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The 10 Commandments of Telling Stories in Open-World Games

From ‘Elden Ring’ to ‘Horizon Forbidden West,’ open-world games are everywhere in 2022. But how do you avoid the pitfalls that some of the less skillful titles in the genre have fallen victim to? One legendary video game creative has some advice.

Ringer illustration

If 2022 isn’t Peak Open World, the video game industry is doing a darn good impression of what that would look like. As of mid-March, three of the six bestselling titles of the year were newly released open-world behemoths: Elden Ring, Horizon Forbidden West, and Dying Light 2. (Combined time for “completionist” playthroughs, per HowLongToBeat: 295 hours.) By the end of this year, that trio will probably be joined on bestseller and/or best-of lists by many more open-world releases, such as the brand-new next-gen ports of Grand Theft Auto V (a game that may never stop selling) and some of the most anticipated titles scheduled for release later this year, which include Gotham Knights, Hogwarts Legacy, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, Forspoken, Saints Row, Redfall, and Starfield. (Yet another big-name open-world game slated for this fall, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl, was put on hold in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the most hyped of all, Nintendo’s sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, was just delayed to spring 2023.)

As computers and consoles have gained processing power and internet connections and hard drives have sped up, game designers have learned to leverage the world-building possibilities provided by more immersive graphics, more populated play areas, and diminished loading times. Those tools aren’t always deployed purely in service of creative visions; engagement-chasing companies have discovered that the larger and longer their games, the more time and money many consumers spend in them. In a panel conducted in advance of last week’s Game Developers Conference, video game company Ubisoft teased a new cloud technology called Scalar, which it said would enable developers to “build even bigger worlds.” Coming from Ubisoft, the makers of maps so massive and stuffed with activities that most players see only a fraction of the content they contain as it is, that almost sounded like a threat.

The popularity and prominence of games that give players free rein to explore large worlds in nonlinear ways is not new; see Far Cry 6 and Forza Horizon 5 last year, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ghost of Tsushima, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Cyberpunk 2077 in 2020, and a smattering of other hits in every year dating back at least to the precedent-setting success of GTA III. But the pace appears to have picked up, and the all-encompassing influence of open-world design has rubbed off on a host of formerly linear franchises and genres.

The most recent installments of series such as The Last of Us, God of War, and Resident Evil Village have incorporated open-world elements, and some of the most storied series in gaming have at least partly embraced more expansive open-world structures via evolutions like Final Fantasy XV, Bowser’s Fury, Halo Infinite, and Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Those and other major releases, like last week’s Ghostwire: Tokyo and next week’s LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, have blurred the lines of linearity enough that it’s getting difficult to classify games as open world or not in a binary way. Almost every modern Triple-A title’s setting is open to some degree. If a big-budget shooter, action-adventure game, RPG, or even driving game that comes out today isn’t open world, it has some explaining to do. “Having an open world experience is almost de rigueur at this point,” John Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez is one of the people who’s helped make it that way. Over the past 15 years, he has served as lead writer, lead narrative designer, or narrative director for five different developers: Ubisoft, Obsidian, WB Games, Guerrilla Games, and now Smilegate Barcelona. During that time, he’s presided over the stories of some of the most celebrated open-world games. At Obsidian, he served as lead writer of Fallout: New Vegas (2010); at WB, he created the story for Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014); at Guerrilla, he conceived the world, story, and major characters and quests for Horizon Zero Dawn (2017). He continued as narrative director on Horizon Forbidden West until leaving Guerrilla in July 2020 to join Smilegate’s newly opened Barcelona studio, which is focused on creating—what else?—a Triple-A, open-world console game. When Smilegate Barcelona launched, its CEO said that “open-world games will continue to dominate the video game industry.” That prediction seems safer by the day.

Gonzalez has mixed feelings about the open-world game’s ascendance. “There is a part of me, as much as I love open worlds, that sees this as being consonant with a larger bloat in media in our age,” he says. Many modern media properties, Gonzalez adds, “seek to consume our attention almost in the way that religious systems used to,” and keeping up with the firehose of ever-expanding IPs can be “quite exhausting.”

