I am currently playing Grand Theft Auto 4, and am thoroughly enjoying it. I don’t approve of the killing and drugs and all the other crazy stuff, but I love the open world and the story. However, on a particular mission, I encountered a weird “bug”. I had to chase a guy in a car, so I decided to shoot his car, killing him. However, the game showed him as alive and said I still had to chase him. I loaded a previous save, and instead let it play out. It turns out that later I had a cutscene with the option to save him or kill him. This time I decided to save him. Although that event had barely any impact on the story, it started me thinking about the game design of open world versus a story.
The goal of stories in games is to provide entertainment to the player in terms of good plot, characters, and dialogue. Normally, the story will also guide the player through all the game’s mechanics. Although there is some choice in games like The Walking Dead, stories are normally limited, with set events needing to happen.
The goal of an open world in games is to give a player a giant canvas and allow them to paint it as they please. There are practically no limits on what the player can do, from flying across the world to spending hours fishing. Some rules are present, but the options are pretty much endless.
In a game like GTA 4, where killing is like second nature, these mechanics tend to clash. Let’s say for example I’m friends with a guy who later in the story is suppose to turn into the main villain that I have to fight. Now let’s say that he looks at me the wrong way and I decide to kill him while we’re bowling. Well, what happens? Unless the story is dynamic, it can’t continue since one of the main characters is dead. The game may not even let you kill certain people like GTA 4 did to me, to allow the set story to continue. At this point, it’s less of an open world and more of an academy with rules and regulations. This really takes away from the immersion, because you start to feel like you have less of a choice.
So, how can game developers “fix” this issue?
The first way is to make it an either or situation. Either a story or an open world. This way, the story can not be interfered with by external causes, or the choices that the player makes in the open world has no real impact. There has been some great story only games like The Walking Dead, and also great open world only games like Minecraft. However, if the story isn’t well developed or the open world doesn’t give enough freedom, the game may suffer.
The next way is to not give the player an opportunity to do something to change the story. Maybe you can only communicate with the main characters on the phone, and never actually see them to be able to kill them. Maybe add more cinematics, so the player has no choice in the story. This is not advisable however, because it will ultimately make the story worse. It would be very boring not to actually see the other characters you interact with. You want to design the story around a good plot, not around preventing the player from messing with it. Well, not unless game developers use the third option.
The final way is to make the story dynamic. If you kill a certain character, another may be angry and try to kill you. If not, that person will help you and give you weapons. This is actually a great option because this really makes the player feel like they have control, and they are actively creating their own story. That’s why many games like The Walking Dead, Dishonored, and even Call Of Duty have made dynamic storylines. The big downside to dynamic stories is that they take a long long time to create. You need to design several interesting plots and also program the game as such. For smaller studios, it may not be worth the extra time and effort.
Some mechanics like vehicular combat and guns go together like peanut butter and jelly. Others, however, like open world and stories, have more of an acquired taste. In some cases, it is very hard to have them mesh well together without a lot of prior work and testing. That’s not to say that they can’t work together, but in the case of Grand Theft Auto 4, some problems do arise.