How to weave a game’s narrative neatly into its open-world design is a problem every game of that type faces. There is an inherent silliness in having a player spend most of their time rummaging around for collectables while the end of the world is looming, and this issue gets more pronounced the more straight-faced and serious the game’s story is. There are many ways to mitigate this problem, some of which I will outline below.
The justifying it using in-world logic technique
This is the method employed by The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and Mad Max. In both games there are quests (in Morrowind, typically optional quests such as those for factions) which require some skill or item which, to get, requires you to engage in the very same open-world activities that are presented for you to enjoy between quests.
In Mad Max this will be a car or stronghold upgrade part, the collection of which are otherwise optional – it essentially marries those side activities to the main story such that it doesn’t then feel silly to be doing them even though, at certain parts of the story, it still is.
In Morrowind you are told very early on in the main story that in order to actually stand a chance of ultimately winning you’re going to need to get stronger. The game is telling the player that, even when farting around, you are still essentially working towards that ultimate goal. The farting around is part of the narrative, therefore.
This technique is really only possible if your narrative doesn’t have any hard time-pressures built-in. It’s very difficult to justify the farting around when the world is literally going to explode tomorrow.
The other problem with this solution – when done as in Morrowind where these moments come in the form of locking the next story part behind a particular skill level – is that it requires the player to invest a significant amount of time in order to see through the main story content. In an age where videogames are incredibly mass-market and few people have the sort of free time available that many of us had when we were kids, this is not an ideal solution nowadays.
The you-know-it’s-silly, we-know-it’s-silly, but let’s never speak of it and pretend it’s not happening technique
This is basically the default position that every open-world game falls into if they haven’t borked anything up, or addressed it in some other way. For instance if you say, “we’ll meet here at dawn” as opposed to, “we’ll meet here tomorrow morning” you can side-step drawing attention to the fact that it is extra-ordinarily unlikely it will literally be the next morning you meet on account of these flowers which aren’t going to pick themselves. The first style of delivery implicitly acknowledges that there’s a whole world to explore and is giving permission to the player to explore it.
I’ve recently been playing Horizon Zero Dawn, and there was a moment in that where a major character asks for your help with something tremendously important to him. By the sound of the way the conversation played out, it would seem that ultimately this is an optional quest to do or not do but the trouble was, at the time the request was asked of me the main character all but flatly refused – in stark contrast with every side quest where accepting is the only choice (although you’re free not to then do the quest). As well as drawing attention to the fact that, therefore, all my previous side-questing has been a bit silly, it also meant that either this moment of refusal is, or all my previous accepting of side quests have been, out-of-character. My entire suspension of disbelief collapsed in that moment and it made me like the main character a lot less since refusing this particular request (asked of me by someone I’m friendly with), in the context of accepting all the others (from strangers), was basically a dick move.
So, to me, this moment represented a bit of a cock-up in the story design and characterisation. It seems impossible to me that they would have assumed that anyone playing wouldn’t have done any optional activities by that point in the game, so it comes across as if the narrative writers took their eyes off the larger game world ball in that moment, when it could have been avoided simply by the main character agreeing to help and instead leave it to the player to decide not to bother (or ideally, give me those three optional responses – compassion, strategic, aggressive – that every other moment like this would get).
The just-roll-with-it, who cares? technique
This is the technique of every single Yakuza game to date where the silliness of the concept of doing side-activities when there’s a main story going on is positively embraced by going all-in on the silliness of the side quests and activities. That almost every side-quest culminates with Kazuma looking to the skies in a moment of, “what on Earth am I doing?” takes the silliness of the concept and turns it into an intentionally comedic moment, borderline fourth-wall breaking. It adds to Kazuma’s character rather than break it – the fact that the Dragon of Dojima is a man who will frequently get himself involved in incredibly stupid situations is endearing and is much of why he’s such a popular character. It’s incredibly successful, although this is clearly not a strategy that will work terribly well for most everything else.
Ultimately, it’s a difficult problem to solve but I think it’s something which needs more attention than what is often done, which is to write a story and then sprinkle the world with activities and side quests as if those things are wholly independent elements. Until we become accomplished at entwining stories into open-world design – crafting stories which really fit that game style – the silliness will continue to remain and it will instead be entirely the player’s responsibility to pretend it’s not the case.