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The paradox of the open-world game vs. Alan Wake
by Jake Shapiro on 10/13/12 10:44:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


With the skyrocketing popularity of open-world games, there's been a huge backlash from the games-as-art community. From Grand Theft Auto to Mass Effect to Skyrim, it seems every big-budget single-player release from a Western studio the past few years has been required to feature an open sandbox world in which players may frolic.

These games bear the "Jack of all trades, master of none" burden. With massive gameworlds to render, developers have a tough time weaving a tight narrative.

When players can go wherever they want, it's hard to make them go where the game's creators want them to go. Are open worlds the death of the big-budget videogame storyline?

The remedy may lie in Remedy Entertainment's Alan Wake. The 2010 release by the Finnish studio was originally meant to be an open-world title. The game's writer Sam Lake illustrates:

"Early on we tried out sandbox elements. With them we were constantly running into situations where we had to [endure] big compromises in our thriller pacing and our thriller storytelling. At the end of they day we decided it wasn't worth it. We wanted to do a story-driven game--that's what we feel Remedy games are supposed to be. [Sandbox] was one thing we decided to abandon and go in a different direction. Some of these things look good on paper, and then when you try them out they don't work as well."

But Alan Wake didn't totally abandon its open-world roots. When exploring the game's Twin Peaks-inspired town of Bright Falls, the player is afforded much more freedom than in most story-driven titles. 

Players can enter random buildings, listen to minor characters have trivial conversations for extended periods of time, and drive a surprisingly large assortment of vehicles. None of these things are make-or-break features in Alan Wake, but they add to its atmosphere.

Narrative-focused games often force players down linear corridors that don't quite ring true as real-life locations--I love Half-Life, but when most of the game's "doors" are simply impassable wall textures, it breaks my immersion in the game. 

Alan Wake, on the other hand, features a limited open world that makes Bright Falls and its citizens entirely believable. Players can't do anything they want like they could in true sandbox titles like Red Dead Redemption, but this slightly expanded linear world breathes extra life into the game without sacrificing the game's tight plot. It's a fine balance, but Remedy got it right with this one.

Perhaps games don't need to be polarized into being either completely linear or completely open-world. Alan Wake borrows the best of both and uses them to its advantage.

[Also published on my personal blog, A Capital Wasteland]


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David Maletz
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I agree that mixing sandbox with storytelling can make the game feel more real - but I think that it could be very tough to balance. If there is a definite path the player should follow, then having sandbox elements can often get the player lost of confused. In half life, having most doors be walls might be unrealistic, but it lets me know that I'm not supposed to go that way, so I don't get lost checking every building in a large city while being (potentially) chased by enemies. Additionally, if you have sandbox elements in some places, but not in others, than the areas where all the doors are walls stands out more to you because you know they were all open-able in another area. This is definitely a good idea if done right, and I want to attempt it in my next game, but I feel like having sandbox areas could add more complications than worth (not even including the extra work to make all those areas).

Jake Shapiro
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You're right about all the advantages of linear gameplay. I thought that was the only way to do things--until I played Alan Wake. I thought playing a game that once was 100% open-world and now is linear would be a disaster. But it ended up adding to the game's atmosphere.
Alan Wake has its share of flaws. But it hints at an untapped method of doing "limited open world" that I'd like to see more of. Of course it's not right for every game, but I'd like to see a few more games go down this middle path.
I'll be interested to see how your next game turns out. All the titles I discussed in my post were big-budget projects. I wonder how it could play out for smaller developers.

Jonathan Jennings
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I think mafia 2 does a really good job of creating a limited open world as well. cars , the environment, and even radio stations change depending on the time period. it does a good job of making the world around the player area yet there are only key places where anything really progresses for the player. the only issue i ran into when visiting forums was a lot of the times players didn't get having the freedom of an open world but only as an extended set piece for the strong narrative direction. I saw a lot of people were upset about the entire thing. Still i thought it was awesome and it actually made the story portions of the game that much more important because it made locations within the city have meaning in that " X happened here".

Jake Shapiro
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Really? I never got around to playing Mafia II. I'll have to give it a shot.

Roger Tober
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Those things are all right, but peripheral. In a story driven game, the story is make or break. It's like getting caught up in graphics or sound effects or whatever. Play an older game with a good story, and you find those things are just not very important. They become important to the gamer because the designer has done a good job and blended the story and game play so well, and written a good one.

Jake Shapiro
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Of course they're peripheral. But just because story is most important doesn't mean you should be lazy with other parts of the game. When done right, the gameworld, graphics, and sound effects can make the story even more powerful.

TC Weidner
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there's been a huge backlash from the games-as-art community??? Really?

HUh, I must be an oddity then, because I think games are indeed art, but yet I prefer open worlds which allow the participants to make what they will of the "art". And the more I think of it, Im not an oddity because much of the great art of the world has always allowed this type "freedom". Art isnt about leading someone around by the nose. Its about creating a moment, an emotion, a perspective, and in these games cases..a world.

Jake Shapiro
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I just mean that sandbox games like Fallout tend to lose the sense of pacing and urgency in their main storylines when the player can do whatever they want. Bart Stewart illustrates this very well in his comment below. I don't mean to say open-world games are bad--they're some of my favorite games. But they all face this hurdle of weaving a tight narrative in a game where the player controls pacing.

