Open World Games and Narrative

Written by Ben Casey. Media by Joseph Wood.

A map of how vast and huge Skyrim is. Source:

In early 2011 at a demo for “Skyrim“, developer Todd Howard told players,

See that mountain over there? You can climb it.”

This proclamation makes an important point: “Skyrim” is huge. The player has free reign to move through the world at their own pace: picking up quests and skills as they please. Even without any mods, “Skyrim” still has hundreds of hours of content and can be impossible to put down.

Open world games differ from other video games. “Mario 64 and “Ocarina of Time” are open world and have huge environments for players to explore but “Skyrim” was the first game that made me uninterested in the main plot. The storyline is about dragons and learning words but that’s irrelevant. Stories in open world games have a habit of taking a backseat to the player’s exploration.

Latest version of Mario open world game. Source:


Video games allow players an amount of control that books and movies can’t manage. They let players interact and immerse themselves in a world. This control has a downside, though. It’s difficult to get the pacing of a story when two hours are spent on a mini game or getting lost in the woods for a day. Critic Roger Ebert pointed out these struggles in his essay on video games. As an example, how would the adrenaline rush of the movie, “John Wick“, change with a 45 minute segment where John gets lost in the city? How would the movie be affected if the audience had to watch him drive to every single location in real time? It would ruin any kind of tension built by the previous scenes. It would cease to be a thrilling action movie. This is the problem open world games face when telling their stories.

Many games offer different solutions to these problems: “Fallout: New Vegas” gives each side quest a self-contained story. The end product is a game that feels more like an episodic tv show rather than a film. Games like “The Witcher 3” work in a similar way. Each side quest adds to the world and character while being its own independent story. Some game developers suggest another alternative to a Hollywood 3-act structure. They suggest serialized television as a model. Serialized television includes shows like “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad.” Open world games like “InFamous“, “Hulk: Ultimate Destruction“, and “Batman: Arkham Knight” make use of serialized structure.

Another solution is to let the player make the story. In games like “Minecraft ” or “No Man’s Sky“, players are given almost no story to work with. Instead, they’re put in a sandbox with the mechanics and told to survive. The story is not the direct creation of the game designers but a collaboration between the player and game. The encounters with the game environment provide a solemn and meditative experience that can’t be replicated in other mediums.

Open world games often struggle to tell their stories because of the huge worlds. A developer doesn’t want to constantly take control away from the player through cut scenes, but they want to get their stories across. However, more games are finding a balance between player and narrative control. Some games are even creating a narrative through the player’s control.

The story might not always be the focus in a video game and that’s fine. It’s important to have games that are good at doing different things. Open world games have a unique opportunity to tell stories in a new way. Be attentive for  breakthroughs in storytelling in the future!


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