Open world RPGs are everywhere, aren’t they? What was once a niche curiosity has quickly become a ubiquitous standard within the industry. And it’s not without just cause: Open world or “sandbox” RPGs provide the player with unbridled freedom, offering multiple playstyles, branching storylines, massive worlds to explore, and multiple ways to complete objectives. These games are easy to love, and it makes perfect sense for the industry to embrace them.

But with this influx of open world RPGs comes a greater understanding of their flaws. It’s pretty common knowledge that linear storytelling isn’t one of their strong suits. Many games rely more on procedural, player-driven storytelling than traditional narrative design. Sure, there’s plenty examples of games that do it right, but with the release of high-profile games like FALLOUT 4 and, more recently, MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA, some are starting to wonder if it’s even possible.

So, how do you impose a cohesive story on such a sprawling world? How do you shape a narrative around countless potential characters and their choices? How do you make a good story in a sandbox RPG? Well, let’s take a look!

Create a world that feels bigger than the player

There’s nothing like the feeling of being dropped into a strange, massive, detailed world. It’s a feeling only a video game can accomplish, and something every open world game strives to do. The first step toward creating a compelling story in a sandbox RPG is to embrace this idea. The world should tell a story through the atmosphere, environmental cues, off-handed dialogue, and information scattered across the world. The more the player feels like they’re part of a living, breathing world, the more invested they’ll be in the story.

Take a game like BLOODBORNE for example. The vast majority of the story is told through the visuals of the world and the behavior of the enemies. Just by taking your first steps in the city of Yharnam, you instantly understand the basics of the story. In an open world RPG, the world is the story, and it’s often more important than the core narrative.

A sense of detail, scale, and grandeur is what separates a memorable open world from a forgettable one. There needs to be a sense of a larger world surrounding the narrative. No matter how strange and detached from reality, the player needs to feel like they could step into this setting and explore it. But achieving this requires more than a world that feels big. You need to pay attention to the smaller details as well. A massive galaxy is still going to feel small and fake if every planet has one environment, one language, and one government.

Oh, look, another desert world. Where have I seen this before?

 

Sometimes, narrowing the scope of your world can increase its scale. That may sound like nonsense, but follow me here. If your setting covers too much territory, it can make the wider world seem much smaller and less detailed. THE ELDER SCROLLS IV: OBLIVION is a pretty egregious example of this. Whereas two of the previous games in the series involved smaller regions portrayed on a larger scale, OBLIVION portrays the entirety of Cyrodiil, the largest region of the game-world. Previous descriptions portrayed Cyrodiil as a bizarre land where countless cultures and thousands of religions co-existed in a tropical melting pot of battle-mages, moth-priests, and bureaucracy. What we ended up getting was, for a variety of reasons, boring, but portraying the entirety of the province in a single game contributed to the problems.

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There was no way to do the entirety of Cyrodiil justice. It would be like trying to portray the entire United States as though it were just New York City. As a result, the world feels homogeneous, small despite its size, and any sense of mystery behind what the rest of Cyrodiil looks like is immediately broken. All of a sudden, the location and its native people are much less interesting, and the story suffers as a result.

When the world is properly scaled and detailed, everything has more gravity. When you get a feel for the world and its people, you’re more likely to care about what’s happening to them. If your world feels like it exists solely for the player, like a theme park cluttered with useless collectibles and repetitive activities, then you can’t expect the player to care about your story.

A good world sparks your imagination. It inspires you to explore, to speculate, to come up with your own stories within the lush, detailed world of the game. WORLD OF WARCRAFT isn’t known for its deep, intelligent narrative, but what it lacks in its core story it more than makes up for in the portrayal of the world. Not only does each zone feel massive, but care is put into every nook and cranny. In Highmountain, rivers break off into streams dotted with small fishing villages. Every home is cluttered with trophies, knick-knacks, and stew boiling in the cauldron. On snow-capped mountains, you can almost feel the frost beating on your face as the wind whistles through your ears. And this is all just one zone. You always get a sense that you exist within an actual environment, filled with people who go about their daily lives regardless of the player.

[WORLD OF WARCRAFT] This isn’t just a game. It’s a world.

