Theme Party: Free at Last

            One of the central tensions that’s arisen as games have grown as a genre is the perceived conflict between player freedom and narrative integrity.  Games have grown from being purely linear affairs of advancing from objective to objective, and have turned into sprawling metropolises, fantastical continents, and entire galaxies for players to explore and conquer.  Player freedom is at an all time high, and liberty in an open world is one of the most demanded experiences in games today.

But what effect does this have on the quality of game narratives?  I wrote last week about the concept of the marriage of story and gameplay, the idea of what many have coined “ludonarrative dissonance”, but what I didn’t get into was the way that giving the player freedom can affect a narrative.  It seems somewhat contradictory to be able to give a player absolute freedom while still expressing a specific story.  So the central question is this: does an increase in player freedom automatically result in a less compelling narrative?

It doesn’t, but it does expose narratives to certain pitfalls, and by examining two sets of games, I’ll illustrate how increases in freedom on their own are not the direct cause of a weakening in the narrative.  The two dangerous flaws that player freedom exposes a story to are both related to dissonance in the game’s directly expressed story and the story that the player makes for themselves: First, there is a problem when a game increases player freedom, but at the same time grants a player a compelling plot objective in the hopes of getting them on track quickly.  Secondly, there’s an issue when the story paints a character one way, but the gameplay allows you to generate a drastically different picture at the same time.


            For the first storytelling trap, I’m going to look at a pair of science fiction space operas, both of which are Bioware games: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 2.  Both games are somewhat open ended, both give the player freedom, but there is a significant difference between the two when it comes to the urgency of the protagonist’s mission and how that urgency affects the narrative quality of the exercise of the player’s freedom.

Knights of the Old Republic isn’t quite as open as Mass Effect 2.  While you’re able to tackle the given planets in any order, and generally have a large amount of freedom to explore side missions and the like on the planets as you please, there are nonetheless undeniably fewer total destinations than Mass Effect 2 provides.  However, the thing that makes KotOR’s narrative safe from this particular pitfall is that the player’s mission isn’t so pressing that it doesn’t make sense to be doing side tasks along the way.

KotOR asks you to visit various planets in order to find out information about the Star Forge, a tool that a Sith Lord is utilizing in order to generate an unstoppable force with which to conquer the galaxy.   The information you gain is acquired by accessing certain data nodes which allow you to discover information about your antagonist’s aims and past, and discern where the Star Forge is located so that you can travel there and put a stop to him.  This sounds pretty compelling; Malak is up to no good, and it’s pretty damn imminent that you get out there and lightsaber him to death ASAP.

However, the key here is the way that the primary objectives are nested into the planets.   The player goes to Korriban knowing that a node is there, but not knowing where or how to reach it.  This makes the side missions things that are nested into the main story, as they all become part of the overarching narrative of your primary objective.  Getting caught up in other business on the planet may be a little distracting, but it’s all ultimately part of the process of figuring out leads and getting a sense of the planet’s situation so that you’re able to piece together where the ultimate goal is.  You have freedom to go to any planet and do as you please there, but the narrative is mutable enough that once you arrive, almost anything you do is at least tangentially related to achieving your objective on the planet.

So what’s different about Mass Effect 2?  The objectives don’t line up with the options your character has with how to spend his or her time.  Shepard is given an imperative to gather a crew and take the fight to the Collectors, and if he doesn’t get on that right away, more human colonies are going to be swept up into space by the alien kidnappers.

The game, however, gives you the ability to just gallivant off into space and do whatever you want, with almost no direct correlation to your stated objective.  It stretches suspension of disbelief to see cutscenes describing how important it is that you go find all these people and fly through the relay, only to then zap off across the galaxy and spend an hour probing planets for platinum.  The tie between objective and action isn’t universal like KOTOR, and it damages the narrative of the game.  But it’s important to not it’s not the freedom itself that damages the game’s story, it’s the fact that you’re given the freedom to do whatever you want but simultaneously told by the game that no, you really should get on with this saving the galaxy business because people are dying.

