Micro-Essay: The World is Yours! Player Narratives in Open-World Games

By: Dawson Melo-Geldart

The readings for this week’s theme offered some very interesting insight into player-created narratives, and the communities that exist to facilitate this. While the essays tend to focus on modding and machinima, I was intrigued and inspired by the discussion and analysis of gaming communities themselves. However, I think this topic needs an updated, contemporary analysis, as the essays only deal mainly with games more than a decade old. With the exponential rate of technological advancement, games and their communities have changed drastically in recent years. Therefore, I’m going to look at more recent games and how player narrative and game-related communities have transformed. Specifically, I’m focusing on player-created narratives and communities in multiplayer games other than first person shooters.

Game worlds are changing with with the advance of technology, and with them, developers are changing their approach to video game design. Newer technologies, both in hardware and software allow massive worlds to exist in multiplayer networks with populations in the 10,000s and players are certainly loving the freedom that comes with these game worlds. Even FPSs, whose worlds historically were mainly relatively small and restrictive maps, are now moving into an open-world setting with games like Destiny. This creates a problem for developers however, as creating a massive open-world is difficult enough, but populating that world with interesting, diverse quests and narratives is incredibly challenging and time consuming. Therefore, some recent games turn to the players themselves for the narratives, ushering in a whole new era of player control over action and interaction in the game world.

Player narratives are no longer solely based on videos that create a narrative different from the one in game, if one even exists. According to the readings, this was most noticeable and prevalent in the usually narrative-free FPS multiplayer modes. Now, with the rise in popularity of massive, open-world games, players are not only encouraged, but forced to create their own narratives, objectives, and even gameplay within a game that provides only the world or universe, and mechanics to players.

With this shift, also came a change in the communities related to these games. No longer are communities just formed of people who play the game together and discuss/mod the game on external platforms (e.g. website forums). Now they can represent actual communities in-game, where members have specific roles and responsibilities to fulfill, and, as a community, they develop, or participate in developing, the game’s narrative. These communities have their own internal politics and economies, and raid or go to war with other in-game communities. Some examples of games like this are EVE online and Minecraft, the former having an in-depth political and economic system, and extensive inter-community rivalries, while the latter allows communities to modify and exploit the endless in-game world as they see fit.

I believe that game developers are recognizing the strength of these communities at creating/changing gameplay to suit their specific desires, and, as such, more and more open-ended games are being released. Instead of players subverting the developer’s intended narrative to create their own, these developers now focus their energy on designing an expansive, usually procedurally-generated, world and a set of interesting, exciting, sometimes challenging, but nonetheless unrestrictive mechanics, and letting the player or community create the narrative and the mechanics of player interaction.

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