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.
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.