Developers can take a few lessons from the WARHAMMER: 40K franchise. While it’s not an open world RPG, its massive scale can lead to many of the same problems. But, amidst the galactic space opera, with wars on a cosmic scale, sorcerers that destroy entire planets, and monsters from the forgotten depths of time, you’re constantly reminded that there are trillions of individuals living through the madness. Every world feels massive because attention is paid to the differences between each continent, each tribe or city or nation within the greater Imperium. Because of this, you’re more likely to care when a world is threatened. An individual is just a drop of water in a sea of trillions, but their lives matter nonetheless. The more attention you pay to the scale and detail of your world, the more invested the player will be.

Create a simple hook, then escalate it

So, we have a sprawling, detailed world, filled with magic, intrigue, weird creatures, and enough history to fill a library.

But, should the story itself be complicated?

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: what was LORD OF THE RINGS about when you break it down? A group of unlikely heroes join forces to destroy an apocalyptic threat. What about STAR WARS? An unlikely hero and his band of misfits destroy an evil Empire with the help of some old wizards. THE ELDER SCROLLS: MORROWIND? An unlikely hero goes to a strange land and kills a god. Or what about a more recent game like THE WITCHER 3? A man searches for his missing “daughter.”

Do you see a pattern here? Not only are most of these stories textbook examples of the hero’s journey, but they can also all be summed up in a single sentence.

When you’re playing an open-ended game where player choice is key, a complex narrative often works against you. There are so many factors trying to pull you in so many directions that you may not want to go. Not only that, but complex stories require a consistent pace to pull off, which is hard to do in a game where you can spend three hours collecting bear asses for the local farmer.

[TESIV: OBLIVION] Don’t ask why he needs them.

For each additional strand of complexity, you’re placing additional strain on the player’s sense of agency, immersion, and general understanding of what the hell is going on. Within the scope of an open world RPG, a simple task or stated goal can easily engage the player without immediately overwhelming them.

Take FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS for example. It takes place in the middle of a three-sided war of attrition with complex factions, a complex backstory, and complex characters. So, how do you initially enter this world of intrigue and mystery? You get shot in the head. The first third of the game revolves around the simple task of finding out who shot you, why, and how you fit into this massive war for the city. It begins as a low-key, personal story and slowly escalates toward a national conflict. This is the key to any narrative in an open-ended RPG: Begin with a simple hook, then raise the stakes.

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That’s not to say that there’s no place for depth in your story. The best RPG narratives have layers of complexity that intertwine with the lore of the world. In MORROWIND, your simple task of fulfilling a prophecy gives way to a crazy world of politics, religion, intrigue, altered timelines and the very nature of the universe itself. People are still trying to wrap their head around the 36 Sermons of Vivec and how they tie into the narrative. We still don’t have all the answers when it comes to the concept of CHIM, the nature of the Tribunal, and whether and not they were well-meaning heroes or vile sorcerers who betrayed their closest friend. All of this depth lies just beneath the surface, waiting for you. This also adds longevity to the game, allowing the player to piece together more of the story every time they play, without removing the simple satisfaction of beating the bad guy and saving the world.

What’s important is that the player can choose how deep they go. If you think the sex life of a hermaphroditic demi-god is more information than you need, then ignoring it doesn’t necessarily detract from your investment in the story. At the end of the day, it’s better to have a simple story with hidden depth than a confusing one that ultimately says nothing.

Don’t place a sense of urgency on the player unless you mean it

One of the most consistent and infuriating aspects of sandbox storytelling is the sense of urgency the developers place on the story. Many games will immediately impose a deeply urgent goal upon the player, one that logically should consume your entire attention. This makes sense in a linear game, where you’re moving directly from one task to the next, but in a game where side-quests, exploration, and player-choice take center stage, does this make any sense?

Persistent urgency is the cardinal sin of sandbox storytelling: it discourages the player from exploring the world, encourages the player to avoid side-quests, and rushes them to the end of the game. If you don’t play by the game’s rules, you’ll be instantly sucked out of the experience. How can you justify getting drunk at the bar or picking flowers for an old lady when the big bad is about to throw the planet into a black hole? Most of all, it just reeks of developer confusion. Do they want to make an open world game or a linear one? Why create all these side-quests if players feel guilty for completing them?