What’s more, many open-world blockbusters spawn copycats or internal assembly lines; most gamers know what it means when someone says “Ubisoft game.” It’s hard to create a sprawling world from scratch cost-effectively, so when developers find a format that works, they tend to return to it often enough to risk running it into the ground. “For the most part, I don’t think we see a great deal of innovation in open worlds,” Gonzalez says. “We see, instead, a rehearsal of the same formula or formulae, often to good effect.” Yet Gonzalez is bullish about the future of the genre, noting that there’s “a tremendous amount of opportunity” to make games that are capable of “moving forward the open-world experience and taking it to places that haven’t really been experienced, haven’t been played before.”

When Gonzalez says, “There’s no lack of frontiers,” in open-world game design, he’s referring partly to the potential to tell more meaningful stories within these sandbox spaces. In general, open-world games are known for the range of their gameplay possibilities and the scale and splendor of their environments more so than their stories. That’s largely because it’s inherently hard to tell stories in a medium where the game maker, by design, cedes agency to the player, who may or may not pay attention to the plot or behave in ways that are consistent with the canonical story. “Usually what an author can count on is control over pacing and things like that, and you do have to surrender that in an open world, in many respects,” Gonzalez says. Thus, telling a story in an open-world game entails “forging on in the face of the dissonance between the environment and the medium.”

Gonzalez, 53, has done so as successfully as anyone. Horizon Zero Dawn won a Writers Guild Award, a D.I.C.E. Award, and a Golden Joystick Award for writing or storytelling, and both that game and its sequel distinguished themselves by elevating story to the point of true parity with the series’ other selling points. Gamers have gravitated to Horizon games to slaughter robot dinosaurs and admire the scenery and sunsets of a reconstructed, far-future Earth, but they’ve also spent dozens of hours in Guerrilla’s high-profile PlayStation titles—despite some cursed scheduling on publisher Sony’s part—because they want to know more about protagonist Aloy, the postapocalyptic landscape she inhabits, and the pre-apocalyptic civilization whose ruins she scours for information that could help her stave off another extinction. So how has Horizon flourished in an area when its rivals rarely do, and what could designers of future open-world games learn from those that make strong storytelling part of the package? Gonzalez offers the following 10 tips about telling stories in open-world games, gleaned from his history with Horizon and the other open-world touchstones he’s helped create.

1. Understand the distinction between story and narrative.

Horizon Zero Dawn’s innovation from a story perspective, Gonzalez says, was to “take the emotionally compelling narrative of The Last of Us and deliver it in an open-world context, and divvy that up in a way that it wasn’t a problem if players went off on their own, and to tell it in a way that the player wouldn’t get lost and that the player could come back to it and could not only understand what was happening and why the character was pursuing her goals in this next quest, but also why it mattered and what it meant to the character.” Horizon games parcel out their stories via cutscenes, dialogue, and lore contained in text, audio, and holograph logs scattered across the map. All of those story-dispensing vehicles serve an overarching tale that Gonzalez and his colleagues carefully crafted for players to receive in a specific way.

That model works well for Horizon, but open-world games don’t always have to tell traditional stories to pull players into their worlds. Case in point: The bestselling game of 2022, FromSoftware’s Elden Ring, which sold 12 million copies in the first few weeks after its late-February launch. Elden Ring is sucking most of the air from other titles in the market right now,” says NPD Group executive director Mat Piscatella. “It’s an absolute juggernaut.”

