So Uncharted 3 releases next week. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this game since…well, since about 18 hours after Uncharted 2 released. And the early reviews are great. But it seems like every time a lauded, high-profile release comes along with a linear story, we get into this crazy conversation about…well, about how inferior linear stories are.
For that matter, Arkham City kind of leads into this conversation, since its story is absolutely linear in the telling; the player can just take his sweet time in progressing it if he chooses to do so. Increasingly, players expect to be able to direct not only the action in a game, but the course of its story, and understandably chafe at games that don’t give them this freedom.
Now, I don’t think we’re exactly in danger of linear stories disappearing from games entirely. But it’s not the unfortunate evil that a lot of players (and, arguably, developers) make it out to be. Sometimes, it’s not all about you.
…Except When It Is
Well…okay. Video game design, and everything that goes into it, should be all about the player; the “you” who is playing the game. Sometimes games stumble with that. That’s not how other forms of entertainment are, necessarily; movies, music, and books can all be quite self-centered and succeed for it. But not games. Games are about giving the player an experience. That needs to be built to maximize the player’s positive response.
And that’s where we get the idea of player choice in the first place. A game, as my professor Jesse Schell defines it (quoting Sid Meier), is “a series of interesting choices.” That’s any game, not just video games. But video games, obviously, can offer certain interesting choices that it would be hard for other games to do. That’s where we get this idea of making choices that shift the narrative around. You are the hero. This is your story.
And that’s, you know, awesome. I love that there are games in which I feel like I’m an important part of a situation. Some of my fondest memories, at least from the perspective of narrative experience, come from games that gave me a lot of latitude to direct my character’s actions. But they don’t all have to be that.
…Because Sometimes It’s About Them
Occasionally we still get into this realm of discourse where we assume gamers are all pretty much the same. Even those of us on the inside. I think this is partly because, for a while there, gamers had the perception of being besieged by non-gamers: the video game violence debates and the allegations that games were making all of our kids fat and stupid and lazy and so on. That kind of thing makes it easy for a group with a common interest to band together, in spirit, and assume an us versus them mentality. We’re us. Us is together.
Well, and then there’s the highly adversarial element that thinks that if you don’t like exactly what they like you must be an idiot.
But the fact is, as with anything, there’s a huge array of people that play video games, and it’s growing every day. Contrary to what seems like popular belief, it would be tremendously unwise to cater only to a specific set of gamer. Besides, none of us have time to play all the games that are made for us, much less the ones made for people that like the other stuff. And believe it or not, there are those amongst us – say, me – who can still really get into a linear story well-told.
Why not just see a movie? Well, for one, because movies don’t always offer the stories I want to hear. Also, I like gameplay, too. The fact that I like games with lots of cutscenes (if they are well done) does not mean I hate interactivity. If I’m bothering with these games then the developers have done something right in their conception; they’re making it worth my while.
Oh, Yeah, And Also Those People
Besides which, sometimes a story works best if the “author” (a term which may not always quite fit games, but you know what I mean) is in total control of it. No matter how hard they try, BioWare just isn’t going to turn Hawke or Sheppard into legendary, iconic characters: no two are quite alike. There’s something to be said for the Nathan Drakes of the game world, these characters who we can sympathize with because they’re, in their own way, like us, but not us. The characters we can watch learn and grow, possibly in ways we’d have never considered had the choice been ours to make. I doubt I’d have made some of the mistakes that Drake does, had Uncharted been a series that gave me control over his decisions, but those mistakes are important to his tragic arc. Without them he’s just another gamer avatar in an action game.
There is a time and a place for both approaches. In the end, they both have the same goal: first to entertain, and then maybe, in the better cases, to engage the player further – morally, intellectually, emotionally. Games have a unique ability to do this by dropping players into the world of the game, and making them face actions and consequences of their own. That much is true. But good stories never go out of style. Sometimes I want to make these world-shattering decisions as I go, but other times…
…other times I just want to go along with someone on the journey.
The “series of interesting choices” originally comes from Sid Meier. Very good quote, by the way.
