Living in a Sandbox World:
by Terry Randolph
When does linear-storytelling become too constricting? Or an open-world game become too ambitious?
A few months ago, I got into a debate with a friend whether or not the Mass Effect trilogy was a success or failure. My friend argued that the trilogy ultimately failed because it did not deliver the promises BioWare expected to bring into the series. The games went from being a balanced third-person shoot and role-playing game to a more derivative combat-oriented game. He continued on about how conversation branches only focused on extreme dialogue to create a distinction between good, evil and neutral to the point it was silly in the final game. I agreed that, by the time the final game came out, the RPG elements were only present in choosing your play style, the dialogue branches, biotic powers and how you could approach combat. The games show a developer trying to maintain that balance but refine the buggy combat. My final argument was that the experience was not about those individual elements but their culmination into providing a strong, narrative experience. Ultimately, our argument evolved into which was more important, player agency and or narrative-driven gameplay? When does it become too constricted by narration, or give a player too much freedom (or the illusion of it)?
I consider Mass Effect 3 to be a successful failure that would never be able to fulfill the expectations set from the first game; it is a game that shows a heavy emphasis on a creating a captivating experience with an emotional story with a lot of player agency. These are our Sheperds born from the amount of hours we have placed into playing their story. At the same time, the uniqueness of each Shepard is limited due to the universal conversation branches that are scripted. Events are meant to happen, and there are times where you are forced towards those events. The ultimate and also most heated example of the limitations of this ambitious project would be the ending of the game; the ending had only three outcomes to choose from and changed the antagonist of the story.
For many gamers (including myself) there was a feeling that the ending disregarded most of the choices and outcomes from the previous iterations in the franchise. Some of the choices made (such as the death of certain characters) did have an impact on the story, but the major choices you made did not seem to pay off with an end result. For instance (SPOILER ALERT) at the end of Mass Effect 2 you decide to either save the base or destroy it. If Cerberus were to have kept the base, surely we would see the consequences of it? No, in fact it only plays into the Effective Military Strength part of the third game.
So where does the line get drawn between either a compelling narrative-driven game or a player-driven game? Can we really argue that there is a game that is purely driven by the player? Or could it simply be a limitation of hardware? I think that it’s a balancing act, determination based on what the game wants to do and what the developers want to create as well as what they want gamers to experience. It’s a question of how to keep a player immersed with the story that they want to tell.
If we were to look at each game in the Mass Effect series as standalone products, Mass Effect one was a great game that handled that delicate balance well. Players could choose to go through the side missions, or just go with the storyline missions and finish the game rather early. With side missions, players were able to explore, define and establish relationships with other characters as well as behold the beauty of the universe BioWare created. They were also able to go through these missions in whatever order they wanted to. Mass Effect 2 signaled a shift to a more narrative-driven experience that had some side missions integrated as options to explore in the order they wanted to as well.
What’s even more interesting is the increase of side missions being implemented into games, for better or for worse. Lately, a lot of developers seem to put optional side missions in for players to explore more into the mythos of the game world as well as their own characters history. These quests can last throughout a whole game, such as collecting pages of a book, or a battle against a past foe. For the most part, I can understand the feel for them and the desire for them, but sometimes they can feel like they are tacked on for the sake of lengthening a campaign.
For example, one of my favorite games in this current generation of gaming would be Red Dead Redemption. The side quests in the game fit really well into the mythos of the story being told and shed light on both the world and John Marston himself. Depending on how you reacted or went through the side missions, helped determine your morality and the way townsfolk would look at you. It differentiated dialogue and really gave a feeling that you as a player shaped the way you would experience the game. The side missions did not feel too intrusive and had me immersed. I did not want to just complete them for the sake of a completion achievement, but I wanted to actually play through them. In contrast, a game I felt really missed the mark on side mission integration was Dead Space 3. While the idea of exploring the trip down dementia road with John Carver seemed intriguing, the side missions all felt way too similar in both the visuals and gameplay. My friend and I both started to feel like it was a chore, and only continued to go for them for the sake of the achievement and not out of enjoyment.
Of course, there are games that I believe are phenomenal and are completely linear. Telltale’s The Walking Dead is an amazing game that is purely driven by events pushing the story forward. Halo: Reach is a very well paced game that not only explores the mythos of the Halo canon, but delivers a solid story without having to rely on side quests to further develop the story.
In the end, I think what it all boils down to is the context of the story and how it needs to be delivered; is it meant to be heavy-handed and experienced straight through, or is there more to the world itself than just that single story? Do the side quests have a significant impact on the main story, even if it’s a little bit? That is what determines when a game needs to be more open versus more constricting.
You have played these games below, what do you think? What makes a game immersive?