Reading or writing? Narrative and the purity of open worlds

Tuesday, 31st 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.



  1. DeyDoDoughDontDeyDough

    Personally, I like a mix of the two. I like a strong character with a strong voice, just not one who wants to make my decisions for me.

    People Can Fly’s Adrian Chmierlarz tweeted recently “Heated discussion with a few gamedevs. It’s depressing how many of them think that cut-scenes are the right way to tell a story in a game.”

    I’m not sure they are either, but neither am I sure that Gordon Freeman is the way to go. Freeman is not a great character and I would dispute the statement that he’s widely regarded as one of the best characters in gaming. No one thinks that. He’s a cipher, a nothing, an empty vessel into which we pour ourselves.

    What people like about Half-Life and its sequel(s) is not silent Jim the speccy-eyed crowbar user. What they like is the fantastic way the other characters tell the story in as few words as possible, that through atmosphere, clear structure and goal-oriented decision-making, the gameplay itself becomes story.

    I also think that there’s no clear answer to this question. The world is split broadly into those with creative minds, without fear of failure, the leaders, the makers – they will always want to create their own stories. Then there are those who conform, do as they’re told and would rather be funneled and led.

    Games can be experienced in completely different ways depending on which type you are or aspire to be, so nobody can offer an answer as to which one is better from anything beyond a subjective viewpoint.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. bitsnark

    The open-world that they plonk us, the player in, needs to be robust enough to make our own stories worthwhile enough to tell from inside of it, (see Skyrim, The Witcher 2 et al) otherwise claims that they’re giving us this wonderful world to create these unique stories just comes off as abject laziness and hollow ringing.

    The original Assassins Creed had a world that was bogged down by so much repetition (which extended not only from the gameplay mechanics through to the lines that spilled forth from NPC’s mouths) that if the frustration and banality of the game didn’t do your skull in, then the broken sense of believability certainly would when confronted by the same NPC’s, spouting the same crap over and over.

    It’s like he’s basically saying – “We have this huge open-world, with some nice scenery in AC1, its basically got fuck all in it – go and make your own story”.

    Thanks for that Patrice.

    And also, if by ‘purest’ entry in the series, he means the most ‘simplistic’ than he’d be right – otherwise ‘purest’ just comes across as a nebulous term for aspects of his own game that he is unable to sufficiently articulate or qualitatively describe.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Dave Cook

    @2 It’s like he’s basically saying – “We have this huge open-world, with some nice scenery in AC1, its basically got fuck all in it – go and make your own story”.

    ^ I like this. Exactly correct :)

    @1 Freeman has had tons of people shouting from the rooftops about why he’s the greatest character ever. I’m with you though, I’m not sure he’s a character at all. I also love the empty vessel reference :)

    #3 2 years ago
  4. DSB

    Actually, I think The Saboteur is a great example of what Patrice Desilets is taking about, but which I didn’t ever think Assassins Creed achieved. I thought the first one was a pointless grind, and I didn’t see any reason to keep going through the same routines, just to get to the good stuff.

    “I deliberately left out the motivation so you could find it yourself”. Come on, Patrice…

    The free roam sabotage that you were able to do in The Saboteur is really the best I’ve seen in any open world game. I guess it’s because it forces a process of actually scoping your targets, plotting your actions, and then executing accordingly, all on your own.

    Not unlike an actual resistance fighter. I miss that sort of subtle guidance from a lot of other games.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. DeyDoDoughDontDeyDough


    “Freeman has had tons of people shouting from the rooftops about why he’s the greatest character ever.”

    Yes, but they were talking about themselves, not Gordon Freeman. They just didn’t necessarily know it.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. Dave Cook

    @5 Absolutely, I think a lot of people – as you say – didn’t make that distinction. It’s a risky way to approach ‘characters’. I wonder if anyone will pull that off again as well as Valve did? :)

    #6 2 years ago
  7. DeyDoDoughDontDeyDough


    Plenty have. Just think any decent franchise with a silent guy in a power suit. Master Chief (though he spouts dross from time to time, he’s still a cipher), Isaac Clarke (first Dead Space), Bioshock – it’s actually a pretty long list.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Dave Cook

    @7 True, although they don’t seem to get the same influx of hype that Freeman dude, but man, Isaac Clarke was much better when he was silent. Really added to the tension I felt.

