The Merits of Linear Narrative

by L.B. Jeffries

17 November 2009


A roundtable discussion over at EDGE online pits three different design philosophies against one another. Emergent, multiplayer, and linear narrative systems are all advocated by three different parties.  The conversation is worth reading, although in the comments it becomes obvious that readers felt it was a little bit biased against linear narratives. I’m a very big fan of Ragnar Tornquist’s work, but I’m not sure that adventure games can be considered the prime example of a linear story. As content delivery systems they are the most efficient at keeping long speeches and complex plot engaging, but interaction is not their primary tool for this exchange. They instead rely on a lot of cinematic techniques. Having varying artistic sensibilities for what a medium should do is very healthy, it allows for more diversity and variation in both subject and presentation, so with that in mind this is an argument for why linear stories in games continue to be valid. I’ve made the opposite argument before as well.

Much like the emergent and multiplayer experiences that are just now coming into their own, linear experiences in games are better crafted and designed than ever before in video games. Like an emergent or multiplayer game, it can be seen as a series of layers. Visuals stack onto sound which both represent plot which is all driven by an underlying game design. However, unlike an emergent or multiplayer design which can be seen as a large spider web of interesting choices, a linear narrative is a straight line.

The thing is that calling these games linear is a bit misleading. A good way of looking at it comes from the way people interpret a loose, abstract linear narrative like a poem.  William H. Roetzheim writes in his introduction to The Giant Book of Poetry that poems can be broken down into four levels, all of which a great poem offers to a reader. Level one is when a poem works for the casual, uninterested reader who can understand what the poem is saying on the surface. Level two gives the more focused reader something to chew on: carefully organized phrases, rhythm, and a real sense of mood and style. Level three offers a separate, “hidden” message to the reader through metaphor or symbolism. Roetzheim writes, “The message should be recognizable to the skilled reader, and should be obvious to the non-skilled reader when it is pointed out.” Level Four, which he argues is the most difficult to produce, is when a poem’s symbols and language can create a unique, individual meaning for each reader. A Level four poem, “has both literal and representative meanings and the representative meaning is flexible with the reader able to fill in the specific meaning that applies most closely to their personal life.” The foundation of this idea is that a good poem should be both literal and abstract. It can hold your hand and walk you through an interesting experience but should you choose to cut loose and apply your own interpretation it still works. A strong linear game narrative works under very similar conditions. Chris DeLeon writes in a blog response to Jesper Juul that what makes a video game unique is the combination of forces at work. It’s the controller, the screen, the sounds, the music, the design, all working in tandum. A linear narrative consists of all these layers working in tandum, which a player can engage with in any manner they choose.

Take the difficulty levels for a game like Halo 3. On easy it’s not difficult to plow through and relatively boring. On Legendary, which many players vow is the only way to play the game properly, you have to duck for cover and engage with the game in a very complex, skilled manner. There is also a Sci-Fi narrative going on for people interested in that, solid co-op play for when you have company over, and superb multiplayer. The linear narrative is a similar exercise in creating a multi-level poem. It is not just a narrative, that’s just one of many levels that it exists on. What a successful linear narrative does is create a straight path the player must walk but lets them choose things like difficulty or even observing the story. Consider a remarkable game like Grand Theft Auto IV. You can completely play and beat that game without listening to the story once. You can also pay attention to every detail. The ability to phase the information in and out and still be able to enjoy it in your own personal way is where the craftsmanship comes through. Even an adventure game presents this in a minimal fashion: you can decide whether to absorb details and take in the scenery or focus purely on the puzzles to progress.

From Far Cry 2

From Far Cry 2

In contrast, the multiplayer and emergent design approaches are attempts to emphasize personalized metaphors and experiences that will be unique to each player. They are an exercise in creating an artistic medium that relies on the Fourth Level of Poetry. They apply a system of enormous choice with random events and circumstances that enable the player to encounter or generate something that is unique to them alone. The problem with this design philosophy is that empowering player choice results in a kind of self-imposed private redundancy. Every single time I play Civilization IV, I do the exact same thing because that’s the most efficient way for me to win. Far Cry 2 stalls at about 70% progress through the game because there are no more upgrades and thus no new weapons to change your play style. I beat every single mission for the second half of the game by using the same tactic. I climbed on top of the highest point possible, broke out the sniper rifle, and then burn out the survivors before mopping up with heavy weapons. Far Cry 2 is mostly a struggle with all the random jamming and AI encounters that make this approach difficult, but this is making up for what linear design does automatically. Both games are breaking me out of my play style, but the linear one is just being forceful instead of using a random system. There are numerous missions in linear FPS titles where you wish they’d just give you a sniper rifle and let you clean up the area. You’ll even be able to see a lovely mountain where you could do it all from if the dropship pilot wasn’t an idiot. But that’s also the point: going their way is going to be much more tense and exciting. It may not be the best route, but it’s also the most exciting one. Consider Ben Abraham’s Perma Death In Far Cry 2, the series is mostly an exercise in reinforcing linear elements into the game. When he died, that was it, no reloading. He had to modify his engagement with the game to break the personal stagnation that comes with emergent structures.

In an excellent post on the issues dealing with interactive fiction, Emily Short makes note of the fact that with any single player game, an AI is never going to be an audience member to our conduct. They are never going to appreciate our heroism beyond an in-game reward. The in-game conduct is never really going to amount to an epic experience through any literal connections, what makes conduct epic is both the audience and memory. Short eventually argues that these matter more in her medium of choice. She writes, “the story (as opposed to the text) is constructed in the mind of the reader by the work.”

That’s ultimately the leap of faith one takes with a linear game, just as one does with any form of media. An emergent narrative might give us multiple options just like a multiplayer game gives us multiple people to interact with, but in the end each player is still going to have their preferred experience. That’s what justifies the confines of linear design and story: people do it to themselves anyways. A linear narrative and design simply recognizes this fact and instead tries to let the decisions about interaction be much more basic. A designer is saying that this is the best way to experience the level when they make you go through a passage or unlock a certain door before progressing. That’s going to be true if you’re playing it on Hard or Easy, with friends watching, or completely by yourself. It’s going to be true if you’re ignoring the plot or you’re hanging on every word. Linearity is a valid design decision because in games, more than any other medium, there is more than one kind of choice.

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