There’s no second chance to make a first impression

Update 2/22/2021: Removed broken links and images

Previously on Spectre Collie: about once a month I’ve been squeezing out a lengthy treatise intended to debunk some “myth” about storytelling in videogames. I’m still headed towards making a point with those, more or less, eventually. But they take a long time to write, and sometimes it’s easier just to state the obvious.

This one was perpetuated in that “The Case Against Writers” article I mentioned a few days ago. It was addressed to some degree in the two rebuttals, but I think there’s a little bit more to be said about it. Especially since it’s something I always took for granted, until I stopped to think about it:

Myth 4: Games aren’t like stories because stories are inherently linear, and games are non-linear

Seems to make sense: a player sees most games as a series of choices, each one opening up a new part of the experience. And most designers see their games as interconnected systems with difficulty curves and AI subroutines and event handlers, divided up into chokepoints where a linear chunk opens up a new, larger non-linear one.

But the basic fact is: all games are linear. Each game is a sequence of events that starts when the player puts in the disc (or downloads the game), and ends with him taking the disc out for the last time to go on the internet and bitch about it. I’ll explain my point by arguing with an imaginary belligerent person.

But my game has multiple solutions for each puzzle, and over 100 different possible endings!
That’s great. But the player is still only ever going to see one solution to each of those puzzles, and one of those endings.

That’s what multiple play-throughs and savegames are for. Haven’t you heard about replayability?
Sure I have; it’s still listed in some game reviews as “lasting value,” as if it were a universal goal for all games. The fact remains that unless your players have all suffered some sort of massive head trauma, they’re going to remember what happened the first time they played through your game, or solved your puzzle. They’re not going into each case blind, but knowing how they did things and what the repercussions were the first time. So your multiple endings and branching paths are like deleted scenes and alternate endings on a DVD; they can in some cases give more depth to the story, but they don’t supplant the “real” version.

So this is really just saying that you don’t like branching and alternate endings.
I do happen to think that story branches and alternate endings are a waste of development effort, when they’d be better off just getting folded into the main game.

But that’s not the main point I’m trying to get at here. I’m saying that we’d be better off looking at what branching, multiple endings, and nonlinearity in general are trying to achieve in games, and finding real ways to do it.

So you’re saying that all games should have a linear narrative.
No, I’m saying that all games do have a linear narrative, even if that narrative is as tedious as “first he swapped the red gem with the gold gem, then he swapped the blue one with the green one….” It’s not as if story-telling games are some completely separate entity; the narrative is there, whether you like it or not. You just have to decide how much you want to direct the narrative and how much emphasis you want to put on it.

You would say that all games should be linear, seeing as how you work in adventure games.
Actually, when you’re making an adventure game, you have to think the hardest about keeping the game non-linear. Because the linearity is baked into a story-based game, and there are practical reasons for giving the player a branch or a choice. In multiplayer games, it’s useful for crowd control. In adventure games, it’s useful for keeping the player from being completely stuck and unable to progress until figuring out the solution to a single puzzle.

But as much as we say that there are three things the player can do at this point, there’s still really only one they care about: getting to the next plot point. The player only feels “stuck” because he’s not progressing along the linear path to the game’s conclusion. So is non-linearity in a point-and-click adventure game (or collecting things and jumping on enemies in a platformer, or side quests in an RTS or FPS) really doing anything other than covering for the fact that walking around and clicking on stuff in an adventure game isn’t really all that fun?

This only applies to storytelling games, not strategy or sandbox games.
Not so; my linear narrative with Civilization IV started sometime last year and hasn’t ended yet. I can try different games with different leaders, maps, win conditions, and strategies, but 80% of each game is identical to the ones I played before.

It’s the same with The Sims 2, which has a “story” that’s been going on for years now. I can and do keep creating new characters and new families, but it’s not like each one starts a whole new story. Most of what I do with the new characters, I’ve already done before lots of times, even back to the first game. I’ve already seen at least 80% of the game, so all I’m doing now is adding new appendices to the book, or alternate endings.

You can’t write about storytelling in games in 2008 without mentioning Portal or BioShock. Which is it?
Portal. I’d say that the real writing achievement in this game isn’t all the one-liners, or its ability to start annoying internet memes, but the pacing. They recognized that there’d be a narrative inherent to the game, even if it were “just” a first-person puzzle game with a cool gun. So they piggybacked another narrative on top of the built-in one. The more you play, the more you become familiar with the game mechanic, and the difficulty and complexity increase — much like a story builds up to a climax.

At the same time, you’re finding out more about your character and the world you’ve been dropped into. And the story game is developing at pretty much the same rate as the puzzle game’s “narrative.” They’re not completely in sync, but the genius of the game design is how it smoothly transitions between emphasis on the story narrative and emphasis on the puzzle narrative.

When you’re just wandering around a room looking for a solution to a fairly straightforward switch puzzle, you happen onto a hidden room that delivers your first big story moment. Later, when you’re in a room filled with platforms and switches and light balls and acid pits, the story shuts up for a little while and gives you a chance to think about how to solve the puzzle. And both the story narrative and puzzle narrative reach a climax at the same point.

All of this is either completely obvious, or completely irrelevant. What’s your point?
Just that sandbox games, open-ended games, or simulated worlds that the player is completely immersed in and can interact with, aren’t by themselves the holy grail of videogames. You have to impose some kind of rule set to make it interesting. And a set of rules implies a winner, and a winner implies an ending. Therefore, you’ve got a linear narrative, more or less, baked into every game.

You’ll often hear the claim that games and other interactive entertainment are just stepping stones on the way to the real end goal, which is something like Star Trek’s holodeck. That we’re all just covering up for the fact that we can’t yet build a world that the player can jump into and do anything he wants. I’ll just geekily point out that they only showed the holodeck right as someone was leaving it, or they cut away right after someone entered. And if they spent any time inside, it was when someone was pretending to be Sherlock Holmes and solving a murder mystery, or otherwise telling a story. In other words: a simulation is only interesting if there’s some kind of point to it.

It’s inevitable that we’re going to get more sophisticated AI characters, and more realistic physics systems, and games that in general do a better job of dynamically reacting and responding to what the player does. And still, for the player, it’s inevitably going to be a linear experience. That means that the basics of storytelling, the ones we’ve spent thousands of years developing, are still going to apply: characters, plot, pacing, a dramatic arc, and a beginning, middle, and end.