    Dark Souls is another good example of when silence is golden.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. YoungZer0

    “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.”

    This makes me so sad. Same goes for every Master Chief’, Samus’, Mario’s and all Links of the world. I think they need to die off. The sooner, the better.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. DeyDoDoughDontDeyDough

    Ah, Dark Souls. L’amour.

    #10 2 years ago
  11. Dave Cook

    @10 HUGE fan here man :)

    Also bagged a big From Software interview for VG247 on Dark souls and what comes next. Watch this space!

    #11 2 years ago
  12. Ireland Michael

    The silent protagonist has a greater degree of weight in gaming solely because of the interactive element. *You* are the one in control of the character, so putting you in a silent avatar’s shoes gives you the freedom to put yourself in their mind and be that character.

    This is Gaming 101.

    But I don’t think you can call these characters great. They are empty ciphers, with no identity beyond that which you transfer onto it yourself. This only works in certain games, but it also neede deftly creative developers at the helm to pull it off.

    The other downside is that it becomes severely difficult to create a story of any real depth when your protagonist has no identity. These experiences may be fun, but they’re not particularly thought provoking or deep. I don’t know about you, but I wish I could come away from more games with something to think about, the same way I do with a good book.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. YoungZer0

    @12: Have you played Spec Ops: The Line?

    #13 2 years ago
  14. Ireland Michael

    @12 No. Why?

    #14 2 years ago
  15. DSB

    The silent protagonist only really works when the gameplay is one of “Can’t stop and talk right now, gotta go” like Half-Life or many other first person games.

    Putting a silent protagonist in something like an RPG just makes you feel like a gimp. You’re literally the handicapped guy in the crowd every single time something happens.

    That’s one thing that Mass Effect, Deus Ex and The Witcher got right. It may stump a bit of the ultimate freedom, but it actually buys you some much needed immersion.

    #15 2 years ago
  16. YoungZer0

    @14: It made me think. A lot. For several weeks, actually. I think it might be the most important game of this year. It also made Yahtzee think and that says a lot.

    @15: I think it’s the complete opposite. In RPG’s you at least have the choice. You’re missing a voice in most of those games, but you’re a presence, you can make decisions, from your looks to your actions. You are that person.

    Games like Half-Life don’t have that. You’re some guy, who just refuses to speak. For some reason Gordon Freeman became a symbol, they worship that dude, even though he never said a freaking thing or made any statements.

    #16 2 years ago
  17. absolutezero

    The Dragon Age series sacrificed true choice for your character to give you some dude to play as that chatted shit and wanted to be a dragon. It came off worse.

    He had a back-story, a family and a voice. He (or she) was as fleshed out a character as Bioware could manage. It was still worse than choosing between 5+ options in text that could make the difference between making an enemy or gaining a friend. That feeling of choosing exactly what you want to say or do is instantly removed when you have one word to choose from and then you just listen to whatever the guy says.

    Mass Effect got away with it because it was nearly always followed up with alien sex or shooting things. It was snappy.

    Sadly those decisions are frowned upon now. Oh well.

    #17 2 years ago
  18. DSB

    @16 I think Gordon Freeman became a symbol because he happened to be in a great game. Mario and Sonic are symbols too. What do we really know about Gordon Freeman? Did he call his mother and give to the poor before he got caught up at Black Mesa?

    We don’t know the first thing about the guy, because no attempt was ever made to bring him to us. He’s an empty shell. If people love that, then they’re ultimately loving what they’re projecting into it.

    The only way I can believe a silent protagonist, at least in a game where dialogue is a part of my input, is if he’s a mute. If it’s established that my vocal chords don’t work, then I can understand not saying a thing for the rest of the game, but then I expect hand gestures and lots of suggestive humming and facial expressions if I’m gonna buy it.

    I’d much rather have a living, active character with one voice, than a dead husk with four different types of grunts to choose from.

    I guess it depends on how well you abstract from something like that. Most of the time I’m playing those games (Dragon Age, Dragons Dogma) I’m wondering why all I’m doing is standing around with a hopeless look on my face. How am I talking without saying a word?

