Does Linear Narrative Belong in Video Games?

There’s a lot of criticism of the “interactive movies” that AAA studios continue to churn out. This year’s E3 teasers were as guilty as ever, often relying on nothing but cinematics to get people excited. But is that because the publishers don’t have anything else to show? Is it because their gameplay is nothing special? Or is it because the “interactive movie” is what people really want?

The point of this article isn’t to debate whether or not any narrative is required to make an interesting game, though that topic was thoughtfully discussed recently in this other article on IndieWatch. The point of this article is to consider the style of narrative that is unique to video games: Non-linearity.

Well, okay, not totally unique to video games… (There was Choose Your Own Adventure and there was the movie Clue) …but video games are built around player choice in some form or another. The problem is that we humans have been telling linear stories to each other for thousands of years. We’ve gotten really good at it, and it’s hard to break that mindset.

In college I was introduced to D&D. I love creative writing and telling stories, so I decided to try the dungeon master thing. I spent days crafting a story in advance that I planned on leading the players through. The problem quickly became apparent: my story was rigid. If the players wandered off the path, I became frustrated and lost, and had no choice but to make it apparent that the players were going the wrong way.

It was a little embarrassing, but I learned a lot through experiences like that about the nature of player interactivity in games. Players can feel it when they have no choices, and it often leads to loss of interest. We’ve all had that experience in a video game (You turn and cast your highest level destructive spell at an NPC and they hardly flinch, because they’re not supposed to die).

I’m going to make up a few categories of narrative games for the sake of discussion.


The first category is Linear narrative. This means that there is a distinct story that is being told from start to finish. In most cases, you could capture the cut-scenes and important dialogue, and someone could largely experience the story without the game. Even if a game has a few endings based on some player-choices, or there are a couple of variations in minor details, I’d still call it Linear. Games I can think of in this category would be games like Metal Gear Solid, the recent Tomb Raider games, The Batman Arkham games, GTA, and a lot of horror games like Silent Hill. It may seem odd to see open world games in this category, but while the gameplay is extremely non-linear, these games generally have a main story that is linear.


The second is what I’d call Linear-Branching. It’s an attempt to make a story Non-linear, but only really widens the funnel a little. The story mostly goes in the same direction, but key player-choices, usually in the form of dialogue choices, or quest choices (“who do you want to take with you on this mission?”) allow certain key differences in the events that make the narrative feel a little like the player is responsible for it. Games I can think of like this are the Mass Effect Games and The Walking Dead.


The third is Non-Linear narrative games which are full of narrative, but allow the character to follow paths they choose and hunt down parts of the story they find interesting. The best games I can think of for this category are Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls games.

Have you ever wondered why narratives are even in games? Checkers doesn’t have a narrative. Basketball doesn’t have a narrative. But remember the cartridge art on classic Atari games? There was a story there, even if the technology itself hardly had the capacity to convey it at the time! Why does Bowser need to capture the Princess in order to motivate players to help Mario simply keep running to the right? I think we all, as humans, get it, but it’s worth thinking about.

I think it’s worth thinking about what Game Designers want to accomplish with narrative. First of all, they want the player to have a memorable experience. This is shared between most artistic mediums. We remember stories. We relate to stories. It encourages us to play the game in the first place, it draws us in as we play, and it makes us want to encourage our friends to share the experience afterward.

Secondly, they want the player to have a personal experience, not just an observational experience. This is the unique draw for the video game medium. Why do they make video game adaptations of movies? Because thousands of people watched the movie and said “I want to experience that first hand!” Well, the second-best thing is to play the main character virtually and re-experience a similar story.

Finally, designers want to give the player a reason to keep playing through the game to the end. You have to admit, narrative does do a lot to give structure to a game. You can tell when you’re nearing the end, or when you’ve got a significant journey ahead of you.

I remember when I first switched from reading physical bound books to primarily reading e-books, my first complaint was that I hated not being able to feel how far I was through the book. I missed that sense of knowing about how close I was to the end of the book. If you were asked to just play through Skyrim without any of the conversations, books, or cutscenes, you’d really just be left just running from one place to another, shooting things and retrieving items pointlessly across an expansive landscape, and I doubt anyone would have put in the 100+ hours that is typical for that kind of game.

