Based on sales estimates, more than 5 million people probably bought Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs. It would be interesting to find out what kind of experience they’re having with open-world cyber-hacking game, now that they’ve had time to spend with it. My own experience has made me think about the topic of trying to make a good story sustain itself over such a long game.
Watch Dogs is long, with anywhere from 25 hours to 40 hours of gameplay. I finally finished playing all 46 missions in the narrative storyline of Aiden Pearce’s saga as a vigilante on the streets of Chicago, where modern technology has put the city under the control of a city operating system (ctOS). And even after I finished those missions, I was only about 32.5 percent done, according to my stats. It has plenty of side missions and bonuses to consume.
But there is such a thing as having too much gameplay, particularly when you’re trying to wrap it in a great story. That’s Watch Dogs’ problem. Stretched out over 46 missions, the story loses its power. Ubisoft did its job in providing hours of content for players to enjoy for a very long time. That’s not easy to do in this age of too many distractions. But in doing so, it has also introduced us to the age of diluted drama.
Telltale Games chief exec Dan Connors, whose studio makes top-rated story-based games such as The Walking Dead, made this point in an interview we did at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. He talked about the problem of putting a story with the action combat of Call of Duty, but it applies well to Watch Dogs.
“In Call of Duty, you could see a great cutscene that creates a lot of emotion around the characters that you’re with, but then you go and play the mission, and by the time you come back to the story again, that emotional connection is gone,” he said. “It’s too big of a separation. You can try to carry it through the gameplay experience, but then it’s to the detriment of that gameplay. It’s a hard thing to get both. With Telltale, we just decided to commit to making people care about the characters as much as we could, making the characters feel as real as they could, and then putting the player in compelling situations and making them make choices. We committed to that at the core of the product. That was what the product would be about. Call of Duty is still about being a great action game. It does that very well, but it’s hard to coexist that with strong storytelling in that environment.”
I don’t want to spoil the story of Watch Dogs. But the final mission and the beginning of the game are linked. As you would expect, Ubisoft’s game designers tried to close the loop. They wanted to resolve something that they introduced in the first mission. The trouble was that the game had its natural end. Then they prolonged the ending even longer.
Each aspect of the ending was emotional. And the story was well done and well told. But I had forgotten about the beginning of the game by the time I had reached the 46th mission. And, as Connors noted, Watch Dogs has plenty of ways to distract you from the main story.
I ran a straight beeline from beginning to end. Side missions can interrupt the flow, such as crimes in progress that you, as a vigilante, can stop. You can also get hacked by another player, who steals your data if you don’t stop what you’re doing and hunt the player down in a crowd. You can hack into the smartphones of passersby and find out their secrets or drain their bank accounts. Distractions like that can be a nuisance when you’re in a hurry. And Pearce is supposed to be in a hurry, as one of the major plot points is that someone near and dear to him is being held hostage.
If you forget about the hostage, you start feeling guilty that you’re not playing the right way. I saved all of the distracting stuff until I was done with the story, and we’ll see how much of it I will do now that I’m done with the narrative.
This problem looks like it will get more common as game makers try to deliver bigger blockbuster games with tons of side material. Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear franchise, addressed the problem of the open world-versus-the gripping story.
“You can go wherever you want to go within this map,” Kojima said, talking about an open-ended map in his upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. “The time of day and the weather changes. But the missions are very clear. You have to go somewhere, rescue someone, kill someone, get something back. How you achieve that mission, what time of day you do it, what method you choose, that’s where the freedom lies. Also, it’s a war zone. There are no pedestrians. It’s mostly just animals and armed soldiers. In most games—and I think this is what linear games like The Last of Us do—let’s say you have to rescue someone who’s at this point. In that linear game, you go from point A to point B. You discover story elements, get information, whatever, and then you end where you’re going. In our game, the player can just skip all of this, whatever might be in place. They could accidentally stumble right over here and then call the helicopter and clear the mission.
“The focus here is more on, when you clear the mission, something happens. You learn something about the story. There are different elements that the player can discover. They don’t necessarily have to play through all the missions, through everything. But in the same way that a TV series works, when you get through a chapter, you learn certain things. You don’t learn everything, but you learn certain things about the story. I’m not trying to relate all of this through the cutscenes. There are lots of codecs, a lot of tapes, a lot of text. The player can choose how to find them. They don’t need to all come in order. They don’t need to all appear together. But the player will start picking up these elements and putting the story together, understanding what’s happening. Fitting all this into the timeline, the story will start making sense and develop from there.”
Connors’ The Walking Dead game has its own flaws, as the gameplay isn’t all that interactive. You can make a choice or two, but then you sit back and watch a cinematic—like a short movie—play. Based on your choice, a different outcome will result. These branching games can sometimes feel too diluted by the time you’re done with them.
Of all the games that I’ve played recent, The Last of Us—Sony’s top game from 2013—handles this the best. It conveys story both in the gameplay and in cinematics. It is a long journey, tightly controlled, but with plenty of action. I played The Last of Us for 22 hours. Some parts of it went on for too long. But it was a much more satisfying experience than the longer amount of time that I spent playing Grand Theft Auto V. That game went on for 69 missions, and I didn’t really like the ending I got (of the three available). It didn’t feel like it pulled threads together. GTA V had a wonderful dramatic moment, when two friends were pointing guns at each other as they stood over an open grave. But it wasn’t the end.
The Last of Us, however, was so tightly written that it pulled together the beginning of the game with the end in an emotional and compelling way. I’m not saying that games should be more like movies, with long cutscenes that don’t have interactivity. I just think they need some clever ways to convey story, like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, from last year. That game was an emotional experience that delivered its story even as you played with the game controller. I like the fact that Hollywood screenwriters are coming in to write the scripts for video games. But Connors’ criticism of the conflict between action and story seems like a good point.
Watch Dogs is a great experience, and I would rate it much higher than the average 78 score that it received on Metacritic, the game review aggregator. After all, it held my attention for more than 20 hours and 46 missions. But I wish that its story could beat The Last of Us in terms of being memorable and emotionally charged. I hope that’s the direction that Ubisoft takes the game next, in what is sure to be an ongoing franchise.