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Story Urgency vs Freedom of Exploration

Every gamer has a preference when it comes to video games, a mechanic or feature that they value above the others. For me, I really enjoy good stories and the ability to explore the game world that I am currently in freely. Unfortunately, those things regularly conflict with one another.

In Jade Empire, I read every book and scroll that I could get my Leaping Tiger hands on and talked to every NPC until I exhausted their dialogue options. And after all this, I came to learn that the Jade Empire is huge. So, I am sure that you can imagine my excitement at the thought of exploring it. And my utter disappointment upon completing the game and barely exploring any of it.

The Jade Empire is huge, so it’s a shame you barely see any of it.

Another good example, and a more well-known one, is the game Fallout 4. After awakening from cryosleep for the second time, Nate or Nora understandably want nothing more than to find their missing baby Shawn. That’s where the story wants to take you, but if you want, you can spend the next 90 in-game days collecting aluminum cans and building endless rows of fence posts in Sanctuary. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but you can do it. Your infant can wait.

That’s right, today, we are going to be talking about the balance between story urgency and freedom of exploration.

In real life, if something urgent comes up, you typically stop whatever you are doing and immediately go handle your urgent matter. But in a video game, especially ones of the open-world variety, you have a lot more breathing room. In numerous Grand Theft Auto games, there are missions where an ally and or friend is in trouble, and you need to save them immediately, or they will die. But in actuality, you can go off for 10, 20, 50, 100 hours of game time, and nothing will happen to your ally. When the game waits for you, urgency inevitably dies.

So, what can game developers do? Should they start punishing players more often for not handling an urgent affair in a timely matter? In the Fire Emblem games, many maps have villages with characters you can recruit and useful items when you visit them. There are also bandits spread throughout the map, however, and if they reach a village before you do, they will destroy it, and any characters or items in said village will be locked from you.

I remember in Fallout 3, midway through the story, a character from Vault 101 hails you and urges you to come back and help the vault. If you ignore these calls for help for enough in-game time, they will cease, and you can never go back to Vault 101 and do the side quest. I think this is fair, but keep in mind, this is a single side quest. If a game developer starts doing it for a lot of side quests or main quests, how long before it is considered railroading a player’s experience? What level of punishment is a happy medium?

Don’t return to Vault 101 and you’ll miss a cheap callback to Fallout 1. Not my best pitch, I know.

A notable example of a game that balances story urgency and freedom of exploration extremely well is Fallout: New Vegas. It makes complete sense that a guy or gal who got shot in the head and didn’t die wouldn’t want to immediately go off and try to find the dude who almost blew your brains out. It also makes sense that after a while of Mojave badassery, you’d feel tough enough to think you can go and get revenge on Benny without getting yourself killed. The story of Fallout: New Vegas is very simple at the start and doesn’t pick up until you are well into the main storyline, and that’s one of the game’s strongest aspects. Starting off your game with an apocalypse is a good way of setting up a story that shouldn’t stall on its conclusion.

Fallout: New Vegas is a game that does avoiding the main quest very well.

Another good example is the original Deus Ex. The levels of this classic aren’t exactly huge, but there’s definitely enough room to look around. The game rewards you for exploring in the way of precious experience points, and it doesn’t feel like you’re goofing around when you’re exploring every nook and cranny in Paris even when there is a political conspiracy to get to the bottom of.

Even the barmaids in Deus Ex have something thought-provoking to say. Go everywhere and talk to everyone.

So what solutions are there? How about making the world-ending threat a mid-way point, instead of a starting one? That way, you can explore and enjoy the world before you go off and save it? That can’t be done in every game, though, if it should be done at all.

What about prequels and or spin-offs/DLCs? If I can’t explore the game as freely as I want to in the main game, then give me some separate content where I can do exactly that. But then does that mean I have to spend an additional $10, $20, $40 because the main game is too linear?

I suppose a question I should be asking is, does this really matter? For Jade Empire, I was really bummed out I couldn’t explore the game world, but I completely understood the linearity of the game because of the urgency of the plot. I wasn’t fully satisfied with the game, but it’s still one of my all-time favorites, nonetheless. I am not against story-driven, linear video games, and I don’t think every game should be an open-world adventure either.

Perhaps I should just leave the exploration parts up to the wonderful modding communities of the world, who extend the life of a video game a thousand-fold. Maybe this problem is more trouble than it is worth for Triple AAA developers to solve. They aren’t Thanos, after all, so why should they care about things being perfectly balanced? What do you guys think?

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  1. When a game is an open world title the main story will inevitably take a second role to exploration. I don’t think there’s anything that can be done about that. I guess developers can restrict what you can do until you clear an urgent main quest like preventing you to take on/complete side quests or collect items. This however will come in conflict with players who are not all that invested in the story.

    When it comes to time-limited side quests they should clearly be indicated as such.

    DLC that gives more exploration opportunities could be good, but I don’t particularly trust developers to implement it correctly. A better solution would be to release a separate spin-off game which is open world. Plus there could be linear games that give you plenty of information or chances to explore the world with large levels and collectables. Also an open world game can have a focused story if the world is not huge and there aren’t too many side quests.

  2. Mass Effect 2 did something with this, you’re free to explore all you want up until a certain event, then if you carry on exploring and bumming around, bad things happen.

  3. I’ve dusted up my PS2 recently to play some old classics that I didn’t have the chance to play back then, am playing Persona 4 right now and the game does this balancing pretty well. You are encouraged to do the social mechanics of the game from the beginning, also having some sense of urgence by having a day limit to clear the next dungeon, or else it’s game over (or you can rewind back a week to try again). If you just grind your way to over-level, the gameplay feels really boring to me, so you might as well skip some days of dungeon crawling to catch up with your friends or work on your skills, which can be rewarding as your social link levels grant extra exp when fusing demons, discounts when paying to recover your MP or battle passive buffs for your party members. The other side to this is that some things are unavailable to you if you didn’t clear the next challenge, like your party members refusing to hang out (“we need to save X!”), so it’s the right balance of side-questing and progressing the main story.

    The only counterpoint to the time limit is that if you clear the dungeon early on you are /forced/ to spend the next days doing whatever else its’s available (or grinding exp) until the next event comes, but the game is kind enough to offer you some “time skipping” some times, like your buddy asking you to work with them for the next week, or having exam weeks.

  4. Great article. It’s always been an issue that bugged me too. Wish more games would get the balance correct.

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