    #18 2 years ago
  19. Pytox

    It was a nice game, only sad thing was that most of missions were the same but at a different location. The ending was good ofc :D

    #19 2 years ago
  20. absolutezero

    Another one of the reasons that people love Gordon Freeman is the tiny amount of background he does have.

    MiT graduate, who is late, get the job of pushing a box full of something into a large machine.

    Then he crowbars the shit out of everything and kills half the army then goes into space.

    It would be ruined if Gordon started monologing or replying to any of the silly bugger scientists. What if they made him sensible or scared or anything like that?

    #20 2 years ago
  21. YoungZer0

    @17: That’s just unfair. A lot of Dragon Age 2 faults can be traced back to the little time they had for the game.

    @18: No, i mean in the game he became somewhat of a symbol. What i really didn’t like – and i hope i remember it correctly – is the one dialog with Alex (or whatever her name is) where she says “Hm, you’re no the talkative type, are you?”

    That’s just so lame. I mean there is every reason why Gordon Freeman should’ve a voice, but he doesn’t. As you said, make him mute, or give him a voice.

    For me, Gordon Freeman is on the same level as Vasili Ivanovich Koslov.

    #21 2 years ago
  22. DSB

    I agree it’s not a good basis for exposition. It’s never about dialogue or actually using the character, it’s about keeping the pace and going with the flow. That’s why it works.

    But that’s also why I think it’s crazy to call him a character, at least in the fullest sense of the word. He’s a nerd fighting all those big bad soldiers and that’s kinda cool, in a Die Hard sort of way, but that still leaves him as a symbol more than a personality.

    I’m trying to think of games that actually have managed to do some good indirect exposition for a first person game, but they’re few and far between.

    @21 Well yeah, I can see your point. Symbol yes, character no.

    #22 2 years ago
  23. absolutezero

    True I agree with DA 2 being pushed out the door far far too quickly but if you go back, Bioware defended it to the hilt. That was the game they wanted to make and they made a hash of it. More time would have made it a tonne better.

    L.A. Noire is another game that falls victim to the same problem, Cole Phelps might have a voice and a character but he suffers because of it due to the complete disconnect between what I thought he was going to say and exactly what the actor delivers.

    It frustrated me more than immersed me, if I had been shown a list of options with exactly what Cole was going to say then it would have lessened the disconnect and made me feel closer to the character. The guy to me ended up being almost schizophrenic depending on if you picked “Lie” or “Doubt”.

    #23 2 years ago
  24. Ireland Michael

    @16 Yahtzee is a moron. His opinion is about as relevant as a duck’s.

    Quack quack.

    I have looked up some reviews and gameplay footage though, and while it all looks a bit pompous and overblown, there seems to be a lot of talk about the story and it’s exposition, so it might be worth checking out. Will definitely give it a shot.

    #24 2 years ago
  25. YoungZer0

    @24: The game is not very subtle with the topics it touches, but it raises a lot of questions most games (especially shooter games) don’t even dare to consider asking. It’s pretty short, so you could rent it.

    I’m a little bit disappointed to see that so many game journalists write about their oh-so-unique experience in DayZ or The Journey, instead of writing about Spec Ops: The Line.

    Truth be told, after playing this game, i had a 4 hour conversation with the father of my girlfriend about the nature of soldiers and their role in todays world.

    #25 2 years ago
  26. Ireland Michael

    @25 It doesn’t really try to be authentic with the portrayal of its soldiers from what I’ve seen, which is one thing that really puts me off. The lead guy makes Chris Redfield look like a scrawny nerd in comparison though.

    I’ve heard a lot of good things about how the story progresses though. I’ll wait to play it before making a judgement call.

    I do not understand the appeal of DayZ in the slightest. Then again, I think zombies are the laziest, most boring, most creatively inept cliche in current media. The game itself is a crude mess.

    #26 2 years ago
  27. YoungZer0

    @26: Yes, it starts of pretty much like every shooter on the market, but the tone changes very fast. The story and character progression is one of the best things about the game. Anyway, i’ve said enough. I hope you pick it up (or rent it) when you have the chance.

    #27 2 years ago

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