Reading or writing? Narrative and the purity of open worlds

Tuesday, 31 July 2012 14:36 GMT By Dave Cook

Patrice Désilets has said the first Assassin’s Creed was the best game in the series as it’s “pure,” free of manufactured plotting. Dave Cook asks whether or not games have the strongest narrative when the player’s doing the writing.

The art, the characters, the tone, the geography and the trigger within that area must all grab you by the short hairs and make you listen if a world is to feel believable. Get it right, and the open world can tell a story greater than anything achieved in linearity.

It’s a sun-bleached afternoon in the big city. As the merciless heat hammers down from the summer sky, weary merchants peddle their wares to anyone willing to listen, while the sick and dying lay around in the gutter struggling to breathe.

Cutting a trail through the morass of the poor and desperate, a lone figure in white rushes towards a member of the city guard, blade at the ready. It’s over in a flash – the guard’s throat is slit, spraying blood onto the cobblestones below. The murderer has fled. He’s nowhere to be seen.

An innocent man just doing his job died in cold blood today, but few seem to panic, and even less seem to care. Regardless, revolution is in the air. This is the world of Assassin’s Creed, and this fantasy’s largely in your head.

Assassin’s Creed creator Patrice Désilets today called the first game in Ubisoft’s series the ‘purest,’ thanks to the freedom players have to fashion their own personal stories within its open world.

Is narrative really at its most powerful when much is left to the gamer’s imagination?

Many titles have attempted to answer the question. Most recently, we’ve had the likes of Dear Esther and Journey, which manage to tell a powerful story despite their ambiguous nature.

They contain signs, catalysts for your mind, such as Journey’s tapestries, or the odd chance encounter with another player online. These are moments that linger for days longer than a fully-penned narrative.

The “less is more” debate is nothing new when it comes to stories in games, obviously: there was much argument about Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman, and how his lack of speech or personality allows you to define who he is. Valve hasn’t told us much about the man behind the crowbar and specs, and yet Freeman is widely regarded as one of the greatest game characters ever.

For ambiguity like this to really translate into personal stories, though, game developers need to give us just enough.

Fallout 3 is a great example, bookending moments of solitude and lone wandering with skirmishes in the bowels of the Wasteland’s underground network. It’s still a masterclass in world design.

These stories don’t come out of nowhere. They’re fuelled by developers giving you the toys, the locations and the moral quandaries to trigger them. Without them we have nothing to build our own narratives, no inspiration or source – we’re just starting at a blank page with nothing to say.

“Hey, did you diffuse the bomb? Did you spike the water supply? How did you kill that giant super mutant guarding the teddy bear?” These are all the opening chapters of a personal story, one that wouldn’t exist within the confines of a rigid corridor-based title.

Strong, viable and long-lasting open worlds are an art form, and one that developers must work tirelessly to establish. The art, the characters, the tone, the geography and the trigger within that area must all grab you by the short hairs and make you listen if a world is to feel believable.

Get it right, and the open world can tell a story greater than anything achieved in linearity.

The success of the original Assassin’s Creed in establishing such a world is open for debate. Some called the tasks at hand rote, while others – like Désilets – enjoyed the free-form approach.

Are open worlds the unwritten novels of our time? Should the player be the writer? Or should the player simply consume the plot engineered by a narrative team? The man behind Altaïr thinks you should be creating your own stories. Games are purest that way.

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