The ongoing debate regarding the creation of non-linear, cutscene free stories in games is founded on a very interesting premise. Video games could, with the right technology, create a completely interactive story that changes in response to the player to create a unique play experience for every person. Games like Far Cry 2, STALKER, or Fallout 3 are all pushing the envelope for simulating unique and open stories. The problem is…back here in critic town we tend to do better when we talk about what we’ve played instead of speculating. So Godspeed developers, I anxiously await your return. Instead, why not talk a bit about linear games and the experiences they create? How does one develop a story in a good old fashioned Mom & Pop linear game? How does that compare to a game with unlimited possibilities?
Oddly, the best place to really start getting an idea of what a story-teller does in a linear game is to watch a writer convert a video game into a movie script. In an interview with Gamasutra, Jordan Mechner describes what it was like writing both the original Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and the process of making it into a screenplay. He explains that the game starts off with everyone becoming a zombie except two or three people. That’s a fantastic way to setup an acrobatic fighting game set in Persia. The problem is that for a movie this would get old very rapidly. Watching the Prince leap up yet another pillar and stab the hundredth zombie got old in the actual game, so it’s hard to imagine this working in a screenplay. To convert a game into a film you have to start adding other characters and new plot elements, and try to maintain the spirit of the game without telling a dull story. The writer’s first job, then, in a linear game is to create a fun environment or setting for the player to interact with. Yet countless linear games take place in epic fantasy settings, recreated real-life cities, or other fascinating scenarios. What makes Prince of Persia: Sands of Time stand out in so many people’s minds?
It stands out because it incorporates the dramatic and characterizing elements of a film in conjunction with this setting. Whereas the characters are the focus and the setting is secondary in a film, a linear game plot flip-flops those values. Conversation has a built-in connection with the game design, and must serve as the backdrop to the game instead of act like the main focus. Many of the game’s acrobatic puzzles involve Farah, the female love interest, as you both work together to get to the final tower. Sometimes she pulls the lever you need to keep moving and sometimes you have to press the block that helps her. All of the puzzles are linear in their solutions, but the dynamic process that gets you to the end often involves your character relying on Farah and vice-versa. There are many sections where her safety is in your hands during combat as well, further magnifying the relationship through the game design. Make no mistake, this is a tricky balance for a game to strike. Jonathon Blow notes how disingenuous this can become in a game such as Half-life 2, where the player sometimes just sees Alyx as a way to unlock doors. Kill X number of creatures, protect subject Y, and incorporate dialog is not as easy a formula as it sounds. What makes Prince of Persia work, in my opinion, is that the Prince begins to fall in love with Farah. He says so in his internal monologues while you crawl around the acrobatic puzzles. Since so much of linear video game stories involve role-play instead of player input, this important difference smooths out the harsher realities of the game design. I worry about Farah because the Prince is worried about her.
Another interesting take to linear plots in video games is to simply pause the rollercoaster for a few moments and ask the player what they think. Not in a literal question that affects the outcome of the plot in a meaningful way, but rather just to postulate a game design choice that induces some sort of reflection. JRPG’s are extremely good about this by providing dialogue options at key emotional moments in the game that induce reflection for the player. Do you want to go out on a date with Tifa or Aeris in Final Fantasy VII? When one of them asks you if you had a good time, do you say you wish you were with the other? None of this changes anything in terms of story, but it does create an interesting capacity for the video game to ask the player to reflect. If a film or book had a reader’s note that simply said, “Hey, think about this before continuing on” it would break up the flow of the experience. But video games can do this because they’re pausing to reflect on which direction they want things to move in. It’s all still very minor stuff in the grand scheme of the plot, but I think many players would take pause if the game asked them why they shot innocent civilians in that last level. Forcing them to say they don’t care is just as interesting a moment as having them engage emotionally.
Steve Gaynor comments in an essay on the merits of video games, “Video games excel at fostering the experience of being in a particular place via direct inhabitation of an autonomous agent.” To rephrase the comparison made at the start of this essay, is the game creating a virtual experience where I’m playing as myself or as someone else? That’s the difference between a linear plot and a non-linear one, one where I play as a character or where that character is me. If I’m playing as someone else, that means my game design and relationships have a logical limitation based on the character. The Prince is never, ever, going to stab Farah because he’s sick of her dying on him. The game design of a good linear story is able to engage the player because it explains the role they inhabit and makes them comfortable with the actions rather than thinking “I wanted to do it differently”. You worry about Farah because the character you play is worried about her. As David Cage earnestly explains in an interview with Gamasutra on his own linear adventure game, designers should not be so afraid of telling the player no. They’re roleplaying a character not of their own making and they should be willing to accept that this comes with certain limitations within the story. Perhaps the real key to making a linear game great is figuring out how to do that without the player being annoyed by the restrictions imposed. Instead, those restrictions are embraced as part of the story.