So what do those three narrative types bring to the table, and which one is “best” for games?

Well, the Non-Linear narrative is amazing when done well. There’s a really good video from Game Maker’s Toolkit on how Fallout leads you through its stories, but allows enough pathways through the events that the game is totally your own experience. Getting to sit around with your friends who have played the game later and sharing how you uniquely played through the game is priceless.

But, Non-Linear narrative is the newest form of story telling, and sometimes it doesn’t quite live up to what it could be. The difficulty of developing stories for every possible choice the player could make means that the game requires exponentially more content. Sometimes plot points don’t exactly line up. Skyrim had its moments where one player would say something like “It’s good to know you’re going to help us” before I had the conversation with someone else proclaiming that I’d be helping them. There’s just no way to make sure all the ends meet the way a flesh-and-blood dungeon master could!

Linear-Branching games, the compromise, can feel forced. It’s obvious in Mass Effect when two important choices lie before you. “Go Disarm That Bomb”, yells one guy while another shouts “If we don’t save that guy right now, he’ll die!” Okay, I get it. These branches can feel contrived, and it only does a little to make me feel like I’m influencing a story. I’m still being led through the game by the hand, but I get to tell my tour guide to take the high road or low road sometimes.

And, maybe it’s just me, but sometimes these games can cause me a little bit of anxiety wondering if I made the “right” choice that will give me the “best” story line or ending. I’m probably not going to play through the game ever again, so I want to make sure I get the best experience the first time. And there’s no guarantee of that, because it’s not usually related to my gameplay performance, it’s simply based on arbitrary choices I’m making. We all know that some endings are “better” than others, and that leads us to feel like our success and failure (as determined by which ending we get) is out of our control.

Admittedly, fully Linear narrative games have a lot going for them as far as their narratives go: writers are good at it. They can craft perfect climaxes, twists and memorable moments. You’re guaranteed to play through the “good” story line. These stories can often move you as much as any great storytelling medium.

The downside, though, are the closed doors along the way. Filmmakers don’t have to worry about the viewers peeking behind a door that the actors don’t open. But that’s exactly what game players are going to try to do. The game designers don’t trust you with the story, and it’s obvious. One of the most common phrases following a cut-scene in GTA: San Andreas is, “You drive, CJ!” You, the player, can’t be trusted to not mess up the story, so you’re left with little else to do than drive or run between important locations, dodging or killing unimportant entities along the way, or killing important characters once the story has determined that, yes, they definitely deserve to die.

“You drive, CJ! Because your driving record is so perfect.”

And, to be fair, we will mess up the story. Because it’s fun. We will turn and shoot our partner in the face after he or she just saved us. It’s hilarious, you have to admit. But did you expect the game designer to have created a branch of the story in which you turn and shoot your partner mid-game? Maybe if you were playing The Stanley Parable, but otherwise, you can’t expect it.

So why do big-budget AAA games tend to favor the full Linear narrative game style? Well, I came up with two big reasons. First, games intended for huge audiences do best when they can guarantee a good experience to the largest amount of people. Having a possibility of missing interesting plot points, or going down the uninteresting storyline means that a percentage of their players are not recommending the game as highly to their friends. Second, it takes a lot of money to create content. If you’re paying big-name actors to voice and mo-cap your games, you’re much less inclined to want to create content for dozens of optional side-quests and alternate story paths.

So which is the winner? Well, in a perfect world, I’d say that games should allow full Non-Linearity to realize their full potential, but it’s just not always possible. Maybe in the future machine learning can make it more of a possibility for a game to react to all possible player choices the way a human can, but that is not this day. And while I’d like to say “if you’re going to make a linear narrative, just write a book,” there have been some amazing linear narratives told in video games, and I’m just as happy to experience them in a video game as I would have been in a book or movie. So, does linear narrative belong in video games? Yes, linear narrative is a beautiful human experience that belongs in every medium. Developers, just don’t insult your players by giving them choices when it’s obvious that they don’t really matter.