Elden Ring is an engrossing game, but not because of its story, a somewhat barebones litany of proper nouns that mostly functions as a framework for the player’s personal journey through the game—less a universally experienced story progression than an individualized “ludic narrative.” In games like Elden Ring and Breath of the Wild, the focus remains on “the richness and depth of the world-interaction dimension, or the combat dimension.” The power flows from the resulting feeling of immersion, and from the satisfaction of leveling up and surmounting obstacles—which, in its own way, can be every bit as fulfilling as a Horizon-style story. “That’s exactly what you want to put a hero through in a story,” Gonzalez says. “You want to just put forms of adversity in front of a protagonist that will call forth the deepest reserves of ingenuity or commitment from them.” Elden Ring’s special sauce is its capacity to replicate the combat design of Dark Souls and other soulslikes in an open-world setting, which Gonzalez says “constitutes an innovation in itself.”

The only drawback of narrative vs. story is that because it hasn’t been crafted for the enjoyment of a wide audience, it may not be as fun to talk about—or, more precisely, to listen to someone talk about. “You always know that you’re in a bad situation when somebody asks you, ‘Would you like to hear about my 25th-level magic-user thief?’” Gonzalez says. “And the answer really has to be, ‘No, I do not want to know about that, but maybe I’m going to have to listen to it.’” To the player, that personal narrative is a “ludic and narrative construct of tremendous importance.” But “except in very rare cases, that’s just not going to be interesting to anybody except a person who has created and played that character.” It’s like describing your dreams or recapping your fantasy football season—fascinating to you, but not necessarily something best suited to public consumption.

How can you tell if you’re experiencing a story or a narrative? As Gonzalez puts it, ask yourself, “Are you basically playing somebody else’s authored story, or are you empowered to in some way forge your own story or your own tale, either through branching narrative or through procedural systems that create an emergent narrative?” There are any number of ways to make a quality open-world game, so either one can work, but designers should be clear about which approach they’re pursuing.

“I would never go to a game and want to impose a story,” Gonzalez says. “I would always want to try to listen to the game project and listen for, what does it want to be?”

2. Prioritize narrative ambitions and world fiction from the start.

Whatever form the narrative/story takes, it’s imperative that the people behind it be on board from the beginning. Guerrilla’s greatest gift to Horizon’s story, Gonzalez says, was to “make narrative a full partner along with design and art in delivering the creative vision for the game.” That partnership stood in stark contrast to the workflow at some studios, where “the story is worked on at the very end, and it’s not part of the ground-up formulation of the game.” In those cases, “The people who are working on the story are in the position of having [strung] together a story that fills in all the holes or connects all the dots that have already been made by the development team. … Unless you’re incredibly fortunate with some strange luck, you’re not going to find a great story in those circumstances.”

Furthermore, unless you’re incredibly fortunate twice over, your game isn’t going to be as great as it could have been if its story had been fully baked. “Art is why it’s beautiful, and gameplay is why it’s challenging and why it’s fun and why it’s engaging,” Gonzalez says. “But those things, if they’re utterly fantastic, don’t necessarily add up to something that has any kind of deeper resonance, and narrative is where you can get that.”

3. Don’t set out to design a world-dominating franchise.

Few studios would be sad if their next game turned into a mega-successful franchise-starter that led to a long line of lucrative sequels and multimedia adaptations. But a studio can get itself into trouble by putting the franchise cart before the good-game horse. As Gonzalez says, “I will frequently hear people talk about how, ‘Oh, we need to not just make a game, we need to imagine a franchise.’ … Basically what they’re saying, even if they’re not using the exact words, is, ‘We need to embrace this grandiose fantasy of having a world-dominating media property and doing that from the very beginning.’”

That’s not to say that writers can’t consider whether a world or character could support more than one game, but it’s tough for corporate planners to engineer a franchise without primo raw material. When a game goes on to found a franchise or transcend the medium, Gonzalez says, “it’s not just because there are smart businesspeople, it’s because the initial vision really had something deep and archetypal and powerful. And that’s how you create great IPs. So if people want to create great IPs, then I think that they need to get great game designers and great artists, and they also need to have really great narrative people involved.” In other words, worry about the first game first, and “if you’re lucky enough to connect deeply with players, you can start worrying about the privilege of building a universe then.”

