In Defense of Linear Storytelling in Video Games

Video games have always been about some kind of world-building, whether that world be fictional or factual. People have always been teased with the concept of a deeper environment that persists without the input of the player at any given time. In recent years, video games have constantly pushed, pulled, and stressed the boundaries by which world-building can take place and have started to settle on the “open-world” template as the pinnacle of video game storytelling. However, something must be said about the video games that accomplish incredible feats of story-telling without letting the player roam a gigantic world following the thread of the main plot wherever it leads them. In the wake of massive AAA games that all have an open world and multiplayer elements, the single-player linear experience is becoming increasingly rare. A few publishers, namely EA, have even stated that linear games just don’t make the same amount of money that a multiplayer or open world game does. I believe that the single player linear story can be as successful, if not better than any given open world or multiplayer game. There are many major differences between linear and open-world storytelling: for one, open-world games contain a free-to-roam world that largely exists without player input, containing things like cities, economies, and other characters that the player is not directly involved in but can be with a simple “press X to talk/examine/pick up/go inside” prompt. This explorable universe is not the main goal of a linear storyline. Secondly, an open-world game has pieces of information, or lore, within the game that give the player a deeper understanding of current events that have led to this particular point in history. In a linear game, you are placed in a story and must gather information from the characters and events that take place rather than reading a newspaper laying on a tavern table while enjoying a nice pint of ale. Lastly, nearly all (with a few notable exceptions) open-world games fall prey to the gradual loss of urgency that comes with side quests and a larger timeless world. Linear timelines require that you make decisions that propel the main storyline.

A plethora of games released in modern times could be classified as Open-World games. To name a few, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Elder Scrolls 4&5: Oblivion and Skyrim respectively, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Horizon: Zero Dawn are all games that have worlds that exist beyond the player character. However, I would argue that many times these expansive open worlds are one of the factors that bring a player out of the game and break the sense of immersion. Right off the bat I know many of you are going to disagree with me while shouting “BUT I PLAYED SKYRIM/OBLIVION/WITCHER 3 FOR 4738290 HOURS IN ONE SITTING BECAUSE IT WAS THAT IMMERSIVE!” But before you grab your pitchforks and stab them into your keyboard writing angry sentences, let me explain. For anyone who has played an open-world game, how many times have you come across a stony-faced man or woman touting the illustrious name of “Villager” or “Citizen” and do nothing but one activity all day, every day? In the Witcher 3, I cannot tell you how many times that I saw the same Woman #2 plucking the same feathers off of the same chicken in about 80 different villages all across the land. Either this woman is the resident expert of chicken plucking, or she could be categorized as video game fluff. This fluff exists in all open-world games; everyone has seen a character with a generic name and a generic face that has nothing more to say than “Ho, Adventurer!” and while our brain will edit this information out for the most part, in the moment your immersion is broken, even if only a little bit. This is because open world games inherently cannot contain the same amount of detail and individuality that can exist in a linear story. This isn’t a problem for most people and most people probably don’t even see it or care. The concept of the general civilian is to provide window dressing for the passing player: the game takes you by the shoulder and says “No look, this village really IS alive look at all of these people going about their lives!” Which is all fine and dandy speeding through the village at blazing horse/car/airplane speed, but upon closer inspection, the characters are nothing more than lifeless animatronics that all repeat the same phrases and dialogue over and over again. Some games have attempted to remedy this situation, though. For instance, in the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion you could talk to every Non-Player Character (or NPC for short) with a small dialogue asking about the rumors and hearsay in the land. This often allowed for the player to get a grasp on some of the next quests or mysteries they should embark upon next. You could also talk to the guards and ask for directions around the main capital of Cyrodiil because it was a sprawling city with high walls and many side streets which made it very easy to get lost. These touches are trying to bridge the gap between having fluff and having meaningful and interactive characters. However, in the case of more linear story-telling, almost every character you meet in the game will have some kind of backstory and build the facade of these characters having individual lives aside from the game. One great example of this facade is in Spec Ops: The Line, a military shooter about the city of Dubai surviving apocalyptic-like events and the ensuing consequences. In one instance of the game (and it is fairly easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention), you start a new portion of the game after having just come off of a massive fire-fight. You and your companions are all questioning what is happening in the city of Dubai and feeling particularly vulnerable in the constant state of confusion that has prevailed since landing in the city. As you round a few staircases of a collapsing skyscraper, you are presented with what seems to be a couple of no-name guards who are staring off the balcony into the rolling sand dunes around broken buildings that surround the city. As the music playing fades into quiet, you pick up some dialogue between two men: it first starts out as banter as one man asks the other for gum and how he stole the gum from an assumed bunkmate. It then turns into a deeply human moment as the two men start confiding in each other about how all of the death and destruction around them is nearly too much to bear, and how one of the men always escapes up here to think and just listen to the quiet of the wind and sand. The other man confides many of the same feelings and they sit there in silence for a few seconds before finally snapping out of the trance and getting back to their rounds. This moment in and of itself is nothing inherently special, however, with these two men being enemy troops, you are forced to shoot them at any point during this dialogue. If you shoot them as soon as you see them you would never hear the back and forth between these digital representations of men and would have no problem blowing them away like the hundreds before them. But if you sit and wait, the longer you stand there the more you don’t want to pull the trigger and within a split second end the lives of these two men who just wanted to get away from all the carnage. While I understand this is a scene crafted into the game, there is no doubt that in the moment the game grabbed my heart and made me make a decision that ultimately ended their lives. These kind of moments are normally rare in an open-world game outside of the side quests because of the sheer amount of time and effort it would take to give every single character a story and a life, but in a linear game you can take that extra time and craft a short 30 second snippet of dialogue and create two human beings.

