Watch Dogs vs. Sleeping Dogs: Narrative In Open World Games
I started playing Watch Dogs not long ago, and decided within about 20 minutes that Aiden Pierce was a combination of Batman and The Doctor.
It made a surprising amount of sense: He’s a vigilante who hides among the shadows following the death of a family member. He can interact with any electronic device from a distance. He steps into the light only when he has the upper hand. And most importantly, violence doesn’t seem to be his end goal. Pierce is disdainful of the killings his colleague Jordi carries out so easily, and spares the life of his niece’s killer when he could have shot him dead.
My Aiden Pierce is Batman. My Aiden Pierce is The Doctor.
Then I started encountering the forced combat sequences. Watched helplessly as my efforts at stealth collapsed the moment I was spotted by a lone enemy. Realized the game kept leaving guns lying around at key points, as if to suggest “Pierce is going to need this now”.
No he doesn’t, Watch Dogs. My Aiden Pierce is Batman. My Aiden Pierce is The Doctor. You promised me complete freedom, and if that means I want to be a pacifist, by God I’m going to be one.
Several excruciating hours and dozens of deaths later, I’m entering a room to save a hostage from armed guards. They immediately spot me when I enter the room. Stealth is not an option. The majority of hackable objects will not disable targets. And when I finally defeat them (by turning down the game’s difficulty) an armored Enforcer enters the room who can’t be taken out with a melee attack.
Watch Dogs’ marketing promised complete freedom. Its cutscenes implied the option of being a non-violent character. Even assuming I read the character wrong, my experience still runs counter to what I expected going in. So what’s happening here?
The term “ludonarrative dissonance” gets thrown around a lot when describing these issues. It refers to the idea of story and gameplay in a video game not really synching up — like a character being opposed to murder in cutscenes, but the player then gunning down thousands of enemy soldiers during playable portions. The term itself has arguably been overused by game journalists in recent years, but it’s incredibly useful for open-world games, a genre that is increasingly common across all platforms.
But gameplay alone isn’t enough.
Player agency, the freedom to complete missions and side quests in any order, and sheer wealth of gameplay in open-world titles are certainly impressive. But gameplay alone isn’t enough. If you’re also telling a story, you need a narrative, even a basic one that provides some context for the player’s actions. And as soon as narrative is introduced to an open-world game, your character’s personality should reflect the range of actions they’ll be completing to maintain consistency. In a truly open-world game, that’s harder than it sounds.
In an open-world city, your default actions usually amount to a Grand Theft Auto level of freedom. Players can go anywhere in any vehicle, and are free to start a mass rampage in-between missions if they get bored. The problem is that early Grand Theft Auto games weren’t about complete freedom: They were about freedom in context to a very specific narrative. Player characters were lowly criminals making their mark in a corrupt city, so gameplay choices highlighted how awful the protagonists were capable of becoming. Playthroughs focusing on missions and avoiding the police addressed career criminals. Those about destroying city blocks in Liberty City addressed sociopathic monsters.