Transparency: The Witcher 3's Open World Vs. Linear Storytelling of the Past
Hopefully, you are all playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt by now. I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but this game lives up to the hype it was given, and the reviews are not misplaced. In fact, after this game, I’m not exactly sure where CD Projekt Red can go from here. It might have peaked.
But what’s most interesting about The Witcher as a series is that the second and third installment told the story in very different ways. The Witcher 2, which was a surprising hit, gave us a kind of choose my adventure type of storytelling. Although the basic playthrough was mostly linear, there were ultimately 16 potential endings.
The Witcher 3 takes us out of the linear storytelling and allows us to explore and do the quests that we would like, when we would like to do them. In a single-player RPG, we called this open-world. I’ve known people who spent hours more in the tutorial area than they had to. (By the way, The Witcher 3 is said to have 36 different endings.)
If we take into account the success of each of The Witcher titles, it would seem that the more open the story is, the better the game is. However, gamers have argued this for decades. One camp giving arguments like the more freedom that you give a player the great the investment he will have in a game. Or the more linear the story, the richer the story can be. Although there are some amazing middle grounds, I’d like to take a moment to contrast the two different kinds of RPG storytelling and weigh the pros and the cons.
Linear: Concise Narrative
As a complete narrative, linear stories work the best.
The arcs are complete. The acts don't waste as much material on extra quests. And the pursuits of primary characters can be fleshed out without the risk of the player never seeing them.
Although there are many examples where games have told a strong story in a linear format, but I think it is most exemplified in Bioshock Infinite. Ken Levine had a story that he wanted to tell. Infinite could have been a movie, or better yet, a series on Netflix.
But he made it a game partly, I’m sure because that’s what he was familiar with, but also it put the viewer in the place of the main character in a way that a movie couldn’t. The narrative had a clear arc, and although there appeared to be a choice at the beginning of the game, there really wasn’t. The game was simply a shooter with a great story drawing the player forward.
Linear: In-depth Main Character
Many open-world games rely on the player to develop the character. Overwhelmingly, Skyrim is touted as a wonderful tribute to the open-world RPG genre. However, everyone will agree that Skyrim is less about the your character becoming the Dragonborn, and more about the people around him or her. Skyrim is a great game, but it’s clear that the main character has no depth.
When you compare that to the linear main characters, like with the Last of Us or LA Noire, the primary protagonist is much stronger.
Linear: Simple Execution
Linear stories have one story to tell. This allows developers to concentrate on other parts of the game, like level maps or combat mechanics. It’s not that open-world games can’t have good or complicated mechanics; it’s just that more resources have to be thrown at the game in order for that to happen. Simply put, I’m saying that linear games can be made with less money. Or it allows for a greater opportunity for the mechanics of the game to be more polished.
Open world: Character Ownership
I know I’m making large generalizations when it comes to these storytelling devices. There will be any exceptions to the rules, but most of the time in open-world games, we have to sacrifice the personality of the main character to tell the story.
However, that’s not always bad because that means the main character essentially becomes the player. The choices that he or she makes becomes the story. Although it lacks some of the depth that a single linear story could have, there is certainly more ownership of the protagonist’s actions.
Open world: Freedom of Choice
That freedom of choice becomes the primary focus of non-linear stories. Explorer-type players get to do whatever they would like whenever they would like. Monster hunting in The Witcher 3 becomes more compelling when I get to choose which monster I get to kill and when. I get to pick my enemies and my friends. If I want to go left on the fork in the road, I can because this is my world.
Open World: Complicated Execution
Unfortunately, an open-world dictates that a game developer must create something down that left fork in the road. Hell, it has to make the left fork in the first place. The more that a developer has to do in the name of choice means the less complicated other parts of the game have to be.
That means more characters have to be made, and some of these characters might never be seen by the player, potentially wasting developer time. In the long run, it hurts the bottom line. A developer then has to rely on the intellectual property or the publisher more to bring in the money that it needs to make the game.
Personally, I don’t want either of these types of games to stop being made. I believe they both have merit and strong, compelling reasons to continue to be developed. Both also have strong reasons why it is better than the other way of telling a story through a game.
Open-world seems to be the bandwagon at the moment, but eventually, someone will spend a lot of money to make a bad open-world game and the studios will go back to making games with stronger narratives for less money, and the cycle will continue. As long as good games in both arenas keep getting made, I’ll keep buying them. Now, let me get back to playing The Witcher 3.