4. Don’t hold back your best material.

Relatedly, don’t count your sequels before they’re greenlit. “I’ve seen instances where devs have wanted to hold back, to only tell half a story or deliver a partial experience, so the remainder can be saved for later installments,” Gonzalez says. “Which always seems misguided and arrogant to me, because it presumes you can underdeliver to the audience instead of giving them a complete, compelling experience, which is how you actually make a mark and win their attention.” Sure, you don’t want to paint yourself into a story corner, but there’s often a way out of an apparent plot impasse. There’s no solution to being so stingy with story right out of the gate that players won’t want a second helping.

5. Deliver both depth and breadth.

“What you have in an open world is the broadest possible canvas,” Gonzalez says, “and you have an expectation from the player that he or she’s going to be entertained for many dozens of hours.” That entertainment could stem solely from the breadth of the game: how big the map is, and how many side quests and collectables are crammed into it. But a game that gives the player partial control of what the world looks like, how the protagonist’s morality develops, and the paths that the quests and the story take can provide depth that’s missing from most open-world stories.

Fallout: New Vegas is an example of a game that did its best to deliver both,” Gonzalez says, hailing “the richness of the interactivity that you had as an agent with those different narrative elements, like the factions and even locations, just the way that your quest outcomes could change locations and fates of individuals there. And also depth in terms of the intricacy or freedom with which you could achieve the goals of quests, or reach resolutions of quests.”

Granted, New Vegas was notoriously buggy out of the box, which may have been a byproduct of its ambition. But, Gonzalez continues, “I haven’t really seen games attempt to deliver that kind of player-driven open-world experience, and that, I think, is a missed opportunity. It’s quite understandable why it’s not being pursued, because it’s extraordinarily difficult and it takes a lot of time, but I think that that’s something that to my knowledge in open-world games has been basically missing since New Vegas.”

6. Diversify your verbs.

Gonzalez had a hand in designing Shadow of Mordor’s famous “Nemesis system,” which enabled the game’s AI-driven non-player characters to “remember” their prior encounters with the player, setting up grudges and confrontations that were often more memorable than a standard skirmish with an unknown orc. Gonzalez praises the design work that went into the Nemesis system, but he found the finished product underwhelming. For him, the system’s simplistic nature relegated it to the realm of narrative, not story. “It creates lots and lots of narrative that while you’re playing it can be compelling, but the verbs that you have in the system are very limited,” he says.

The Nemesis system allowed players to kill or psychically dominate marked orcs, but that’s where the options ended. Warner Bros. patented the Nemesis system itself, but Gonzalez hopes to see an open-world game build on that basic format using branching, Mass Effect–style relationships. “Will somebody take that sensibility and expand the emotional palette so that you can have a scenario where actual friendships and alliances can be formed, and there’s a possibility for relationships with … fully valid beings?” he wonders, noting that a “procedural narrative engine that had a possibility for other forms of relationship would be really interesting to see. Really complicated and difficult, but really interesting.”

7. Make the story reinforce the exploration.

Exploration and navigation are central to the appeal of almost every open-world game. Gonzalez credits the resonance of Horizon Zero Dawn’s story partly to the fact that it “leaned so heavily on the players’ desire to explore and understand the world.” Aloy’s world is a picturesque playground that invites players to visit every remote region. Conveniently, her quest calls her to every corner of the map, quenching the player’s curiosity. The story works so well because Aloy’s motivations and desires mirror and amplify the exploratory impulse that players possess from the start: We want to see and unravel the mysteries of this familiar yet foreign world, and so does she.

8. Tie the sidequests to the main quest.

Another redeeming feature of Horizon Dawn’s story, Gonzalez says, is that “the sidequest content in the game was so thematically consonant with the main quest.” Most of the optional missions Aloy takes on cling to the spine of the main story rather than existing separately. The player doesn’t accept sidequests in Horizon solely because they lead to items or experience points, or because doing so will send the completion counter a tick higher or remove an icon or journal entry from the map or menu. In theory, and typically in practice, the series’ sidequests also shed light on aspects of Aloy’s personality or lend detail to her world.

