The last couple of years have radiated for so-called “story-driven games in sandbox settings.” The Far Cry, Grand Theft Auto, Elder Scrolls, and Assassin’s Creed series have turned out regular, sprawling entries, and newcomers like Shadow of Mordor and Sunset Overdrive add to the giant list of games that require thousands of hours of work into voice acting, plotting, scripting, and modeling. For players who grew up hoping for larger stories with more interesting characters and hundreds of things to do, these are all welcomed games -- on paper.
Most of the above titles have various shortcomings that have been discussed at length, the foremost criticism stating that despite the millions of dollars thrown at these titles, the stories sometimes aren’t very good. Watch_Dogs was torn to shreds for its story, Elder Scrolls players regularly ignore the narrative in favor of mods or random adventuring. Sunset Overdrive is so self-aware about its outlandish plot, it spends half the time commenting on it themselves. Some open world games even work better without additional dialogue or plot -- a strange contrast that saw Shadow of Mordor winning “Best Story” at the DICE rewards on the grounds of the systemic stories it told, and not its story, which ultimately failed to differentiate itself from any of its brethren.
There’s an insidious pattern repeating itself in sandbox narratives that makes many of these stories feel like they’re ironically trapped inside of a box, even as they theoretically offer large possibilities.
This may be a familiar scenario: your character arrives at a checkpoint where an NPC or other quest giver is located. A cutscene takes over, and your character meets an odd or eccentric individual with varying relevance to the main storyline. He insults or mocks your player in some fashion, begrudgingly admits you may be of some use, then sends you off on a fetch quest across the city/countryside. Rinse and repeat three times.
It’s Seth Briars from Red Dead Redemption. It’s the Comic Book Shop Owner in Sunset Overdrive. It’s any one of Ezio’s faction allies in Assassin’s Creed 2, and if you encounter any of these characters in any of these settings, despite the differences in tone, aesthetic, or whatever, the dialogue and characterization starts to feel as mechanized as the way in-game NPCs might describe tutorials or other mechanical status quos.
For a sandbox game, this repetition and familiarity represents a bigger problem with storytelling -- a struggle for games to attach relevance while simultaneously sending a player off for an urgently specific task. An opportunity to give the player insight on the world around them has become a setup for loot, skills, or other items merely used to notch a “progression” mark forward. With this has come a set of character traits that have the potential to make the player feel jerked around.
This repeating sidequest technique occasionally has uses. Red Dead Redemption, a story about a man consistently jerked around by his obligations, uses curmudgeons and demanding personalities to a degree of relevance. They impede, they sidetrack, and they highlight the long line of barriers between protagonist Marsden and his ultimate wants and needs. Once they vanish as Marsden completes the task laid out for him by the federal government, the mission structure radically changes to a more docile tone. The player sees fewer fetch quests and more extended beats between characters without conflict.
But these badgering quest givers do not feel as welcome in other games. Their tasks serve no larger purpose, their characters are often constructed out of stereotypes that fit the world, and their ability to give player or protagonist a foil of any sort frequently falls flat. And yet this crutch shows up again and again.
Game design is nothing but a flailing charge toward effective solutions, and while quality is a subjective gauge, the mechanical construction of characters and quests have repeatedly passed the bar with designers and players alike. But if sandbox storytelling is to avoid the fate of the classic MMORPG, it must grow in these challenges or else risk falling by the wayside.