“You have abandoned Roman”, Linear Stories in Non-linear Open World Games

So, this is a contradiction in terms. A huge open world game with a … linear story line. I’m talking about GTA IV which came out in 2008 so this bad approach may already have been tackled by now in some more recent game. What piqued my interest was this. I reinstalled GTA IV because I like the open world environment which is done very well. At the beginning you are supposed to be driving Roman back home. I parked at the beach and ran off, ostensibly to check my frame rate while looking back at the city. But, hilariously, the screen fades and says “You have abandoned Roman”. Maybe this is why your character turns to a life a crime. How ever hard he tries, he simply cannot escape his annoying cousin and live a life a freedom in the city of Freedom, New York. But I digress.

Why do these kind of games have linear story lines at all ? Far Cry 3 has the same join the dots story line. Dot’s that only make a single line. Where can I really do something like run away from Roman and actually change the story as easily as I can effect the interacting elements in the open world ? Game designers talk of story lines in high faluting terms, especially evident in the Far Cry 3’s supposedly “meta” story line. A story line that is still linear. Why are game designers still writing linear stories ? There are ways of procedurally generating story events depending on what the player does. I seem to remember there’s a whole branch of mathematics devoted to this kind of thing. A bit like calculating all the possible permutations of connections in a computer chip in order to work out what actually has to be laid down in silicon.

So this is how it should have gone. I start GTA IV. Roman revolts me so much in his badly acted moaning about everything that I immediately jump out the car and run off into the Big Apple (isn’t this what everyone really wanted to do in that game any way to begin with?). Then the scenario might go something like this. I wander through the sensory overload that is a big city. Some schmuck walks up to me and wants me to do something for him. I refuse. Then down the street I over hear someone talking about his corrupt boss and how he suspects that he is running cocaine through his warehouse. I go up and make out that a friend has told me that he works on the docks and that I’m looking for work. That night I start snooping out the joint. If anyone gets suspicious then I can bug out and find another procedurally generated story item somewhere in the city. Maybe all these items add up eventually to make a story arc. Maybe you eventually create a unique GTA story through you own actions. Maybe you don’t care about a story and just want to go on missions. But whatever creative chaos the interacting procedural elements make, at least you won’t be forced to hang around with Roman.

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