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Striking the balance of autonomy and narrative

Why I Love: Auroch Digital's Nina Collins digs into the guided open-world of Sucker Punch's Infamous

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Nina Collins, production manager at Auroch Digital working on games like Steve Jackson's Ogre and Actung! Cthulhu Tactics.

What makes a game really sing for me is when the developers strike a balance between guiding you through a great story and giving you the freedom to make choices and go off track.

I find that going too far in either direction can ruin a game. I've played titles where there's no chance for you to figure out things for yourself because no sooner have you entered a new area before your 'companion' runs ahead and declares 'oh look, some stairs!'

Then there's the other end of the spectrum (which I fully appreciate some people love): when a game is so open that you have no idea what you're supposed to be doing and end up sailing round the seas aimlessly looking for a cause…

"By the end of the game you have a vast map to run around, go back and complete side missions and explore areas you may have missed. This helps in guiding you through the story whilst not overly holding your hand"

There are a few a games that, for me, have really managed to get the balance right between narrative strength and autonomy, and Sucker Punch's 2009 title Infamous really nailed it.

Let's start with the narrative, a strong comic book-esque story with a well-balanced protagonist named Cole, who reflects both the good and evil routes you can choose. The narrative is clearly signposted in the open map, which you can easily follow and come back to no matter how many side missions you run off and get distracted by.

The open world is managed well by the mechanic of unlocking areas. (Cole must unlock each of the city's three main boroughs by restoring the power grid first, as he needs electricity nearby to charge his powers and heal his wounds.) So by the end of the game you have a vast map to run around, go back and complete side missions and explore areas you may have missed. This helps in guiding you through the story whilst not overly holding your hand.

For those players who lean more into structured levels, the underground tunnels are there specially for you! The nature of these areas means you have one route to take with a clear objective at the end. These are nicely spaced throughout the game and stop any fatigue in running around the city. Importantly, they're usually linked to powering up your skills and act as a tantalising palate cleanser from the rest of the gameplay.

Infamous offered a unique take on climbing mechanics

One of my favourite things about this game, which adds to this balance of narrative and autonomy, is your ability to climb anything. When your objective is to get to the top of a frighteningly tall building (I'm terrified of heights and this game seriously made my feet go wobbly at certain points), you have to spend time figuring out which way to go whilst considering all possibilities.

Inevitably, you'll make some mistakes, maybe even get stuck or make a misstep and fall from the building. Sucker Punch makes this process fun, though, making exploration and the possibility of getting lost rewarding. It's a lot more entertaining than having your character climb up a rock face, only using surfaces which look suspiciously different from the rest of the terrain. You might want to throw the controller at your TV, but what's not fun about that!?

There are lots of other other reasons why I love Infamous but this is the core of why I find it such a rewarding game. Signing off now to go and set my PS3 up, as after writing this I need to play it again.

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.

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Nina Collins

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