9. Don’t litter the world with extraneous lore.

Horizon has a lot of lore, but Gonzalez didn’t want the pickups strewn around the world to take up the player’s mental energy without offering a strong return on narrative investment. “Either they would shed light on some aspect of the apocalypse that occurred, or they would be another moment from the story of the side characters who all had arcs, and their involvement with the ancient past,” he says. “Or they would be some kind of satirical take on the world that was, and how it fell apart.”

The goal was to give glimpses into the past that would be painful, poignant, or amusing while also illuminating the death throes of the old world and the origins of the new one. Ideally, these tidbits would be “not just a matter of cerebral curiosity,” but would flesh out the theme of the familial love and acceptance that Aloy lacks. “The anti-example for me for what we wanted was the books in the Elder Scrolls games. … I’ve never managed to read one of those books from digital cover to digital cover. They have no relevance and they don’t evoke any particular feeling in me,” Gonzalez says. His editorial direction for Horizon Zero Dawn was, “‘Let’s be an anti-lore game.’ Like, let’s have a game that people praise the lore and how awesome the lore is, but let’s never view it as lore, and let’s always view it as something that has to be drenched in story and surprise and emotion. What we didn’t want was the equivalent of lore from the fantasy game that says the sword of Vlar was forged by the wizard Marg in the cave of Shnark in the fourth age of Blurg.”

Another objective was to link the lore with the present setting. “A lot of people in Horizon just want to kill a robot dinosaur, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Gonzalez says. “But the idea is if you want to read about, let’s say, the disputes between the Carja and the surrounding tribes, then have that stuff be not just intrinsically interesting in all of its narrative details, but have it still be playing out in many ways throughout the world that you are adventuring in, so it actually remains relevant.”

10. Don’t make scope cuts that undermine the story.

Adhering to most of the preceding steps, Gonzalez says, “requires designing the story (or narrative experience) in great detail well before actual production starts, and making an unshakable commitment to delivering every piece.” Unfortunately, that follow-through is a rarity in the chaotic arena of video game development, where delays are endemic and it’s common to cut the scope of a project to reduce the budget, make a deadline, or “find the fun.” The coherence of Horizon Zero Dawn’s story, Gonzalez says, was partly a testament to its status as “the only game that I’ve ever worked on where every single narrative beat of the main quest that was spec’d out was actually built and delivered.”

Shadow of Mordor was different. “During that game I went on a vacation and came back and the creative director said, ‘Good news, everybody loves the story so much that with the scope cuts we’re just going to cut it in half, because we don’t want to change it. We’ll just make it into two games,’” Gonzalez recalls. Consequently, he says, “there were just a lot of things that weren’t included or were sort of executed in strange ways later” (some of which wound up in the sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War). Although that surgery may have been spurred by a misguided desire to preserve the story, “That’s not how stories function,” Gonzalez says. “It’s not, ‘Everybody loves the symphony so much we’re just going to cut it in half.’ … There’s an organic whole that needs to be delivered, and I think that actually just rarely happens.” Conscientious planning is crucial, but it’s also essential to stay the course.

If all (or most) of the above almost miraculously comes to fruition, then there’s little else to do but sit back and watch. Gonzalez says, “There’s nothing that’s been more satisfying to me in my entire career than watching “Let’s Play” videos of Horizon Zero Dawn, where people are astonished at the moments of big revelation and cry at the end. … There’s this feeling, looking at their faces, that that’s something they’re going to remember, and that the story and the character is something that resonates on a human level for them. … That’s something that for me has almost a sacred dimension, is that when I see a story that’s just so beautifully, profoundly told, I feel as though life is worth living. And I feel like it helps me look at my own life and the lives of people around me in a renewed way, and to have a deeper appreciation for what it is to be human in the very specific, small, local way that I experience it.”

That sentiment sums up the vast and still largely untapped promise of open-world storytelling: Where else can you hope to get cathartic insights into the human condition and destroy robot dinosaurs too?