Open Worlds With Closed Plots

Open world games have become an incredibly popular genre and the industry has settled on a predictable formula for building them. You start by creating a decent sized world for the player to explore, usually a big city or a small country. You then fill that world with secrets to find, activities to do and optional mission to complete. You then finish up by introducing a series of connected, mandatory missions that work together to tell some sort of story.

Unfortunately, half the time the main story is the least entertaining part of the game.

Part of this is because open world games are hard to write for. Writers are used to linear stories where they can control what happens and when. Need tension? Put a bunch of tough challenges one right after another. Need urgency? Introduce a time limit. Want some relief? Tone down the enemies for a level or two.

But in an open world game? The pacing is all in the hands of the player. He might decide to follow along and do your “urgent” mission right away, or he might decide to spend five hours fishing and blow away whatever sense of dramatic tension you were trying to build. And while it is possible to write a story that makes sense regardless of whether it is done quickly or at a leisurely pace the truth is that most writers have yet to master the knack of producing such a flexible script.

But it’s not just story. There’s a real gameplay conflict between the freedom of the open world genre and the limits of mandatory plot missions. This leads to frustrated players who have gotten used to being able to pick and choose what they want to do and why only to suddenly find themselves forced into a specific type of gameplay or given a specific motivation they may or may not actually care about.

For instance, I spent most of my time in Watchdogs playing as the world’s sneakiest pacifist hacker and was rather annoyed when the game suddenly mandated that I murder several dozen mobsters in a literally explosive action scene. Sure, it was cool but that wasn’t how I wanted to play the game.

All of which makes me wonder… what if we built an open world game with no main plot? Just drop the player into the world, teach him what a sidequest marker looks like and then leave it completely up to him to pick and choose how to play the game. Don’t force a specific high-level goal on him or try to tell him what his character’s ultimate motivation is. Instead let every player blaze their own narrative into the world.

The Elder Scroll series and their Fallout cousins are actually pretty close to doing this. The main quest is already mechanically treated just like an extra big side quest and the manual is often eager to reassure you that nothing bad will happen if you decide to ignore the whole thing and go off and do your own thing instead. So why not go just one step further and drop that main quest entirely? Take the development time that would have gone into it to instead spice up as many of the side quests as possible.

Personally I think it’d be a blast.