In narrative driven video games, there tend to be two major schools of thought. On one side you have the “old-school” style of thinking in which stories are presented linearly, much like a book or a movie would be. More recently though, we’ve seen many games from western developers featuring non-linear stories. What this means is that the player can have a significant impact on when and how certain events play out in the game.
The most notable example of this style of story telling is BioWare’s Mass Effect series. In those games, players create a character (male or female), choose their appearance, and embark out into a rich sci-fi universe. Not only do players choose the appearance of their character, but they also choose how their character behaves. Every time you interact with another character in Mass Effect, you choose what the character you made will say, and what you say can and will have a profound impact on the game. Players who choose their words carefully can avoid certain conflicts altogether, while a more aggressive style might earn a few more enemies than other players. Sometimes, your actions can even determine whether or not major characters will die.
|An example of the dialogue system in Mass Effect.|
A serious downfall to this kind of game is that developers are invariably signing up to make a game of incredible scope. The player has to literally be allowed to do anything in the game, which means countless options have to be thought up and programmed into the game. And if there’s ever a point in which the player wants to do something, but is unable to, a huge fissure is created in the whole immersion thing. You don’t ever want the player to feel like they weren’t given an option to do what they wanted to do.
Another problem with this type of story telling is that it can sometimes ruin the rising and falling action of a narrative. In a “perfect” story, tension should be rising gradually until it reaches the climax of the story (something like a final boss fight in the case of video games) where all the tension is released. Then, all the loose ends will be tied up in the falling action at the end of a story, which is usually fairly brief. But if the player is given the freedom to create their own story where anything can happen at any moment, they could have numerous miniature climaxes on their way to a game’s end. Perhaps a character they love will die only a quarter of the way through the game, whereas a better time for that moment moment would have been at the very end.
So with this type of storytelling, you can create much more immersion in exchange for much more work and a slightly less succinct story. That’s where linear story-telling can sometimes have an advantage.
Point and click adventure games are one of the best examples of this kind of story telling, and you can’t mention adventure games without mentioning LucasArts’ Monkey Island at some point. This long running series of games is known for its colorful characters and humorous witty dialogue. And while you do sometimes have the option of choosing what the protagonist (a wannabe pirate named Guybrush Threepwood) has to say, it will never actually have an impact on the story. This is a common game design trick referred to as the illusion of choice.
|The protagonist attempts to weasel out of a tight spot.|
For all the benefits of linear storytelling, sometimes designers don’t want the player to just feel like they’re having their hand held as they travel through a narrow storyline. Particularly, if there aren’t many points where the player is given free reign to do as they please, the illusion of choice can sometimes be a valuable tool for making the player feel free. Obviously different designers will have different things to say, but for my money, the illusion of choice isn’t worth it, as a seasoned gamer won’t be fooled by the often paper-thin ruse, and I don’t believe that there’s anything inherently bad about a fundamentally linear storyline.
Sometimes, rather than creating peppered moments of the illusion of choice throughout the game, developers will scattered one or two specific moments in a story where the plot can diverge. A great example of this is in the first Metal Gear Solid. The player must resist torture in order to save the life of a particular character in the game. If they give in, the character will die and give you a completely different ending to the game. Nothing the player does outside of this scene will have an impact on the story. Of course, the only problem with having multiple endings to a game like this is that eventually a particular ending will have to be selected as canonical if sequels are ever made (though lately it’s become more commonplace for sequels to read the save files of previous games to determine which ending the player got when they played).
|Solid Snake resists torture. Press the Select Button to SUBMIT!!!|
A linear story is a succinct, complete vision. All stories throughout history have been linear, after all. Video games are somewhat unique in their ability to tell stories where the listener has an impact on what happens, but that doesn’t mean that thousands of years of human storytelling has to be thrown out for the sake of total freedom. While I don’t think that non-linear narratives in video games are an utter waste of time, they can often be a red herring and actually hamper the goals of the designer, rather than serve them. It’s a shame to sometimes see developers waste energy trying to create an entire universe for the player to feel “freedom” in while forcing them along a one-way storyline. Not all games need to give the player control of the narrative!