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Linear Narrative: Tell Me A Story

Hi there. Welcome back. Last time, we talked about the two broadest components of linear-narrative video games, and why they’re important in crafting a compelling experience. Today, we’re going to talk about some actual games – which is much less scholarly but hopefully slightly more fun. We’ll see.

Note: I’m not going to comprehensively analyse each game. It’d take too long and I’d end up repeating myself far more than I’d like. Instead I’ll try and hone in on one or two things specifically that each does really well.

Also note: I mentioned this in the last post, but I wrote the bulk of this a few years ago and as such some of these games (and other points of reference) may seem a little out of date. Try not to worry about it too much. Wherever possible I’ll suggest more modern examples, and I’m sure you good folks will offer some that I neglect.

Without further ado:

UNCHARTED 2: AMONG THIEVES

The Uncharted series is pretty much a masterclass in linear-narrative design; an experience which works (and could only work) as a tightly-authored rollercoaster ride throughout which you are always the passenger and never the driver. Naughty Dog have linearity down to a fine art, which they would later prove with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and my 2013 Game of the YearThe Last of Us (which does all of this stuff better than pretty much any other game in existence, but hadn’t been released when I originally wrote this).

For my money, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the best of the series simply because of how well it understands and embraces telling such a linear story. Primarily, that dramatic contrast I mentioned in my previous post is used consistently well throughout the whole experience. About halfway through the game, for example, Nathan Drake winds up at a snowy mountain village following a pretty large-scale action sequence. For a surprisingly long time he’s led slowly through the environment in total peace, interacting with the villagers and being allowed to soak up the atmosphere. There’s very little gameplay to speak of here; just a steady walk through a nice-looking area with no threat or intensity at all. When he leaves, it’s to navigate an icy cavern with one of the natives: this is a linear platforming and puzzle sequence, which again has almost no action. Drake’s guide being unable to speak English leads to some interesting character dynamics as they try to help each other out across the language barrier; they eventually become sort-of friends after saving each other’s lives a couple of times, which lends a human element to the enormous gunfight they emerge from the cavern directly into the middle of – in this case, the biggest firefight of the game is preceded by the longest action-free stretch of gameplay so far.

See how that works? The quiet connecting segment comes as a welcome relief, and then the relationship between the characters involved in this chunk of the story is given the necessary context and room within which to develop. The huge shootout which follows is much more tense, interesting and exciting as a result of all this.

Of course, it helps immensely that the vocal talent behind all the characters in Uncharted 2 is rather excellent, particularly Emily Rose, who did the voice work and motion capture for Elena Fisher. The simple “love triangle” between Drake, Elena and Chloe is nothing new or innovative, but it works simply because of how convincing all three are in their respective roles. Aside from Drake technically being a mass murderer, he’s remarkably likeable as a hero, and that he’s willing to risk his life for his companions and jeopardize his relationship with Chloe for the sake of Elena makes him more relatable in that regard. It’s simple, broad-strokes storytelling and characterisation, but it doesn’t really matter when there’s so much competency behind it.

PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME

While we’re on the subject of characterisation, here’s one of my favourite examples of it: the Prince in Sands of Time starts the game as an insecure daddy’s boy whose constant quest for approval actually functions as the catalyst for the events of the entire game. He’s a snotty, self-assured prick who, of course, eventually grows into something much more as a result of the absolute disaster he inadvertently created and, more importantly, his relationship with Farah. But there’s a moment about halfway through when, after realizing that Farah may have romantic feelings for him, the Prince decides that the best course of action would be to forcibly marry her.

This hilarious sense of entitlement is one of the character’s principle failings as a human being, and to see him gradually shed that throughout the game is remarkably satisfying. It is, again, very simple storytelling; really just an extension of the “boy becomes a man” trope, but the way it’s handled in this case is note-perfect pretty much throughout.

BIOSHOCK

Bioshock is perhaps the best example of how linear-narratives are elevated by player involvement. Your path through the creaking, leaking underwater world of Rapture was the same as mine. Whether you rescued or harvested the Little Sisters is unimportant. Your allocation of ADAM and the Plasmids you invested in are arbitrary. We explored the same places with the same character, and at the end we were stunned by the same revelation. The brilliance of the game is that while we were given the freedom to explore and fight however we wanted, to perceive this wondrous world in different ways, the story pinning the whole thing together was exactly the same for you as it was for me, and everyone else who played it. Narrative linearity doesn’t have to extend to gameplay.

Even though the illusion of choice and authorship pervades the entirety of Bioshock, that’s all they are: illusions. This is a linear game. It confines you. During cutscenes, even though you retain control of your character, you cannot have any effect on what happens. But being able to retain that control is what keeps you invested. You watch not because you’re being forced to, but because you want to. The drama and conflict is pre-packaged, but the game trusts you to find it on your own.

There’s nothing more damaging to a player’s immersion than a game forcing you to do what it wants. The best linear games understand that, and they put their faith in the player. There may only be one way to go in order to progress the story, but we want to find that on our own. When we’re able to do so naturally, when we want to, then we’re invested. We care. We don’t want signposts or behind-the-scenes encouragement. If you’re doing your jobs correctly, we won’t need them.

All the games above understand this, and there are countless others which understand it too. Linear games are not dead, nor are they the enemy of the medium. They’re as much a part of it as anything else, and as viable a means of telling stories as all the moral choices and branching narratives in the world. When developers treat their product with care and respect, not as a money-printing machine, and when they trust their audience to understand and appreciate that product for what it is, it really doesn’t matter either way. Sometimes it isn’t about the story itself, but simply how it’s told.

Feel free to suggest more examples of linear games done right in the comments below. I think I’ve taken up enough of your time for now.

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