No matter which entertainment medium you choose, all seem to revolve around stories, more or less. Even music often serves the purpose of telling stories, whether in three-and-a-half minutes or throughout the length of an album or entire symphony. Games are no different, and they have even taken it a step further by implementing an increasingly popular mechanic wherein players can choose how the player character interacts with and responds to situations in the game. This has become so popular among gamers and critics that recently I’ve seen some games being criticized for linearity or the lack of choice in the characters’ matters.
That, to me, is a tragedy. While “choose-your-own-path” games provide interesting experiences that are sometimes unique to the player, linear storytelling is by no means a reason to criticize games or knock off points on a review. In fact, I often find myself more annoyed with games that enable the player the freedom to determine the outcome than games that have a set storyline with one conclusion.
Allowing players the ability to shape the story by making the decisions for the player character is interesting and should be respected in its own right. I’m always fascinated by how it allows players to inject their own personality into the game, in essence almost becoming a character in the game themselves. However, the appeal for me ends quickly, as typically when I play games that encourage player choice, I’m baffled by the lack of actual available options. In the end I always find myself compromising on the choice I would have actually liked to make and settling for the most suitable option. This is especially true when given a list of responses during a conversation; what I would like to say in the given situation is seldom a provided option.
Thus, the veil begins to lift and the illusion of choice and control is realized. Instead of really having the freedom to shape the character and the story, the player is given a series of choices that creates branching paths. I understand why it is this way—it would be difficult to create a coherent game and story if the player could do literally anything s/he wanted—but it always lets me down somehow. Personally, I also typically end up consulting advice online to see which choice yields the greatest benefits, which leads me to another point: punishment.
A lot of games are good about striking a balance, but some games that offer the freedom of choice are still at the mercy of the developers’ bias. In the original BioShock, for instance, players can choose to either rescue the Little Sisters or harvest Adam, consequently killing them. While the evil option (harvesting) provides the player with more Adam, rescuing them, according to virtually every source on the Internet, is more beneficial long-term, as the Little Sisters will leave generous gifts for the player later on in the game.
Another example that sticks out in my mind is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I initially found myself making the choices I would personally make given the options, and it led me down a path of relative neutrality; I was neither heavily Light or Dark. The result was, in word, punishment. The benefits of maxing out your Dark Side or Light Side powers are far greater than really choosing your own path, which, for me, ruined any illusion of free will the game offered. It didn’t help that the Light Side ending was established as canon later on.
While we’re on that topic, these types of games quite often have disappointing endings. Remember the whole Mass Effect 3 controversy? Originally, the game gave a generic ending that rendered all the player’s choices up to that point irrelevant. Even games that do have multiple endings often end up with rushed or glossed over endings, and while I’ll agree the journey may be the most important part of video games, if the ending sucks, the games end on a low note that’s hard to shake afterward.
Linear storylines, on the other hand, do not make false or illusory claims of playing the way you want to play and choosing whatever path you want. To me, these games typically offer much more in the way of characterization. (This perhaps stems from developers having more time to focus on one story in lieu of branching stories, but we won’t go there.) This leads to a bigger emotional investment and a more cathartic conclusion. While the player doesn’t assume the character’s identity, s/he is still walking with the character in his/her shoes and, sometimes, being forced to do things neither the player nor the character really want to do.
Therein lies one of the beauties of linear storylines. Look at the Tomb Raider reboot that released earlier this year. This game told the story of a young woman who was hardened into a killer and an adventurer. I won’t ask questions about how this game would have been if players had been given choices because this game never would have worked in that capacity, but for me, knowing the only path allowed was to kill—something Lara Croft had never conceived of doing—made the statement the game was making more powerful. There wasn’t a point when you could decide to preserve Lara’s innocence; you just had to play along and empathize with her.
The Last of Us is another prominent, recent example. The characterization in that game was far beyond most anything seen in gaming at this point. I’m not even ashamed to admit the personal attachment I felt to Joel and Ellie as I watched them learn to co-exist and, eventually, become the closest of companions. It was a heavy, emotional story, and a great game. It was one where the developers could have easily offered branching paths and provided a “good ending” and a “bad ending.” Instead, Naughty Dog said, “This is the story we want to tell. Here it is. Take it or leave it.” And I’m so glad they did. Some may have been put off by the ending, but it was one that I’m betting made an impression on almost everyone who played through the game, and I don’t desire to see any other outcome.
I’m sure many will say, “Some games are meant to have linear stories and others aren’t, and you can’t really compare them.” I agree with that. Most of the examples mentioned here wouldn’t have worked the other way. For me, linear stories always resonate more and tend to leave me feeling I had a greater experience, and despite what any critic may say, I will never fault a developer for limiting player freedom to tell a great story.
What about you? Do you prefer to follow a character through a story, or would you rather make the choices yourself and see the outcome? Feel free to weigh in!