So what’s the solution here?  Don’t lay out specific, highly compelling objectives right at the start of a nonlinear, freedom-oriented game.  Rather than telling Shepard how crazily important his mission is and then letting him loose on the galaxy to go fart around probing planets and doing sidequests, tell him that he needs to acquire information about his mission and that the best way to do so would be to start looking for anything suspicious sounding out there in the cosmos.  Either that, or take the Mass Effect 3 route and tie everything into the main goal:  every main quest and side quest increases the galaxy’s war readiness for the fight against the Reapers.

Whatever the story does, just make sure it doesn’t simultaneously give the player an extremely compelling story objective and then suddenly also give you the ability to utterly ignore that objective for 20 hours.   Open world gameplay doesn’t have to mean ignoring the world’s need to saved, it just means the game has to adapt itself to the inevitability of the player’s whims.


The other key pitfall that open world games produce is when the game presents a certain image of the protagonist through the story but then simultaneously gives us the ability to act in ways that are drastically at odds with that presented persona.  The most obvious iteration of this is in Grand Theft Auto IV, and here I’m going to show why that game’s portrayal of its protagonist could learn a lot from how Saints Row IV approached virtually an identical issue.

GTA4’s protagonist is a lot of things.  He’s a criminal, a killer, a soldier, and a jaded misanthrope.  What Niko isn’t, however, is a lunatic.  The story presents him as fairly measured and deliberate about his ideals and his objectives, and shows that he’s not without his soft side and humanity.

That sure as hell isn’t what you’d believe from watching the average player get ahold of Niko, though.  In gameplay, the average portrayal of Niko Bellic is a person who enjoys jumping half-wrecked police cars off of ramps while listening to 80’s tunes before he hops out of his car mid-drive in order to arbitrarily hit an old lady with a baseball bat.  Which is what GTA is about for many people; the freedom to just go completely nuts until the military shows up and puts a tank shell in your chest cavity.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  The older GTA games were much the same, and the core gameplay of the series remains mostly unaltered even in GTA V years later.  But what makes Niko’s experience stand out as flawed is the harsh contrast between what he does in cutscenes and what he does once a player gets ahold of him.  It makes the experience dissonant and narratively contradictory, and damages the game’s ability to tell a compelling story.  I don’t believe Niko in the cutscenes after I’ve seen Niko in my gameplay, and it makes it hard to grow attached to Niko’s story when I know that once the mission ends I’m going to go do wheelies down the highway in the oncoming lane.  True, some of the onus could be on me to try to play him in a way that’s more in harmony with his story portrayal, but the game practically begs you to turn Niko into an utter psycho once you’re not constrained by a specific mission by incentivizing the type of lunacy the GTA series became known for.

Saints Row IV has a solution: acknowledge that your player is going to almost inevitably use the first instance of freedom in order to start running rampant through the city, and treat the protagonist as such in the story.  There are a huge amount of references in SRIV to the fact that your player character is a total maniac.  Your various allies are constantly referencing your loose-cannon ways, and the game’s villain even points out that you should get off your high horse because all you did with your position on your planet was fire rockets at homeless people.

It means that the game is aware of what I’m going to do with the freedom it gives me, and just hits that head on in the game’s story.  It made the entire experience feel much more contiguous and less at odds with itself when the game paints two radically different pictures of what’s within a character’s personality.  I suppose it’s possible that one could play a calm, law abiding character in Saints Row and generate the same tension when the story presents you as a homicidal lunatic, but the gameplay is such that the natural result of playing it is not a measured, rational human being, and GTA is no different.  Take a look at LA Noire or Sleeping Dogs to see examples of gameplay guiding you down the path of rational morality in an open world; psychotic behavior is often discouraged by penalties or punishment, causing you to get a sense of the character as a moral person.

So that’s the answer to this question: either paint your character as a psycho in both gameplay and story, or give us compelling reasons to go by the book once freedom has been given to us.  Now, I’m not making the claim that it’s impossible to tell a good story while this dissonance is present; GTA V’s story shapes up very well despite some of the same issues.

My argument is more that a story can be better by attempting these kinds of reconciliations from the get go.  By trying to make the story as presented by cutscene and the story as presented by game line up in a way that makes sense, greater harmony is achieved, and we can dispel the notion that granting the player freedom grants the story a lack of believability.  When the entire game is approached with a narratively-oriented mindset, greater contiguity can be achieved with a little bit of story tweaking.


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