If you want the player to engage with the world without sucking them out of the experience, start with an open-ended narrative and narrow it down as the player moves forward. The main quest of MORROWIND is a perfect example of this. In it, the player is an agent of the empire tasked with investigating a local prophecy that may or may not be coming true. As an outsider posing as a normal adventurer, the player is encouraged to get to know the native people, make friends, join the local guilds, and explore the world. It’s all part of your cover, and it could help you learn more about your over-arching task.

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Everything the player would want to do in a sandbox game is justified and weaved perfectly into the overarching narrative. The more the player engages with the main story, the more the story engages back, imposing an increasing sense of urgency and a quickening pace upon the player before you’re tasked with confronting the big bad.

More recent Bethesda games fall into this trap all the time. Most notable is the College of Winterhold in SKYRIM, where the player only receives a few quests before being tasked with saving the entire school. To say the questline rushes the player would be a severe understatement. You never get a second to breathe, as you’re constantly being told the world might end if you don’t do something now. As a result, the player will likely never connect with important characters who end up dying off-screen moments later.

Compare this with THE WITCHER 3. Like FALLOUT 4, the story revolves around a missing loved one, but Geralt’s diversions and side-quests are a bit more justified. Ciri isn’t a helpless baby who could die at any moment, nor is it conceivable to find her immediately. Geralt’s journey feels more like a long-term, slower-paced investigation, where it makes sense to take side-jobs to gain money, build relationships, and learn more about what’s going on in the world. The story peppers in a few moments of urgency throughout the story, but you never feel railroaded toward the end.

Too often, I get the sense that writers are unsure of themselves, that they’re not confident in their own creation or that they feel they need to rush us to the “exciting bits” or we’ll immediately lose interest. But if you’ve created a deep world with an immersive atmosphere, you don’t need to throw everything at us at once. Slow down, let the player sink into the world, and push us only so much as we push back.

The story should enable and facilitate your choices

At the end of the day, sandbox RPGs are defined by choice. As such, the story should do everything it can to enable the player’s choices. As you can imagine, this is hard to do without hurting the narrative. Traditional stories rely on pacing, tone, and pre-determined set-pieces to deliver a coherent, enjoyable experience. Throwing an open world, branching paths, and a non-linear structure into the mix can easily throw a story off the rails.

[FALLOUT 4] The story says I should be looking for my missing son and avenging my dead wife. I think I’ll have sex with this robot instead.

If you want to balance player-choice with a solid story, you need to build the story around the player’s agency. Let’s say the character you made in NEW VEGAS isn’t motivated by revenge. You don’t care who shot you in the head, and you just want to move on with your life. Not only can you easily express this through dialogue, but you’re not cut out of the story because of it. There’s plenty of incentive for any character you make to follow the road to New Vegas. It’s a (relatively) safe utopia in the midst of the blasted out Mojave desert. There’s money to be made, people to meet, and almost everything you do in this game will eventually lead you to this general area, where you’ll eventually bump into the man who shot you. This will inevitably set off a chain of events that leads to the core of the narrative. As a result, any character you build could conceivably be part of this story.

Perhaps most important is the character’s origin. Where do you come from? What brought you to this adventure in the first place? A good story creates an open-ended origin for the player and allows them to flesh it out during character creation or dialogue. DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS is perhaps the best example of backstory freedom. Not only does your race, gender, class, and social status affect how your story begins, but the first chapter of the game is dedicated to these choices. Were you a noble dwarf, or a casteless outcast? An elf born in the slums? The wilds? Or a wizard-tower? None of this was perfectly executed, but the origin system in DRAGON AGE enabled the player’s creativity and choice.

In contrast, take a look at FALLOUT 4’s abysmal origin story. The tale of the “Sole Survivor” has been lambasted countless times, but it’s the sort of train-wreck that needs to be studied to be understood. Unlike previous games, a very restrictive backstory is imposed upon the player: Your character is a soldier (if male) or a lawyer (if female) with a spouse and son living in pre-apocalyptic America. Before you’re given any time to develop a connection with your family, the bombs drop around your quaint neighborhood, and you run for the vault. Without giving away too much, your spouse dies, and your son is missing. On paper, this could be a brilliant impetus for a story, but in practice, it feels rushed, forced, and disconnected from the gameplay.