I’d love to hear what you think about my categories? Can you think of any more games that fit perfectly into these categories? Can you think of a game that doesn’t fit into any of these categories?

And if you want to support my game development, check out my mobile game for free… there’s almost no narrative in it, so this has absolutely no relevance to the blog. That’s why it’s called a shameless plug! Get Social Sessions on iOS or Google Play

Cover image credit here.

12 thoughts on “Does Linear Narrative Belong in Video Games?

  1. Great article!

    To be fair, though, Dark Souls could be hastily described as a “High Stakes Skyrim with practically no dialogue or narrative” and people easily sink hundreds of hours into that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good job on writing this.

    I know a lot of games with ‘choices’ but actually no choices at all. Bioshock: Infinite is perfect example (actually, one of my favourite games). Wolf Among Us too.


  3. Checkers, sports, etc are PvP games – narrative doesn’t come into play as the objective is to beat your opponent.

    Whereas gaming incorporates narrative to in order to provide an objective.


  4. Great points and much agreed. Sure, even though “walking simulators” may not be a traditional game in that sense, but what’s wrong with it being its own unique genre? As long as the audience comes off with a good experience, that is what matters in the end. Whether it’s a movie, book, game or some other art is irrelevant – it’s just different means of communicating the experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think there is a category missing. The “sandbox narrative”. Starting with games like Minecraft or Don’t Starve. Where mechanics set the frame, but there is rather player-agenda driving the action that scripted narrative. Also games like Death Road to Canada or other Episodic+Procedural Stories have a lot of sandboxy story potential. Even though it is hard to go for something really epic in these games. The classic heroes-journey story arc will be missed.

    Now I want to point you to (massively) multiplayer games, where these forms of narrative stop making sense in a way. It breaks a lot of suspension-of-disbelief when every player saves the world in the same way and does the same things.

    To the positive examples: I recommend to look at EVE online, DayZ (in the early days of the mod at least) and Town of Salem. Especially the later one is remarkable if you don’t know it.
    These games give the players an agenda and structure the interplay between players based on their mechanics. In this environment, even epic events and story arcs are possible.

    I have the feeling something interesting is possible between Survival-Sandbox-Games that are too random to go deep into story arcs and MMOGs that are too restrictive, almost single-player games.
    (Self Promo: We at Konspiracy Games are working on something that seems to be missing in todays games landscape. Come and have a look.


    1. I thought about those games where the mechanics and the interactions form the “narrative”, but I decided that that didn’t fall into the definition of narrative. Those are definitely great ways of allowing players to create their own stories though. It’s a good point.


  6. About linear narrative being the oldest form of telling stories, I see how you get there, but I am not so sure about it.
    If you or your friends have kids, try to tell them a story. The younger they are the more you will realize you will not always follow the given plot. You will adapt when they get afraid or don’t understand. They will even give you lots of instructions how things have to be, that you will integrate. Often in an almost Pen&Paper like style of them identifying with certain figures and roles, but re-scripting the story if they don’t like it.
    The stone-age fireplace narrator might be exactly this ideal form of “A”I you are writing about, that might have a message in mind, but forges the story leading up to it around the audiences experiences, expectations and feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is very true, if you look at ancient myths and stories, such as Greek mythology, there are myriad variations and permutations. Different narrators would ad-lib and change parts to suit their own agenda, whimsy or the needs and sensibilities of their audience. It’s only once they started to be recorded in writing that more linear forms emerge. But in ancient times with an oral tradition there would have been no definitive version, the stories were fluid and in constant flux.


  7. Nice article. But I don’t think there is a best approach to narrative. For me, it’s entirely dependent on the type of game, who it’s aimed at and what you’re attempting to achieve.

    The only thing that frustrates me is games that want to be seen as non-linear and open-ended, but are anything of the sort. For instance, Fallout 4 shoves it central narrative down your throat at every opportunity and contradicts your attempt to roleplay anything over than the character portrayed by the voice actor and the main storyline. Which for me, defeats the point of playing a game like Fallout.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s