TC Weidner
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I understand, but if as an artist you need a tight narrative, I would suggest make a movie or write a book. Games and the worlds they create can be so much more, its time we as an industry see this and embrace it. Enough with linearity already

Jake Shapiro
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You don't think Shadow of the Colossus or Journey convey tight narrative? If we had "enough with linearity" we wouldn't have titles like those.

We don't have to choose between linear and open-world. We can have both.

TC Weidner
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I agree, My point is that in this medium, linearity is not need for your art to thrive, therefore I dont see any type of backlash from the art as games community.

Bart Stewart
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A minor opening quibble: I wouldn't call the Mass Effect games "open-world." I think I understand what you mean; you can choose where to go on the galaxy map. But those side missions are highly constrained; only a handful are open at any time, based on where you are in the story. That's very different from the kind of open-worldiness delivered by games like Fallout 3 or Two Worlds or Skyrim, where you can go pretty much wherever you want whenever you want (as long as you don't mind dying a lot).

To constrain that openness can, I think, sometimes be a good design choice. But it seems to me that's best determined not by the presence or absence of a developer-told story, but follows from what kind of story-based experience the developer is interested in providing.

Notice that Remedy explicitly talks about the core choice to tell a "thriller" type story. That is a kind of player experience that is driven by intense adrenaline bursts. It's basically a roller coaster game.

Like a roller coaster, that kind of experience doesn't emerge on its own -- you have to design that experience to be tightly controlled, deciding for the consumer when and how the intense moments will come. By that standard, Remedy's decision not to make Alan Wake an open-world game was a good one. The level of control applied in the world's structure matches the design need to dictate the intensity of gameplay through story events.

(I would say the same about the Mass Effect games. Other than the Citadel Station downtime moments, the constraints on exploration -- both on the galaxy map and in all the main-story tactical maps -- were appropriate to maintain the action/excitement experience that was the primary design goal for Mass Effect.)

But not every game is intended to be a white-knuckle roller coaster ride. I think a good argument can be made that Bethesda's games are centered on producing the experience of pleasure at discovery and exploration. Such games can have main stories, but those stories don't need to be as tightly controlled as action/thriller games. Fully open worlds, with main story lines that can be followed when the player wants to do so, are IMO a very good match for discovery/exploration games and don't need to be constrained even to the extent found in Alan Wake.

Again, that's not to say the hybrid, "sort of open" approach doesn't work for Alan Wake. I'm suggesting that even if it does, that doesn't mean fully-open is wrong for other games meant to offer other kinds of player experiences. It's about matching the structure of the world you build to the type of story experience you want to offer your players.

Jake Shapiro
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You make some great points. And perhaps my Mass Effect example was a flawed one--although I actually highly enjoyed the infamous free-roaming Mako in ME1!

You're right that Alan Wake benefits from a limited open world because of its genre. I'd just like to see a few more games try it.

Bart Stewart
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I liked the Mako, too. :)

In addition to the very well done text (and planetary data) for all the worlds you could visit -- and I read them all -- there was something very satisfying in a science fiction sense about the highly varied planetary surfaces and the stars those worlds orbited.

[mild spoiler alert]

I can't say BioWare were wrong to lose that part of the original game when designing the sequels. Blasting Geth with a cannon was satisfying action, but collecting ore and admiring the scenery didn't really contribute to the excitement-centered core gameplay.

But driving the Mako off cliffs was so infinitely better than the "drag mouse over planet to scan for ore" minigame in ME2. I can't count the number of times I literally dozed off during those parts of ME2... probably not something you want your players doing in an otherwise exciting story-driven shooter.

A good lesson in making every part of a game support the primary intended play experience, though, which is why I mention it.

David Jackson
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I'm pretty sure this kind of level design predates Alan Wake. The original Deus Ex absolutely *nails* the creation of believable in-game spaces for precisely this reason. And Dishonored (which shares some staff with Deus Ex) shows that this style of level design isn't totally dead.

True sandboxes aren't only expensive to create -- they also encourage a certain style of play. Sandboxes encourage not only emergent gameplay, but emergent *goals* -- Minecraft, for instance, shows that a robust enough environment tends to lead players to invent objectives never laid out for them. I suspect that's why many sandbox games also include diverse objectives that span the game world and aren't tied to a specific mission: they suggest new and interesting things to do in a highly robust environment.

That play style has its downsides, though. The "emergent game" in, say, Grand Theft Auto involves a lot of wild car chases and wanton violence, directed by the player's inclinations and perhaps creativity. That's great fun, but not always immersive: Grand Theft Auto's environments are designed to feel exaggerated and parodical, I suspect because players wouldn't find a "realistic" city that plays host to GTA's gameplay to be believable.

So, for creating more grounded environments, the limited open-world approach has real benefits. Dishonored and Deus Ex build limited environments in which player actions have serious consequences, often irreversible short of a load-from-save. Then, they pack these environments dense with interesting content -- sidequests, conversations, or incidental events -- giving the player the feeling of being in a real space crowded with people. There are a lot of stories to absorb at any given time, and they have some serious weight. It's a very cool technique.

Jake Shapiro
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Another downside of emergent gameplay in story-driven sandbox titles is often the emergent gameplay clashes with the tone the developer is going for. It's hard to make a single death or a single car chase quite as climactic in GTA when the player kills people and races cars all the time on their own.