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Linear Narrative: Hold My Hand

I don’t know when exactly the discussion started, but it seems that for the past few years now – at least – we’ve been having this same debate: are linear narratives still viable storytelling vehicles in modern video games?

Perhaps that question is a little too industry-specific. How about this: would you rather be told a story, or write your own?

Okay, yeah, you’re right – not quite the same thing. Maybe: Mass Effect or Uncharted? A regular novel or a choose-your-own-adventure book? The Walking Dead or The Last of Us? Tea or coffee?

The answer to all of these questions is the same: it depends. It depends on a whole bunch of things, from personal preference to general mood to the quality of each individual experience. I tend to prefer coffee over tea, for example, but I have a friend who only ever buys cheap, supermarket-brand coffee that tastes like shit – when I’m over there, I drink tea. It’s the same thing with games.

Thing is though, there’s this common misconception in the industry that linear narratives are the enemy; an out-dated concept which doesn’t play to the strengths of the medium, instead appropriating a language video games cannot hope to communicate with as effectively as their own. Which, in a way, is true. But to me the idea of discrediting linear games in their entirety seems a little misguided. Often the best stories are those which are rigidly authored, with no scope for outside influence. Just because video games can allow for a branching narrative driven by the actions of the player, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should. At least not all the time.

And so we come to the point of this column, outside of the fact it’s another of those things I wrote years ago which I’ve been putting off editing and re-uploading until now. I want to defend the honour – and validity – of linear games. And the best way I can think to do that is to take a few I really like, and use them as springboards to leap into some thoughtful analysis of why they work, why linearity often makes for a better, more focused gaming experience, and why everyone should just lighten up about the whole issue.

Do note, however, that due to the fact the meat of this piece is a few years old, some of the references and comparison points may seem a touch out of date. I’m far, far too lazy to rewrite the whole thing, but I’ll do my best to offer some more “current” suggestions whenever that’s appropriate. And the whole thing will be broken into two parts, the second of which will run tomorrow.

Let’s not start with specific games, though. Let’s start by looking at the two broadest components of a linear narrative, and break things down from there.

NARRATIVE/PLOT/STORY

I should point out that those words don’t mean the same thing. In the simplest possible terms: “story” is the sequence of events, “narrative” is the structure of those events, and “plot” is the sum of them. In the games space, “linear narrative” is just a broad term for a game with a pre-determined narrative which isn’t moulded by the choices or actions of the player. In the context of this column, I’m dumping them all in a single category for the sake of expedience.

When a game’s narrative only proceeds down a single path, it must be compelling enough for us not to mind. It isn’t just a case of what the story is or whether it is objectively “good”, but how that story is told – particularly through gameplay.

One of the most common mistakes designers make is assuming that constant action is the best way to keep players engaged. That may well be true in something like, say, Serious Sam, which is above all else a kinaesthetic experience, but it’s a tremendously inefficient way of making you care about a story. Consider Call of Duty: Black Ops, a game which by my own admission has far more dramatic potential than any other in the series, yet one which is still unable to be truly compelling. It revels in almost non-stop violence, bullets and bombs, without ever really giving the player a moment to collect themselves. If you hold it up against Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, in my opinion the series’ single-player high-point, you can see the distinct lack of slower-paced moments and missions which revolve around stealth and/or evasion. Chaos isn’t an appropriate environment for character or narrative development; likewise dramatic contrast isn’t just important for giving those elements their own space, but also for keeping the player engaged.

Dead Space 2 – and, to a slightly lesser extent, Dead Space 3 – is a game which understands that, stringing its intense combat sequences together with moments of relative calm and contemplation. These quieter segments are where you connect with your avatar, but they also give you a counterpoint to the carnage. When you understand and care about the stakes, the action becomes more compelling.

This is a crucial aspect of linear narratives which many, many games get wrong. In an attempt to have games be games above all else, that aforementioned appropriated language becomes diluted and ineffective. But when you’re relying on that language to tell your story, a certain amount of allowances need to be made; it’s okay to try and preserve what makes games unique, but when you’re building drama through cutscenes and in other traditionally cinematic spaces, there’s nothing wrong with committing to a cinematic mentality. The best linear games are those which are content to be games when it’s time for gameplay, but also to do their best to emulate a movie when it’s time for drama.

While it’s true that linearity in games gives the story’s author much more control over what players see and how they act within the confines of the world, it’s equally true that this kind of structure is easy to drift away from and lose interest in if it isn’t properly crafted. I said in my review of L.A. Noire that nothing is more damaging to a video game story than the player; in that case the behavioural freedom of an open world was the issue, but linear games don’t have that problem. Not to say there aren’t other obstacles, but at the very least linear gameplay very rarely runs contrarily to a linear narrative. There’s a synergy and cohesion between the two, which is a distinct advantage in this kind of story.

(Note: I’m intentionally overlooking the whole “ludonarrative dissonance” conversation here, because it’s a completely separate issue).

So the story is important, as is every aspect of how it is structured, presented and paced. But why do we care about the story? Drama and conflict aren’t created in a vacuum. Those things come from…

CHARACTERS

If you’re going to forego multiple storylines and player-determined characterisation, then it’s important you provide us with characters that are strong enough on their own terms to justify that decision. The strength of the writing plays a vital part in this, as does the talent behind a character’s voice and mannerisms. There’s a reason the same handful of voice actors are so prolific within the industry: they’re good at what they do.

Most important of all, however, are developmental arcs. We need to see our characters grow as we progress. Not grow in the sense of gaining levels or becoming more powerful, but actually developing as human beings. It doesn’t matter if they’re flawed – in fact, it’s vital that they are. People are all flawed, and if characters in fiction are relatable as real people they are interesting to follow by default.

I absolutely see the appeal of games like Bioware’s RPGs – such as the Mass Effect trilogy – which take a blank-canvass approach to characters, or Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol, which actually promotes altering the protagonist’s personality as a facet of gameplay. But I also find just as much enjoyment in seeing a character learn, grow and change naturally throughout the course of a story. In most cases, characters – particularly central characters – are direct surrogates for the audience, and they take us through a story in a way which we can follow intellectually and emotionally. They carry the weight. And while I’m aware of the fact that there are countless wonderful and compelling stories in which the characters don’t change one iota, in a linear video game this kind of thing is slightly more important. Over 90 minutes, no change is cool. Over 10 hours… that becomes problematic.

Relationships, too, are important, and I don’t necessarily mean romantic relationships (although they’re fine). But the characters surrounding the protagonist have to grow and change too. Events are shaped by the people within them. Again, the best linear narrative games offer much more than a 1:1 with the main character; they bring a theme, event or idea across through multiple viewpoints.

Next time, I’m going to offer up a handful of games which I personally feel do all this stuff really well.

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