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If FALLOUT 4 committed to their linear story, giving us a fleshed out character like Geralt, then this would’ve softened the blow, but the Sole Survivor has no personality to speak of. Instead, we’re given the worst of both worlds: neither the freedom of a vague origin nor the focus and emotional connection of a more detailed one.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with establishing a backstory for the player. Every FALLOUT game does this to some extent. The problem with FALLOUT 4 is that you’re given very little room to express yourself within the confines of the story. It’s just too restrictive. FALLOUT 3, for all its faults, had a well-balanced origin story for the player. No matter what, you’re a kid raised in a vault with his father, but you’re given a ton of wiggle room. Are you a bully? Are you a good student? What sort of job are you preparing to have? You can flesh out the Lone Wanderer’s personality and motives within the first hour of the game.

If you’re not going to give us our own character, then you’d better make an interesting, versatile protagonist. Characters like Shepard and Geralt have established backstories and basic personalities, but the player is given a lot of wiggle room within the space provided. Above all else, both characters are fun to play as. Player choice is the backbone of a sandbox RPG, and the story should respect the player’s creativity from start to finish.

The Point

It’s common knowledge that I have an unhealthy obsession with open world RPGs. They’re my ideal video games, and their importance to the medium cannot be overstated. In many ways, agency and immersion are what distinguish a video game from a book or movie. There are things you can do with games that you just can’t accomplish with any other form of entertainment. Open world RPGs are the greatest expression of what a video game can be. However, we should always look for ways to improve them and criticize what doesn’t work.

I’m optimistic for the future of sandbox RPGs. We just need to embrace what makes them so great.

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One Comment

  1. The Badboy

    April 18, 2017 at 6:49 am

    You bring up some good points in your article, but talking about it is certainly more easy than doing it. One, technology hasnt caught up with open world gaming yet. While graphics keep getting better, physics and AI hasnt. In fact, they both have been at a stand still since last generation. Red Faction: Guerilla showed us what was possible when real world physics was implemented into an open world game. AI, though, is still pretty much the same as it was 10-15 years ago. Which is the biggest hurdle that these open world games face. If AI doesn’t remember you and your actions throughout the game… then how can you be convinced you are part of a living, breathing world? When AI can do this and think on their own, then the game world truly comes alive.

    Another way to do this is realtime voice recognition and intelligent response. Imagine any open world game, where you could openly talk to the AI characters via a headset about anything and have them respond intelligently and remember that conversation for future meetings. You could develop friendships and enemies, simply by the conversations you have. Giving different AI characters, random personality traits and it becomes a game in itself trying to befriend them.

    The story itself is easy enough to pull off. Just like a linear game, the story itself takes place by visiting different parts of the world pointed to by an NPC. Like you, I think there should be a buildup to bigger things. Maybe by having you learn about the people from the land you were sent to by basing the side missions off of and around the people and area you are in. All being a buildup to the final step in that areas story. Whther that be a boss creature or just a means to an end to get to the next story arc. Either way, you learnaout that area and the people and it gives you a reason to care about them, or not. That way, if something happens via an open side mission or a main story one… ot allows the player to feel for what happens. While still allowing for other side quests that arent area specific, like a merchant or sourceror in one area needs a spice from another or needs you to pick up their grandmother for a birthday celebration.

    I think the developers are developing these open world games, ass backwards. They need to develop an overall story first and then add in lore for each area, along with a backstory for every character in the game world. It may seem like a never ending task… but, it is easily accomplished when they make the model for that character. In doing that, it allows the player a chance to get to know any one character and develop a bond with them. If something were to happen to that character, especially if youve spent considerable time getting to know them, it would create an emotional bond with that character and would elicit a true response from the player. Something I havent felt since the end of Half Life .

    Its these sort of emotional responses that make ot break a game. If you have no connection with the NPCs and the game world, you dont care what happens to either. Making the game a game and nothing more. The second you evoke a true emotion out of a player, they are hooked. Because they actually care about what happens to the fictional characters around them, like it were a real human being. Which is the single most hardest thing for developers to do. Simply, because they dont invest the time for players to get to know characters. They just have gamers interact on a go here, do this basis. Without getting personal. Which is hard to do, if the characters only talk about missions and nothing else.

    If you want playes to care about your game, they have to care about the people in it. If they dont, you might as well spare your time even developing a story. Because its all canon fodder, unless there is some sort of emotional attachment that makes gamers feel for the world they ar playing in.

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