Bungie’s game "Destiny," for example, sets players in a complex, gorgeous world that few actually understand, plot-wise. Or look at "No Man’s Sky," a much-hyped, sprawling open universe that greatly disappointed players, in part, because it has no story whatsoever.
Now a soon-to-be-released game is aimed at giving players that open-world experience with a clear story line. In "Mafia III," due out Oct. 7 from developer Hangar 13, players step into the shoes of Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam
vet and member of the city’s black mob. Clay wants to avenge his fallen colleagues by wiping out the city’s Italian mob. The lead writer of "Mafia III," Bill Harms, and its creative director, Haden Blackman, thought hard about how to let players roam free through the streets of their New Orleans-inspired city New Bordeaux — without losing the plot.
Harms and Blackman spoke to The Washington Post about how they’ve tried to strike that balance. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Hayley Tsukayama: From the previews I’ve seen, it’s clear you all have put a lot into New Bordeaux. But you also have a very clear story. How do you bring the two together?
Haden Blackman, creative director: When we first started working on "Mafia III," we tried to look at what was the franchise known for. Narrative is hugely important to the franchise. But one of the criticisms of "Mafia II" was there wasn’t a lot to do in the open world that didn’t have a lot to do with narrative.
Early on, we made the decision that we would form the narrative and gameplay together. There are tent-pole narrative beats in the game, like big set-piece missions. But the time you spend between those is yours to own.
Tsukayama: Give me an example of how that looks for a player.
Bill Harms, lead writer: Fictionally the thing about the mob that helps us is that it’s a very rigid hierarchy. Every person you go after is part of the mob hierarchy [and the responsibility] kicks up to the person above them. We have nine urban districts, plus the bayou. Each has two rackets, to match the ecology of the district. For example, Downtown is the seat of city government, so it’s construction and blackmail. [In the] French Ward [the game’s version of the French Quarter] people go to party, so it’s prostitution and drugs.
But then, for example, one boss lives in the top of a high-rise hotel, and that’s a big mission to take him out.
Tsukayama: And you can tackle these missions in different orders? As game designers, how do you keep track of all those moving parts?
Harms: Giant Excel spreadsheets? [laughs] The biggest challenge is tracking everything and having various conversations feed in to reinforce what the player’s doing. For example, if you take the construction site down first, then blackmail, we have ways to reinforce the narrative of the player's actions.
Tsukayama: It sounds like this philosophy of balance is soaked into the design of the city as well. Did you choose New Orleans specifically because its districts fit that mold so well?
Blackman: Making New Bordeaux allowed us to refer to things people know and then take liberties. For example, we widened the streets because with real New Orleans streets, doing a 90-mile-per-hour chase would be challenging with all the one-ways and the narrow streets. And New Orleans is very flat, but we were able to add hills and whatnot to set our scenes. All of that is really driven by the need to make feel like a robust gameplay space.
Harms: It’s about freedom and not being confined to a specific game space. You can drive around and listen to the radio in between missions.
Tsukayama: I like the idea of downbeats, or slower times in the game. It annoys me in open-world games when you have an urgent mission, but then get asked to help save a neighboring village — something completely unrelated and maybe cool but that takes you out of the game.
Harms: In terms of mission, we do have a heightened immediacy — that’s something we talked about a lot. We wanted to let you drive around in your muscle car if you wanted, without having [a big mission] in the back of your head you’re struggling to get back to. But if there’s a mission where you need to rescue someone, that unlocks at the last possible moment, so players feel compelled to push forward through the story.