For better or for worse, there is a line in the sand between linear and nonlinear video games that are narrative focused. Though there is cross-pollination, video game narrative (world building, character development, conflicts, etc.) is split into these two categories. On the linear side we have acclaimed games like the “The Last of Us,” “Half Life,” “Final Fantasy VII” and “Wolfenstein: the New Order,” to name a few. Though these games do not all share the same gameplay, they do share an emphasis on large set pieces and a fixed storyline that is out of the player’s hands. While linear video games are comparable to movies, books or plays in the way story is presented, nonlinear video games are more related to tabletop games like “Dungeons & Dragons.” In nonlinear games like “Fallout,” “Heavy Rain,” “Baldur’s Gate,” “Chrono Trigger” and “Morrowind,” the world and story are affected by the player’s choices.
Though I think linear video games can have incredible storylines which compliment their gameplay mechanics, I don’t think they are using all that the video game medium has to offer for the player. This is why I think nonlinear video games, those that use interactive storytelling, propel the medium forward and better succeed at what makes video games great: a sense of agency and escapism.
Breaking down video games to the basic level we find something like “Pong, ” where the player moves a paddle to hit a ball. If the player does not move the paddle correctly, they lose. If they succeed, however, they have a chance at beating the other player. Player agency, then, is defined by your choices that either lead to winning or losing the game. Going from 1972 when “Pong” was released to “The Last of Us” in 2013, the amount of player agency really hasn’t changed in linear games. In “The Last of Us,” you have far more options for winning – from using weapons and sneaking around enemies to throwing a molotov cocktail. But at the basic level the player’s choices still lead to either winning or losing. The game will not be affected in the long run if you sneak around a zombie or shoot them, you will still have the same linear story (no matter how memorable) and ending as everyone else that plays it.
Nonlinear games provide more player agency. It is not just a win or lose situation, since the game and storyline will react to your individual choices. It’s no surprise such agency is found primarily in role playing games (RPGs) where the player gets to create their character and react to the game how they want to. Timothy Cain – producer/programmer/designer on groundbreaking games like “Fallout” – touched on this at his presentation during Reboot Develop (a games industry conference) in 2017. Cain stated that games (particularly RPGs) aren’t meant to be linear and nonlinear games should be held at a higher standard.
“I made my character [and] this game better react to my character and what they do. That’s at the core of an RPG,” Cain said.
In a nonlinear game you might, for example, be asked to save a prisoner for a reward. You can rescue the prisoner and earn the reward, lie and say you saved the prisoner and earn the reward or kill whoever is offering the reward and steal what they have. This opens up the doors for a higher player agency, and the player will have to accept the consequences that arise from that. Maybe if the player kills the prisoner they will be seen as an outlaw and will be hunted by other characters. This may still lead to winning or losing, but the player gets to decide based on the choices they make. The player agent will feel far more connected to how the story plays out since they effect it. This level of agency also carries a greater level of escapism than linear games can.
I don’t think it is controversial to say that media is a vessel of escapism for those experiencing it. Whether that be going to the movies or reading a book, these mediums allow the audience to escape their own lives. But, on many occasions, this escapism can be broken. For example, I have been watching a movie and thought to myself that a character is making a decision I wouldn’t make – from some foolish, horror-movie characters having sex when the killer is in the other room, to a character whose moral choices don’t align with my own. These fixed choices by the characters are not my own, and limit my ability to escape my own mindset. Video games with a linear narrative are also shackled by similar reactions by me as a viewer. What is worse is when you’re in “control” of a character making choices you disagree with. This leads to a limited escapism since the story is fixed and unchanged by the player who has no influence on what the escape entails.
Nonlinear video games are not tied to these shackles of player views clashing with character actions, since you get to make the choices in the game. Even more so, you can make choices you might not be comfortable making in real life without the same consequences. Video games have the same benefits of the fabricated Wild West in the show/movie “Westworld,” where one is able to escape their own values and act unrestrained. Though “Westworld” paints an unattractive picture due to the focus on robots being exploited by the players, it’s hard to argue that such a form of escapism isn’t attractive. Nonlinear video games provide this higher level of escapism that people crave, where the player gets to create their own vessel for unique decision making.
Though I am fond of many linear video games, and their financial and critical success proves their worth in the public sphere, they do not achieve the same level of escapism and agency that nonlinear games do. As technology like virtual reality propels the ability for video game players to escape their own lives, nonlinear games will continue to allow for the player agency that ascends the quality of video game narrative.