I also find it interesting that you almost quote Guild Wars 2 as well, where at the end of each intro the player character tells us: “This is my story.” While I have little hope in that respect, it will be interesting to see how many “interesting choices” ArenaNet are able to come up with.
Well-said, Brandon. Some of the best games have an entirely linear story – like the Uncharted titles. Some of the best games also have an entirely player-directed story – like X-Com. Neither approach is superior to the other; it depends on the game you’re trying to make.
Often developers and players see games as a medium that should be entirely differentiated from the others, and therefore eschew linear narrative. But that’s wrongthink, because it leaves aside too many creative opportunities.
That view is also common to a medium still in its infancy. When cinema first came around, there was a school of thought that totally abhorred the idea of using it for stories; after all, theatre did that. They felt its strength lay in its ability to precisely capture motion. Turns out that’s just one of its uses.
And, of course, it depends what I want to play. The ideal is flexibility in choice, rather than cleaving to one rigid design ideology.
I too am very excited about Uncharted 3, but I think I’ll leave it to Santa Claus to give me a copy. There are just too many other games on the horizon!
I’m a fan of linearity when linearity is done well, and it annoys me when people casually disregard linear gameplay on the basis that it’s linear and nothing else. It’s as if the term itself is the problem. A dirty description and an instant criticism, when in my opinion it isn’t. I don’t think of Uncharted 2 as being linear even though it mechanically is. I think of Uncharted 2 as a rather brilliant single player story with great character, great humour, bags of charm and a blast to play.
There are some games where the linearity does become a burden sure, but in my opinion that’s down to bad game design more than the core element of linearity. Bad game design is bad game design whether the player is kept on a single path or whether they’re free to roam as they please. The same applies the other way with strong design and storytelling.
Uncharted 2 is one of my games of this generation, no doubt. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve actually borrowed my brothers spare PS3 after selling my own in the summer (a 40GB Phat that was considered “broke” at one point but has been OK for me so far), but I just can’t spare £40 for Uncharted 3 at the moment as good as I think it will be and as much as I want to play it. Damn you, 2011 release schedule.
@Naum I absolutely despise that phrase: “This is my story”. I’m not sure what it is about that particular phrase but it really makes me cringe. Anyway, I suppose it’s beside the point.
I still love a good linear story, possibly not as much as some of the more sandbox style games, but I adore Assassin’s Creed, Batman: AA, Infamous, Deus Ex (still sort of linear).
Yep, quite well said, Brandon. And I agree with you, Mat, that “linear” has unfortunately become a sort of pejorative in games journalism. Of course all that matters is if the game in question is well made. Linear, non-linear, if it does most of the things which it intends to do, and does them with fine skill, then it’s most likely to be accepted.
How could one be irked by the linearity that a game such as Uncharted presents? It may very well be the best thing to play if you’ve just watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and haven’t had enough spelunking.
Long live all types of play. Players and critics will weed out the trash and round up the gems.
Great, great review of Uncharted 3 over at Eurogamer. Simon Parkin perfectly articulates that which I could not after completing the second game. I enjoyed Among Thieves for what it was and what it did really well — and it does a lot very well — but I felt more like I was just connecting the dots. The fighting, environmental navigation and puzzle ‘solving’ felt like formalities and while the experience was engaging as a whole I can’t deny that I felt my involvement was minor at best. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the next installment from Naughty Dog.
Drake has a tragic arc?
I hope that’s not a spoiler. Aiee!
Haha, no, as much as I wish I had the privilege of playing Uncharted 3 early, I only just finished it.
I don’t mean “tragic” in the theatrical, everyone-dies-at-the-end sense – besides, since Naughty Dog is aiming to keep the series episodic, I doubt any of the games will really be the “end”. Just that, in Drake, we have a character who repeatedly makes Bad Decisions which put himself and those he cares about at risk. It’s like a compulsion; though he always manages to succeed in the end, he is most often the cause of his own problems (and Elena’s, and Sully’s, and…). He is the greatest barrier to his own happiness.