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The second aspect of open-world games that break immersion in a story is the need to grind. For those that aren’t into video games, grinding is when you are forced to complete menial tasks or kill lower level enemies for an extended period of time in order to make your level match your next threat. A pretty large portion of modern games use this as a way to make the player experience more of their game without forcing them to do every little thing that the game has to offer. The only problem is, in some games, it makes no sense to force the character to grind for more experience. In the Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt you play as a professional Witcher, or as a layman would say “that guy we pay to hunt scary monsters.” As the third game in the series, you would think that the main protagonist Geralt would be pretty seasoned by now, having killed dragons, men, and monsters alike for many years. Soon after starting the game you realize this is not the case when Geralt, the Butcher of Blaviken, struggles to hunt even a normal woodland bear. This type of leveling system is so prevalent in games today that hardly anyone even notices; it is well-known that you start the game at Level 1 and work up from there. As a fan and player of Dungeons & Dragons-like games, it would be incredibly tedious to start every single campaign at level 1 and have to relearn all of your skills, feats, and spells every time, but this is the exact formula used in open-world games. One series in particular that tried to cull this style was the Mass Effect games. In these games, if you played all through Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3 you could transfer your character and save data and companions between all three games and get certain bonuses depending on your previous level and skill set. That small detail alone made those games into a beautiful tapestry of storytelling as you experienced the story of your custom character from start to finish while gaining knowledge and skills to help you along your journey. I understand that from a gameplay perspective, the player needs to understand all of the tools they have at their disposal and be able to use them effectively but to be honest, isn’t that what a tutorial is for? Many people are trying to eradicate tutorials in games altogether because a majority of the time they waste an experienced gamer’s time. If games allowed the option for starting at a higher level, especially if they are games in a series, then a tutorial would actually be needed and in this way, the story could be more based on skill rather than based on level. A major example of a recent game with an experience wall would be in Assassin’s Creed: Origins and its newly introduced leveling system. In the previous iterations of Assassin’s Creed games, the player was tasked with gathering intelligence on a target, finding the said target, and gently negotiating a blade into a vital part of their body. In the newest game, the formula is closer to gather intelligence on a target, realize target is 2 levels higher than you, attempt to jab an important part of the target’s body only to be thrown off and hit with a single strike and killed instantly. Even the renowned “air assassination” (jumping from a ledge onto your target) does basically nothing against a target with a higher level than you. When this first happened to me it immediately broke any sense of immersion I had built until this point, which really wasn’t that much. While some open-world games do not feature a leveling system, a vast majority do and serve as an arbitrary gateway to force the player along a certain path. This idea just seems strange to me: if the whole idea is to railroad a player into going a certain direction, what is the purpose of the expansive open world? I have played through many games where I find a really cool cave or building out in the middle of nowhere only to see a symbol pops up that indicates a massively high-level encounter is beyond the threshold, forcing me to turn away and come back when I’m stronger.

