NOTE: This article contains a spoiler for Ghost of Tsushima
I’ve been playing a lot of Ghost of Tsushima. Most of my time is spent exploring its lush, open setting. Every inch is packed with purpose — towns and survivor camps are home to merchants, blacksmiths and the like, while enemies endlessly populate the map not just to keep you on your toes, but also to give you opportunities to build up your legend. But perhaps the most impressive quality of the game’s setting is how easily it directs you towards Tsushima Island’s various secrets. Fox caught your eye? Maybe a golden bird? Trail it for a bit, and you’ll find yourself a nice hidden spot. Maybe it’s a bamboo strike challenge, where you can increase your resolve, or perhaps it’s a hot spring, where you can increase your health. Regardless of where you go or what you do, every aspect of the game’s open world delivers the same message — explore this space as much as you can.
But when it came time for me to indulge the game’s story about Jin Sakai, I felt like the game had something different to say. Rather than imploring me to actively explore and exist in this world, it now wanted that message to take a back seat, in favor of Jin’s journey. On its own merits, Jin’s tale is pretty good; he’s forced to choose between defending his homeland as the honorable brave samurai, or as the shadowy Ghost, who may be able to save more lives, but at the expense of Jin’s honor. It’s a tale of staunch tradition versus a new way of thinking, and on paper, it reads pretty well. But in execution, it has one fatal flaw — it tries to deliver a linear story through a non-linear experience, an issue that open world games have been plagued with for years. Where these stories tend to come up short is how incongruent they are with the games that host them. These games are typically about an open world and your actions in it, while the stories are not. Instead, they’re generally tired slogs, rife with cutscenes and exposition dumps that try to craft a compelling narrative but miss the mark all because they refuse to embrace what makes open world games stand out — your autonomy.
Personally, I think a key factor behind why traditional means of storytelling don’t work in these games has to do with pacing, or the lack thereof. More linear experiences, akin to The Last of Us or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, restrict player agency in a way that permits you to explore your surroundings, but only to a small degree, ensuring you won’t get lost. Your goal, and it’s path are usually clearly defined, moves you from objective to objective without much hassle. By ensuring players move through a game at a roughly equivalent pace, a story can be laid out accordingly so that its character development seems natural, its twists are well timed, and its big moments build off of each other.
But based on my experiences, I have doubts about if this is possible in an open world game. In Ghost of Tsushima, you meet a character named Ryuzo. He’s a childhood friend of Jin, and early on in the game, you fight alongside him as you try to retrieve food for him and his group. This mission delves into Jin and Ryuzo’s past, and you get the sense that these two have a deep, shared history. It builds up to the twist later in the game, where Ryuzo defects to the opposing side, and Jin is pitted against his former friend. But I had spent so much time in between story missions immersing myself in this world that I had completely forgotten about Ryuzo, and his role as Jin’s friend.
What should have been a dramatic, emotion-fueled moment was turned into one that had me racking my brain trying to remember who this character was. If delivered in a less open, story driven experience, I think this moment would’ve hit pretty hard. But in this gameplay-driven one, I felt as if the story was lessened because I decided to spend hours going off the beaten path, which was confusing, considering that was what the game was encouraging me to do.
Going off the beaten path is kind of the point of these games. Ghost of Tsushima has systems in place designed to pull you in any which direction, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Death Stranding are games that get exponentially harder if you just try to rush through their stories, and in games like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, it’s just plain fun to spend time going on high-speed chases with nary a thought of where you’re supposed to be, because as far as you’re concerned, you’re already there. There’s simply too much freedom offered in these titles for a story to be confined to a linear space; it’s like trying to shove a square block into a round hole. Even if you do somehow manage, you likely had to force it. But what if it didn’t have to be like this? What if we swapped out the square for a circle?
When I first played through Death Stranding, I was rather lukewarm on its story. Listening to characters over-exposit about the meanings behind their ultra-literal names got old quickly, and I thought the rest of its narrative elements left much to be desired. However, once I finished the game, I found myself having a much more enjoyable experience. I discovered a sense of community with other players as I devoted hours to rebuilding the game’s highway roads and crafting zipline networks. Seeing players appreciate my efforts by rewarding me with ‘likes’ and contributing resources to my structures made me want to continue to do right by them. I also felt gratitude towards other players when I came across structures they had built that made my time in-game a little smoother. In the post-game, free from any sort of structured storytelling, I found a tale told through Death Stranding’s gameplay about connection and the value of coming together that was far more compelling than anything the game’s campaign (which hits you over the head with these concepts) had to say.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gave me a similar revelation. I was into the early Assassin’s Creed games, yet was scared off as the plot grew more and more complex. Odyssey started as my effort to get back into the convoluted lore of Assassin’s Creed, but upon giving it a shot, I realized that I simply didn’t care about that part of the game anymore. From there, my relationship with this game blossomed as it became the Spartan simulator of my dreams; I could “Write [my] own epic odyssey,” just like it says on the back of the game’s case. I decided my odyssey would have little to do with the perpetual war between the assassins and templars seen in the game’s main questline, but rather consist of being a nomadic explorer; setting sail from coast to coast, recruiting lieutenants for my ship, and improving my gear score to turn Kassandra into the mightiest warrior in all of Greece.
I lost interest in the stories these games tried to tell me, but ultimately found more interesting ones that weren’t told through traditional means, but rather through my actions; ones that embraced their open and free nature, and allowed me to forge a path that felt wholly unique to me. Not having to indulge the story meant I never had to relinquish agency of my player character, allowing me to define them as I wish through my choices, rather than through what the script has to say. Seeing how my relationship with these titles changed makes me think that perhaps open world games might be better off if they sewed their narrative threads a little thinner.
Breath of the Wild could be considered the blueprint. The main quest is one goal: kill Ganon to save Hyrule. How you prepare is up to you; you can explore as much or as little as you like; you effectively get to write your personalized story of how Link saves Hyrule. Given how much there is to see, no two tales will ever be alike. To this day, I’ll have a conversation every-so-often with a friend about Breath of the Wild, and they’ll bring up a location, enemy, or item that I had no idea was even in the game, but it was a part of the tale they had crafted. That’s how unique each player’s experience can be, and I can’t help but think of what that same, near-structureless style would look like in the games I’ve listed. What if Ghost of Tsushima was simply about freeing Tsushima on your own terms? What if Death Stranding was a game solely about walking across a fractured America to reconnect it? Honestly, I think they’d both stand to benefit from some narrative simplicity.
Open world games try to tell stories all the time; Ghost of Tsushima about Jin Sakai, Odyssey about Kassandra, and Death Stranding about Sam Porter Bridges, but maybe they shouldn’t be the ones telling them. Maybe it should be you. Storytelling in open world games could benefit so much more not through trying to mask their open nature within the walls of a linear narrative, but rather by welcoming it with open arms, accepting that they are games whose purpose it is to have no structure, and allowing the only independent variable — the player — to provide some.