Over the last few years, there’s been a growing animosity towards linear games, both from consumers and from developers. In accordance with this, we’ve seen a huge upswing in the number of games that try to offer the player choices that will lead to different endings. This non-linearity has generally been well-received, but still seems to be a formula in need of perfecting.
The most common problem in non-linear games arises when the player is simply given a choice of polarity, without an array of options in between the poles. The Fable series provides a good example of this; one simply chooses to be good or evil, and that choice dictates which of the two story paths you go down. The problem with this is that no gray area exists, despite every player who plays these games falling somewhere in the gray area between good and evil. Nobody’s perfect, after all.
Another fairly ubiquitous problem in non-linear games is how often the player chooses which ending they want in an entirely arbitrary fashion. We’ve seen an extreme example of this recently, in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The ending of the game is decided by pressing one of several buttons, each button producing a different ending.
If we expect to see truly non-linear games, it will be necessary to have the forks in the road occur in much more organic ways, perhaps so much so that the player doesn’t even notice when the forks are occurring. Ideally, an interactive narrative shouldn’t feel like a series of forks at all, but a path that is being built as it transpires.
Before we even consider how to improve non-linear storytelling, however, we must first give some serious thought to whether there’s anything inherently wrong with linearity in games. After all, it works for virtually every other form of narrative media, right? The inclusion of interactivity in games doesn’t necessarily preclude the inclusion of linearity.
Personally, I’ve never been bothered by linearity in the narrative of a game. I don’t think many other people have either, if they really think about it. What I think people have a problem with – and I might just be projecting here – is linearity in the environment(s) of a game. The recent trend in first-person shooters to have the entire game take place in a linear series of corridors is almost universally reviled, when compared to the level design of older FPSs. Games like Doom and Unreal had tons of areas to explore, many of which had no contents critical to the core objectives. This stands in stark contrast to the Call of Duty model of forcing the player through a narrow sequence of set-pieces and cutscenes, with no time to explore.
Linearity of environment and linearity of narrative have very little to do with each other, though. You can very easily have one without the other. Many fantastic games have been made with completely linear story progression, but wide open environments with plenty of optional areas to explore. I’d be tempted to argue that this is actually the ideal arrangement for most games.
Pick up almost any Zelda game to see a prime example of this design ethos at work. The environments are big, open worlds filled with fascinating scenery and teeming with life. Hours can be spent wandering the world, exploring and adventuring. But at the end of the day, there’s still only one plot unfolding. No matter how far you wander, you’ll always come back to the same quests and the same end to your journey. Ganon is still gonna end up dead.
So the answer to the earlier question must be a resounding NO. Linear narratives are not inherently bad. In fact, sometimes a non-linear narrative can be a detriment to a game. Some games – perhaps even most games – simply shouldn’t have non-linear narratives. Most importantly, even those that benefit from a non-linear storyline should keep it within a reasonable scope.
Many people would disagree with this, but to me, the recently-released Mass Effect 3 is an example of a game with too much non-linearity; too broad of a scope, in other words. After playing through it myself with a fresh character (ie. not importing a character from the previous game) and then watching it played through by someone who imported a Mass Effect 2 character with all the side quests complete, it was bewildering how much of what we saw in our respective stories was completely different.
The problems with this are myriad. Firstly, such a wide array of possible outcomes makes it nearly impossible for most players to see all of the game’s content. It would take several play-throughs – of a game that is by no means short – to witness every possible outcome. This of course raises another issue: development time and money must be spent making content only a small percentage of players will ever see. This is great for the franchise fanatic, who has played the first two games thoroughly, and who is willing to play the third game over and over again to see the different options. Everyone else, however, is getting an experience that could have been much fuller had all the developer’s effort been put into the single storyline they witnessed.
One could argue that the Mass Effect team had enough time, money and talent to make all of the branches of the storyline satisfying and full. If this is the case, however, one must wonder what they could accomplish with the same resources if only one narrative had to be created.
At the end of the day, it will come down to the proverbial “different strokes.” There are undeniable trade-offs that must be made for the sake of non-linearity, and it’s up to gamers to decide whether they’re worth it. The important thing to remember is that if non-linear games are to made, they must be made because the core ideas of the games lend themselves to such a format, and not because there’s anything inferior about making a linear game.