Losing the Plot! Do Free Roaming Games Ruin Their Own Narrative?
Talk about getting your money’s worth! For a few months now I have been pretty continuously working my way through 3 of last year’s biggest blockbusters. The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid V and Fallout 4. All of which are monstrous free roaming games, epic in scale and incredibly fun to play. But while I have enjoyed each one extensively, there comes a point where after having invested nearly a hundred hours into each, I am yet to complete any one of them, and fatigue is starting to set in.
Now admittedly, this is mostly my own fault. I am always eager to pick up and play a game on day one, which with games of this size probably means that I won’t have completed one before moving onto the next. At the same time between work, friends and family, and generally trying to see sunlight once in a while, it’s difficult to find the hours in the day that these expansive free roaming games can require. But it still begs the question, is a game that gives a player more than they bargained for, more than their attention span can handle, at fault? Should free roaming games that can overwhelm with their vast amount of content be penalized, or should it be gratified for giving us more than we need to have our fill?
Take Metal Gear Solid V for example. It is a brilliant free roaming game, visually gorgeous and meticulously crafted. You can tell how much love Hideo Kojima poured into his swan song to the series, but the main thing to note is that its scope is unfathomable. So far I have spent a little over 78 hours wandering the wilderness as Big Boss, sneaking, shooting and attaching balloons to everything not nailed down and I have barely touched the surface. In fact, according to the completion meter which pops up in the start menu, I have only just hit the half way mark. But even after so many hours the story is somehow still managing to keep me invested, which is more than I can say for Fallout 4 or The Witcher 3.
Some of the most pivotal and emotionally driven scenes are only just coming out of the woodwork and drawing me onwards, but unfortunately, they are becoming spread few and far between random repeats of previous missions. You see around 30 missions in a major story arc come to a close and the credits role, yet the story continues. Most of the missions from this point are more difficult iterations of ones we have seen previously, but those willing to slog through the repeats will see some of the best and most character driven story telling in the game.
But why? Could they not have pushed that story together, skipping the repeats and ensuring more people would stick around for what I think are the high points of the narrative? It seems odd, a weird decision based only around keeping people playing for as long as possible. It’s as if the developers were under the impression that a game has to be excessively long to be a success and herein lies the problem. The market is becoming oversaturated with games which ask for an excessive amount of hours for completion. It’s definitely a good thing to have the option to spend as much time in that world as you want but I think when it comes to narrative, drawing it out is simply asking for it to be forgotten. Plenty of games have gotten this right. To its credit even Assassin’s Creed, a series I have no love for, allows the player to power through the story and skip the filler unless they are so inclined as to explore it. It doesn’t back you into a corner or force the player to do anything other than pursue the story to proceed. The series has its issues but when it comes to that open world/narrative balance, it does what all games should strive to do in that it caters to either play style. Whether you’re a completionist who enjoys exploring every nook and cranny in free roaming games or simply there for the story, you have a path through the game to suit you.
Long stories aren’t the problem, filler is. There are plenty of examples of games with long campaigns which have kept players completely engrossed throughout and that is something achieved when everything you do is building on the core narrative. Look at The Last of Us, at around 20 hours in length it’s pretty extensive for a linear game but its story keeps you gripped from start to finish. It is a perfect example of a game which gains more depth if you take your time and explore but allows a quick, clean play through for those who want it.
Like I said, nowadays games are definitely giving players their money’s worth but we can only hope that scale doesn’t have to come at the cost of lazy story telling. Video games are the strongest and most exciting storytelling medium we have, and they shouldn’t be judged on their length but on their substance. It’s always worth remembering that less can be more.