The term “linear” has taken on a host of pejorative associations within the gaming press. To some degree, it is reasonable in the current gaming market and even due to the nature of the medium itself to see “linearity” in gaming as a weakness. The amount of freedom offered by the Grand Theft Auto series or the sandbox play style of The Sims emphasizes the strengths of video games as a medium and largely the manner in which gaming differentiates itself from other narrative driven media; games, in a nutshell, offer the possibility of telling stories in a manner quite different from film, novels, or television, since they allow for active engagement between their audience and their narrative.
At the same time, I often am somewhat amused at the hullabaloo created over just how multi-linear games are. Some of the best games out there are and continue to be linear narratives. From the Final Fantasy series to newer franchises like God of War, most games fall back on the tried and true formula of telling a story in a linear fashion because this seemingly simplistic convention really does serve the ultimate goal of most games well; telling a good story from start to finish and giving the player a clear sense of their goals while guiding them towards “beating the game” by viewing its ending. Additionally, while GTA and The Sims boast non-linear elements, both have fallen back on traditional linear narrative storytelling at some point or another. GTA games still have a central core of largely linearly ordered missions to drive their central narrative and even The Sims has given up their sandbox style of gameplay on consoles in order to give your sims some end goals, telling the simulated story of their simulated lives with an externally developed, rather than personally developed set of end goals.
Yet, despite this general adherence to storytelling convention, games still can and should offer some experience of a world somewhat different from their more linearly based cousins, since the gaming audience is one not restrained in their seats to only view the action but one asked and expected to participate in it. So, it is with some degree of frustration but also some degree of lack of surprise that I began playing the sort of game that really needs to differentiate itself from the other media from whence it originated—the video game adaptation of a movie adapted from over 40 years of comic book continuity.
The cursedness of linearity seems always to loom large over games adapted from movies as developers seem constrained by the content of their filmic counterparts. Activision’s Fantastic 4 (note the “cooler” use of the numeral in the title rather than the traditional word) is no different. In fact, it may be more so than is usual.
Like other video game adaptations, this game is largely (though, not exclusively) bound by the narrative on which it is based. The game follows the plot of the film: a group of four individuals related by both blood, friendship, and romantic interests led by research scientist Reed Richards is imbued with superpowers through an accident while aboard a space station, they struggle briefly to come to terms with their new found abilities and the public’s perceptions of them, while finally having to use said powers to battle an equally powerful and megalomaniacal rival of Richards, Dr. Doom. The developers were allowed to stray a bit from this direct source material, though, by developing some subplots to the film’s main stories from material derived from the aforementioned comic book continuity. Thus, encounters, like the one with the grotesque Mole Man, are shoehorned into various spots in the game in an effort to add a bit of originality into the adaptation.
While not a bad concept in theory, largely, these subplots don’t add much more than some additional busy work to a game whose gameplay already largely seems comprised of busy work. While they help in developing your characters’ powers through experience points, they do little in developing important narrative elements like personalities and relationships.
Even missions related to the film’s plot feel tacked on and tend to distract you from the overall story. You tend to forget there is a story being told when you’re simply making repairs to an ultimately doomed space station and fighting wave after wave of faceless bad guys in an environment as linear as the plotting of the game.
With both the limited space driving me from one mission opening to the next and the limitations of following a plot driving me from one plot point to the next, Fantastic 4 is possibly the most claustrophobic game I have ever played.
That in fact may be the lesson learned in playing and experiencing an adaptation that is so rigorously constrained by the plot it attempts to imitate. With environments that are not so much explored as simply passed through on the way from point A to point B (with a few thugs to beat up along the way), these games should not be seen as distastefully linear—since it has been proven time and again that it is possible to tell a good story in a linear styled video game by folks like Square Enix or Hideo Kojima. No, instead, linearity becomes distasteful when its end product produces both a sense of claustrophobia within the limited confines of the space of the game world and the walls of a narrative that developers are unwilling or not allowed to break out of.