Skyrim is one of those games where I look at the hours I’ve logged on steam and start to feel bad about who I am as a person. How many hours? Oh, God. And then I hit play again. The Elder Scrolls has been my favorite series ever since Morrowind, and in fact it’s one of the reasons I decided to transition from writing literature to games, but I’ve always felt that the stories in open world games have less punch to them than more linear games like Half-Life 2.
My own theory is that the fault lies not with the lead designers or the fact that the game is open world, but rather because us writers (for legitimate reasons) are obsessed maintaining control over the story by keeping it linear. We insist that the events of the plot happen in a specific order and in specific locations, which is far from the end of the world when you’re dealing with an FPS or linear JRPG, but in an open world we’re asking the player to ignore the reason they bought the game. We’re essentially saying: “Hey, I know there’s a huge open world out in which you can do whatever you want wherever you want to do it, but I’d like you to go here and do this, please and thank you.” It’s the same for storytelling in MMORPGs. “Hey, I know your friends are all going on an adventure together right now, but I, the writer, secretly know that you pay a subscription fee in order to ignore them and go play through the story quests by yourself.” For these kinds of worlds we need to build stories that exist everywhere and in no particular order. We need to tell modular stories.
Before I go on I need to give credit to Lee Sheldon for the concept of modular storytelling. This post is intended to supplement his theory with my own ideas that I think add to the emotional continuity of the experience, but I first learned about modular storytelling from his book Character Development and Storytelling for Games, Second Edition. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the field, so if you’re interested in the concept of modular storytelling enough to look into it some more, you should learn from the master.
The basic idea of modular storytelling is used in other media, including my first foray into writing, literature, but it’s used the most frequently, and has acquired great popularity, in television. Some examples of shows that use modular storytelling to their advantage are House, Dexter, and The West Wing, but I’m going to use Supernatural as my example (because that’s my latest Netflix binge).
Essentially how modular storytelling works is that there is an overarching story throughout the entire piece (in the case of Supernatural, one season), but the majority of the work itself is comprised of isolated incidents (modules) that are all approximately the same intensity and are only rarely, and then loosely, connected to each other. The episode where the Winchester brothers kill a group of vampires has absolutely nothing to do with the episode where they go after a demon-clown, and neither of those episodes are more important than the other in terms of the overarching story. Each module has its own linear plot structure and buildup of intensity, but really it doesn’t matter whether or not you see the modules in the ‘correct’ order to get the full impact of the season. You can also miss four or five episodes and still get a similar impact at the season’s end as if you’d seen all of them. There’s maybe the first episode of the season where the overarching story is set up, a two-parter at the end where it’s concluded, and maybe a ‘midpoint’ episode halfway through the season where the plot of the overarching story is progressed, but all of the other episodes are modular, self-contained, and can be experienced in any order. This translates into an open world experience quite easily. Any individual dungeon or quest in Skyrim is its own module.
Here’s where I start to bring my own ideas into the mix: Lee Sheldon proposes that these individual modules contribute to the over-arching story through synergy, or as he puts it, something that “occurs when two or more substances, organisms, or elements combine to produce an effect greater than the sum of their individual effects”, but I’d like to zoom in on that a little bit more and discuss what, exactly, we can do to make sure that happens. How can we take advantage of modular storytelling and sprinkle our open worlds with our stories, rather than forcing the player through a linear sequence of events, while still creating a buildup in intensity for our climax?
The answer is theme.
For those of you who aren’t storytellers, theme is the emotional core of what your story is about. It’s what your characters have to learn, on an unconscious level, before they can rise to achieve their hearts' desires. The theme of Romeo and Juliet is “love is more important than hatred”. The theme of Miss Congeniality is “it’s okay to be tough and feminine”. A theme a specific belief that our characters have to take on before they can become the person that they were ‘meant’ to be. They also need this information before they can confront the main story problem and resolve the plot. Sandra Bullock has to learn to be tough and feminine before she can confront her nemesis in Miss Congeniality.
How does this help us in modular storytelling? Well, the reason that we writers are so hesitant to step away from linear structure is we don’t want to sacrifice that buildup in intensity and the climax that makes a story so satisfying. But, by focusing on our theme, we can create that same buildup in intensity and climax, not by ensuring that the events of the plot become sequentially more intense, but by measuring the buildup of emotional intensity in our characters.
Let’s go back to Supernatural as an example. Let’s say the overarching story this season is a prophecy that Dean is going to die. We find out episode one that Dean is going to die, there’s a two-parter at the season finale where Dean “dies” (it’s Supernatural, so he’s gonna be totally fine if slightly moody about it), and probably an episode in the middle where the situation gets more complicated somehow. What do we do with the other eighteen episodes in there? We can’t have anything directly contribute to the plot of Dean’s death or the story will no longer be modular, it’ll be linear.
So let’s say Dean and Sam are hunting a wereplatypus this episode (whatever, it doesn’t really matter). The hunt goes along smoothly, but in the climactic final battle Dean gets slapped into unconsciousness by the wereplatypus’s furry were-tail and Sam panics. Dean wakes up (of course), but the final scene in the episode is a heart to heart where Sam confesses that he though Dean had died and that he “can’t do this without you”. Because the episode contributed to Sam and Dean’s emotional journey it helps build intensity towards the season finale where Dean actually “dies”. As long as each episode contributes towards the emotional journey our characters are on, they aid us in building our climax without any one module becoming critical. If the audience, the player in our case, misses a few it doesn’t really matter, and if any one module gets cut it isn’t really the end of the world.
So let’s take a look at this when it comes to games a bit more specifically.
And yes, I’m gonna talk about The Last of Us. I know you’re probably sick to death of writers drooling over it with our thick, pretentious saliva, but it actually is that well-made so it tends to serve as our best example of how to do it right.
Let’s say that we wanted to make The Last of Us open world. New marketing data came in, or the executive producer just fell in love with Red Dead Redemption, or whatever. It’s open world now.
The theme of The Last of Us is that “to survive, you need something to survive for”, and Joel and Ellie’s emotional journey is all about finding the line between what they will and won’t do to survive. So rather than having the main plot progress by forcing the player to pause their exploration and do what we tell them to, we make sure that each isolated incident they encounter is somehow about what they’re willing to do to survive. Each adventure, where the player decides to go and whatever the player decides to do, helps prepare our characters for the final showdown between Joel and the fireflies by helping them sort out their feelings for our theme. We’re still going to need some main plot points, particularly at the beginning of the game and the end, but we can have any plot points in the middle of the story organically happen to the player as Joel and Ellie reach the right level of emotional saturation. Once their variable for “emotional intensity” is at “x”, then bandits attack, or the next time they return to town Marlene is waiting for them. Because of how each individual adventure is contributing to the overall impact of our story, we need far fewer ‘main’ plot points than we normally would to make an impactful climax and we can keep these interruptions in the experience to a minimum, allowing the player to go where they will and do what they wish while the story builds consistently throughout the entire experience. The player no longer has to step away from what they actually want to be doing in order to participate in the story; the story is all around them.
Linear structure isn’t something to be abandoned - even within a modular structure each self-contained dungeon or episode has a linear series of events - but by embracing a modular structure for our overall experience, we don’t have to choose between our story and our world. We don’t have to choose between exploration and narrative focus, we just ensure that, wherever our player goes, our story is waiting to be discovered.
David Kuelz is a freelance writer and narrative designer based in New York City. If you like what he had to say, he has free monthly newsletter with tips and resources that you can sign up for here.