Narrative Design on Open Worlds: Should we ditch missions?

Narrative design on open worlds come with its own set of issues, mostly related on how to provide a compelling story without denting the players freedom.

Open Worlds can’t decide what they are. Are they a hollywood-style epic, filled with revelations and consequences as its main storyline suggest? Or perhaps they are a sandbox, more toy than game, filled with nearly infinite content that you can play again and again with the peace of mind that nothing will be broken no matter how hard you press it?

They can’t decide, and because of this they are two games disguised as one, but with a divisory line between them.

On any given moment, playing an open world game, we can broadly find the narrative context using three questions: “Which is my character’s current task?” “What’s the final objective of my character’s story?” And “How these two things relate?”

While the answer to the two first questions is immediate, the third one is more tricky and varies depending if you are playing one of the story missions or doing any of the side content that these games are filled of.

Main missions, story missions or critical path, generally provide a linear or branching storyline where each mission became available due to the ending of a previous one. Gameplay actions from the players or the characters on these missions are perceived as very important and are taking into account on later missions. Failing these missions is in general not allowed and puts the players on a world state before the fail moment to force them to retry until the mission is successfully completed.

When not involved on a main mission you can find some activities on a broad structure range, from quests to free roaming. It provides repeatable content that players can get involved freely once they have access to it. Even in its more structured form it lacks narrative complexity, and players actions and the characters involved are mostly forgotten at the turn of the page.

Having this two types of content together causes having a cutscene where the main character vows to protect everyone, followed by free roaming where every bystander can be mowed down by that same character. We could have a mission on the critical path where destroying one of the enemy warehouses is considered the triggering event that make the narrative go forward, just after we already destroyed a bazillion of similar warehouses during side quests and no one ever raised an eyebrow.

There are some side effects that may happen when players become conscious of this division:

  • Any urgency that we try to convey with the main storyline is lost: Forget about impending attacks, deadlines to perform a rescue, etc. As players are allowed to spend any amount of time between missions, either we break the structure of the game at one point to force the players to engage only with the critical path or we have to confine any timed event between the limits of the current mission.
  • The illusion of making the player the driver of the story is broken when the only actions that have some consequences are those that the game forces them to do as mandatory to complete the main missions, harming the feeling of autonomy and player agenda
  • Noticing that engaging in activities outside the critical path is meaningless to the overall progress, produces these to be perceived as repetitive, filler content and the so called “open world burn”


So… What if we stop using missions? Let me use a different choice of words: What if we make everything that the players can do be part of what will lead them to the next narrative element?

With our narratives we try to tell a story and we usually want the players to feel they are the protagonist: “If you were in this character’s shoes, how would you measure up? Here’s your chance to find out”. We construct all our narrative based on questions like “What the players have to do?”, “Where they have to go?”, “Who they have to talk with?” and then we force them to do those things, go to those places and talk with those characters.

We create open worlds to give players freedom but then we construct narratives that force the players to do specific tasks.

When I wrote scripts outside of videogames one of the mandatory assignments was to write a quick draft of the story from several other characters point of view (ex. the main antagonist, the sidekick, the love interest, etc) This way you have to question yourself about why and how all of them are doing what they’re doing during the story.

Unlike the player character, we have control over what we want these characters to do and how we want them to behave. Why not to construct our game narrative from their point of view? We can force them to follow an specific agenda, with a series of objectives that they have to complete and the means to achieve them. Once we have a general idea of their storylines, we have to try to predict how the players can interact and what the response should be. A bad guy may ignore the players if they are not interfering with his evil plans, but will send his strike team to kill the players if they found the way to deactivate his beloved doom machine!

We can now set the players free on the game world, along with all those characters that are going to be making the storyline advance at the time they are achieving their objectives. Of course we have to find a way to inform the players about what is happening. Perhaps the travellers start talking about an orc army that is gathering to the east, or the radio stations inform of worrying events on the docks happening everynight. Maybe the secret organization the players are part of have spies that can tell them the famous thief they want to catch is going to attempt a robery on the Central Bank on the next hours.

This way we don't impose any task to the players while, at the same time, we don't loose the overall feeling and tone of our game. The story is there, happening, and is the players' choice to decide if they want to be doing something about it or just spend the time fishing with the satisfaction of knowing that even this "inaction" have relevance and consequences on the game world, as it may be leveraged by their enemies to advance toward one of their objectives.

Summing up, if we want to avoid the current narrative issues of open world games we should design the narrative less like a movie and more like a pen and paper role game campaign. We should stop writing the script for the one and only character of our game that we can't guarantee will be wanting to follow it and start creating stories that are part of the world itself, interacting with it and its characters and not constrained to the ambit of "story missions" 

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