This leads to the next problem: the open world-style of video game loses almost all of its urgency the moment the player decides to go off the beaten path. The whole point of a story is to gradually build from an exposition into a climax then drop off into resolution, whether that resolution is good or bad. Games that offer a gigantic amount of side quests tend to fall prey to the player losing interest in the main story or being outright blocked from advancing due to the level disparity mentioned above. However, one thing that the Witcher did well to sustain momentum through the end of the game was offering a “no turning back” point in the story. At a certain point in the game, you are given a screen that informs you that from this point onward, all side quests will be canceled and you will be on the path to the end of the game, but if you wished you could cancel it and finish up anything you may want to finish. This is a fantastic blending of linear elements being brought into an open world game that really narrows the focus into providing a great story for the player to experience without the distractions of side objectives. In other games such as Horizon: Zero Dawn, you can get up to the very last few missions in the heights of the story, only to walk away for an indefinite amount of time and return whenever. A majority of games don’t have this problem, but in Horizon: Zero Dawn you can only acquire the best armor in the game within the last two or three missions, goading you to abandon the story plot for an indefinite amount of time. If for some reason you do drop the plot line without incentive and go explore the rest of the game you will realize that the world has no urgency and there are no consequences to your actions, except what is predefined in a quest.

While it may not sound like it, I am not intending to bash or hate on open world games. In fact, I absolutely love a great many of them for their story and environments even with the issues I mentioned above. Judging an open-world expansive game for NOT being a linear story would be at the very least grievously erroneous and at most willfully ignorant, but I simply wish to highlight the things that linear stories can do and what they can achieve in this era of gaming. On the current generation and next-generation hardware, the potential for detail and realism in a linear style game has nearly infinite amounts of potential. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is one such example of masterful plot writing and emotional characters all with their own motives and ideals. Not every new game needs to be the epic of the century in terms of size and expansiveness, in the same way that every new game doesn’t need to be a linear single-player experience. To abandon a form of storytelling because of industry peer pressure to be the biggest and the best is to abandon a player group that loves to connect with stories and characters. Any day of the week I would choose a game that feels alive every step of the way rather than one that looks alive from a distance and falls apart upon inspection.

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2 thoughts on “In Defense of Linear Storytelling in Video Games

  1. I actually feel both approaches have a lot to offer when it comes to storytelling; a problem tends to arise whenever teams attempt to tell a story that would be better suited for a linear game in an open-world game. That’s where we run into that issue with pacing as you mentioned (among other things). I think Breath of the Wild had a good story, and the reason it worked is because they went about it in a Dark Souls-like fashion in that the story was given to you in increments, and it’s up to you to put them together and make sense of them. Then again, when I think of the best story-heavy games I’ve played such as Undertale, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and OneShot, they were indeed linear experiences.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I really appreciate it!

      But yeah, you are totally right. There is something to be said for putting the story together yourself through scraps of lore hidden throughout the world, but I do believe if a developer (whether of their own volition or because of publisher demands) shoe-horns in a plot better suited for a single-player experience into an expansive open-world game, something will be lost. Whether that something be urgency or cohesion, the bigger you make a game and the more freedom you afford a player, the more the story is going to fall second to gameplay and player-choice. Though, with Breath of the Wild and other open-world games like The Witcher 3, an often misunderstood part of the story is the world-building. The actual landscape plays a HUGE role in story-telling in an open-world game, as do the people in that world. Everything should all point to an over-arching plot line without being like “Boy howdy, I sure do love that King who definitely won’t be murdered!” From the small amount of Breath of the Wild that I have seen, it treats the world as another character and prompts interaction and exploration of it to really allow a deeper level of understanding within that game-world. An open-world game can have a piece-meal story because there are other things to distract, uncover, explore for a deeper experience, in a linear game, the story MUST be the primary factor. Mainly because, if the story is weak almost no amount of fun gameplay will be able to save it as mediocre experience.

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