they want to use. Once the level is finished, regardless of how the player did, the story continues as planned. Everyone who finishes the game sees the exact same story play out.
Though this description of linear games may not seem appealing at first, there are actually huge advantages to linear gameplay. Because the developers know exactly what the players will be doing in their game, they’re able to craft a deep, meaningful storyline with interesting, developed characters and plots that could hold their own in Hollywood. And this kind of story experience like this definitely sells. The Uncharted games are wildly popular despite being entirely linear, and it’s because the game’s writers are free to write an engaging story around the route they know the players are going to take in their game.
Interestingly enough, this is also the main reason Skyrim was so buggy when it first came out and continues to be relatively buggy today. The developers couldn’t know what route their players would take through the game because they gave the players so many options. And this caused some problems. Accidentally killing an NPC early on in the game could permanently block an important side quest later on. Accidentally finding a quest item while exploring can screw up the dialogue of the NPC who is supposed to give you that quest, leaving the item stranded in your inventory. All these little bugs can add up to really break the illusion and throw the player out of the game’s story. There is definitely a joy in being given lots of choices as a player, but it comes at a cost.
So what is the solution? How can developers best balance having rich storylines while still allowing players to make choices? I know plenty of players who would say that The Walking Dead was so popular exactly because they toed this line so delicately. The game provided one of the best narratives video games have to offer while forcing players to make substantive choices that dramatically affected how the rest played out. What the game sacrificed, though, is game mechanics. The Walking Dead is a fantastic game, but — at the risk of incurring the ire of gamers everywhere — the gameplay is little more than a glorified point-and-click. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Because the gameplay is simple, levels are relatively easy to make, and Telltale could spend more time crafting all of the different scenarios that that player’s choices unlock. If all of the levels of The Walking Dead had to be as fleshed out and carefully planned as the levels you see in big-name action games, there’s no way the developers would have the time to create the intricate tree of scenarios that made The Walking Dead amazing.
So is there another answer? Interestingly enough, a lot of big-name franchises, many of which used to showcase linear gameplay, are now turning to the semi-open world model. They have a defined, central questline that follows the game’s main plot, but they include a good amount of radiant quests that have their own side plots. Players are free to complete these different questlines at their leisure, offering them a fair amount of choices while still retaining a deliberately tailored storyline. Games following this pattern were all over E3 this year. Assassin’s Creed IV, Metal Gear Solid V, the new Mirror’s Edge and even a handful of racing games are jumping onto the open world train. It seems to be a valid middle ground between choice and story, and developers are getting on board.
Truth be told, I’m pretty excited about these upcoming games, too. I love having a deliberate, central storyline to get engrossed in, but I also enjoy having side quests to offer me a break from the linearity. As long as developers remember to keep the main storyline in the spotlight — remember, Skyrim has a main storyline, too, but it’s not particularly engaging — we should be able to find that sweet spot of compelling story and player freedom.
I’m excited about the direction a lot of these big-name titles are heading in. I’ve grown to really appreciate this new balance being struck with the semi-open world formula. There always will be a soft spot in my heart for a game like Skyrim, though, however shallow its story may be. There really isn’t anything like playing through a story formed entirely by the player’s own creativity. But it is nice once in a while to sit back and let some of the talented writers working in the game industry to tell their stories the way they want to.