Ever heard of the "Messiah"? The one game to rule them all, find them, bring them and bind them all in the darkness?
If you ever listen through E3's press conferences (or any other such events), you've probably heard about it already. You know, that one... It's been promised to us gamers a thousand times over, but we're still waiting for it:
The non-linear game where our decisions will truly matter and have consequences.
Just let me make something clear: I do not own any word. I just want to make clear what exactly I'm talking about and I believe I have to define the terms I use for that.
First off, to be story-driven, a game has to feature a story. Note that many wonderful games don't feature stories. Those are not the types of games I want to talk about here.
Featuring a story is not enough though... It's a matter of focus (hence the word "driven"). It is sometimes genuinely hard to tell if a game is story-driven, but it is often enough to ask yourself the following question:
Is the gameplay helping me immerse into the story or is the story helping me care about the gameplay?
Hack'n'slash is a whole genre where story (when well-done) is most often only a background, pure fodder for the gameplay. Try Titan Quest, Torchlight, Champions of Norrath, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and you'll see. Maybe you'll notice the story, maybe you won't even... But you sure won't keep playing for the story. It works the other way around.
Note that lots of genre are much less story-driven than hack'n'slash, as a rule. Try real-time strategy, first-person shooter, shoot'em'up, sport simulation, platform, puzzle, etc... chances are you'll find way more gameplay-driven than story-driven games in all those genres.
Want an example of an undoubtedly story-driven genre? And I mean genre, not game. Here are two: point'n'click and visual novel. In fact, those genres are sostory-driven, the most common complaint among detractors is "there is no gameplay!"
I don't mean interactive gameplay-wise. I mean story-wise.So, no, the fact that you can reach a game over screen if you don't play well enough for your avatar to reach the next cinematic doesn't count. It's gameplay interactivity, not story interactivity.
Thing is, most games are not interactive, story-wise. Even (especially?) very story-driven games.
To tell if a game is interactive story-wise, here are the questions:
- Does the game present choices for the player to make?
- Do those choices bear any consequences?
Slightly different dialog lines do not count as consequence if all alternatives end up at the same point afterwards.
- Are there often good/correct options?
I do not mean the morality of the option as in "Save the villagers" vs. "Kill the villagers".
I mean good/correct option for the player as in "Continue the game" vs. "Game over" or "Better score" vs. "Lower score". Those choices do not feel like real choices (and aren't, IMO). They feel like tests (and are, IMO).
- Do the choices alter the story itself?
Again, if the choices only alter aesthetics, gameplay or dialog, it's not all that interactive. To answer yes here, the plot of the game has to be impacted.
- Do the choices alter the story significantly?
There be dragons. Who am I to tell anyone what is significant? No one. It's not my point, fortunately. Here's what I mean by using that word: there are two level of stories in most games. There's the overaching "main" plot, and then there's the rest of the game universe. What I call a significant is any impact on the main plot. For instance, if you're trying to save the world, a choice that makes your favorite character die, but doesn't affect your probability of saving the world is not significant. Not to say that it's not important and emotionally important... it just doesn't alter the game's story significantly.
- Do the choices alter the story long before the end?
It is relatively easy to put alternative endings at the very conclusion of a game. "Oh, I have like four ideas how this story could end... let's make the player pick." It's nice. It's a shame that many games won't even make that (slight) effort. But who are we kidding? If you wait until the very end to actually impact the story, it means the story isn't truly interactive. Only the ending is, basically. And that doesn't preclude it from being awful, by the way.
Most story-driven games are somewhere between level 0 and 3. Games that make it to 4 and 5 tend to become legends, hailed as true non-linear adventures where your choices really matter. But really, it just means they're exceptionnally interactive (compared to most other games).
Games of level 6 are rare. So rare, in fact, that none comes to my mind as I'm writing this line. None. How sad.
There be way more dragons. And a black hole. Seriously.
I know I'm going to sound like a judgmental know-it-all saying this, but I feel I have to give context to my definition of non-linear...
I have played hundreds of non-linear games.
I have played hundreds of story-driven games.
But I have never played a non-linear story-driven game.
That's right. I'm saying I have never played what I'm talking about. Not that it doesn't exist, mind you. Just that if it does, I have never heard about it. 'cause you can bet I'd play it if I did.
So what do I base my definition of non-linear games, anyway, since I've never played one?
First: all the non-linear gameplay-driven (or story-free) games I've played.
Second: table-top RPG, which I'm well aware can never be fully translated into a video game, but I believe there's enough leeway for a solar system between the closest we could get to it and where games are at.
Enough preparation and disclaimers. Here's what must be true about a story-driven game, for it to be non-linear in my book:
- There must always be more than one way to advance story.
Not all ways have to be available in all playthroughs, of course. If you made a berserker, it's logical that stealth and diplomatic options should be technically locked out for you. But then, if you replay the game and make a bard, they should be available and not the frontal assault.
Note that I am not talking about gameplay. If you're given a mission to deal with foes, you have many ways to deal with them, but all end up with the same "congratulations, you did it" sequence after the mission, then it's gameplay non-linearity, but the story is still linear. The Deus Ex franchise is the best example I know of for that: great non-linear gameplay and despressingly linear story.
- No event must be built inevitable outside of the story's premise.
That's where even the most non-linear story-driven games out there (I'm looking at you, Bethesda) fail miserably. It is okay to make an NPC extremely strong. But if the NPC is completely immortal, then you do not meet this criterion. It is okay to equip an antagonist with an extremely powerful shield. But if there is no way to take down that shield. Not even if the player cheats... then you do not meet this criterion. Honestly? No game I know meets this criterion. All story-driven games I've played are so choke-full of built-in inevitable stuff, it makes me laugh to hear anyone discuss their linearity. Guys, there's an event I cannot prevent even if I cheat, like a monster I can't kill even in god mode or a cinematic where I'm stuck watching an NPC die and I can't even try to help. What would you call that? I call that linear.
I wanted to talk about some "rules" I made up and would like to try to follow when I design my own games (a few years from now, *fingers crossed). But the definition part ended up SO HUGE, I decided to postpone the rules part for a later time.
Just a teaser for now: A door is a door is a door is a door.