Tuesday, July 19

On Linearity

Cousin, it's a sandbox, and I say we go bowling.
    Oh gods, my computer.  It died.  Died so dead.  To death.  It's gone, I don't know what to do.  Everything, so dead.  Oh well, find a new way, I suppose.  A different way.  Wait a minute, different approaches?  That sounds like a clever intro to Linearity!
But seriously, it's dead.
    Linearity is a product of games really not possessing the technological freedom to allow players complex, multi-pathed experiences.  And though those were attempted, they rarely worked as well as they would come the days of full 3D gaming and the advents of min-maps and fast-travels systems, all of which made the necessarily unbearable traveling bearable.  But even come the huge worlds that stretch for countries with nary a loading screen in sight, the concept of nonlinearity is nowhere near universal.  Certainly, we must agree that parts of the importance and uniqueness of games is the ability for the participating audience to make choices, why not choices as simple as "I want to go here"?
    Well, because that's hard.  Really, that's what it comes down to.  Take a look at a movie, a book, an album.  In general, with extremely few exceptions, these are linear media.  They are meant to be experienced from front to back, the same way, every time.  Games, however, will almost never be played the same way by two people, and why should they?  Games are experiences, and experiences will always reflect the nature of those involved and the choices they make.  So what is it about nonlinearity?  Simply, writing a story to observe is one thing, but writing a story in which someone participates is something else altogether, and the art has not truly been yet mastered.  Are there good examples of linear storytelling in games?  Bioshock, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Zeno Clash, No More Heroes, and so on and so forth.
    But to understand the proper method and formula, let's look at a game with excellent gameplay that combines the linear and nonlinear.  Deus Ex, one of the all-time super-duper famous games people love to think about, with a sequal coming soon, merges together the different types of gameplay beautifully.  The game boasts a diverse skill system, not overly complex, but intuitive and navigatable enough to allow players to tackle the game's obstacles in a style that suited them.  Whether you prefer silent and stealthy, charismatic and charming, or a blazing-guns hoedown, the game allows you your fun.  It doesn't force a gameply style on you, but designs to allow for multiple solutions in every situation.  This is most certainly a valid and rewarding way to go about it.  It comes up when designing encounters for something like D&D, or any tabletop.  If you say to yourself "The player(s) must fight here," you've limited them in their experiences, and that's something we must always strive to avoid.  To prepare for all your players is a difficult and noble goal.  As a Dungeon Master, or as a Game Designer (Same thing in many ways, let's not pretend), your objectives include the enjoyment of your players.  To keep them happy, try to let them play the way they want.  They can affect the story, the game.  After all, they are a crucial part.
The match only burns from one end.
    Speaking of affecting the story, try to think of the number of games where you could decide the outcome of the story?  How did you decide the outcome?  If you look at one of the more prominent examples of players affecting the story, Fable, you will find, none too kindly, that your actions are not really the driving force behind the story's changes.  Rather, in Fable the choices you make are much closer to a choose-your own adventure book than the medium it pretends to lead the way for.  Affecting the story has to be made of real descisions, has to have a driving force behind it.  In games like Fable, every question becomes not "What is your morality?" or even something like "What is a man?" but instead "Would you like to be a dick?"  This is not a question normal people answer Yes to.  The "evil" options should appeal more to the weak-willed, be simpler and more of a personal interest than representing a clear(ish) greater good.  Infamous does this in a far too blatant way, but it's clear enough that it doesn't need much explaining.  Cole (the protagonist) is given the choice of saving one of two groups of people, and he must do it within a time limit.  Here are the two groups, are you wearing earplugs?  Your brain may melt.  One group is composed of six doctors, who are crucially needed in this now-post apocalypse, and the other group is: your girlfriend.  You can see which appeals to the inner Saint and which to the sinner.  But it is a good example: low effort, personal commitment versus high effort, personal conscience.  It's a question that causes many of us to force ourselves out of bed each day.
    You want to be able to let the player affect the story, but how do you do this?  Asking them how they wish to proceed is nice in that the player would always know what decisions they're making, but I find it's sometimes better to keep the player on their toes: let their gameplay choice help tell the story.  This goes back in part to a previous article (On Misinformation), but when I play certain games, I really don't know what the consequences of my actions will be, and that causes me to consider them much more.  Anyway, yes, gameplay.  Persona 4, for instance, does not ask "Do to understand this person?"  Instead, it sees how you react and has the characters react accordingly, yes with tangled dialogue trees and little else, but it asks you to care about the characters and make your own judgements based on what you know, and not on instructions.  Games like the most recent Fallout installments allow for more varied approaches that change the gameplay as well.  The difference between guns-blazing, diplomacy, and sneaky run-around is significant, and allows you to be the person you want to be, if not always successfully.  That is the basic answer, though.  Think about the mechanics your game has in place and how the player will, or could, or will want to deal with them.  See how you can manipulate the mechanics to incorporate those choices, and if you do it right, the story will follow.
    Well, now let's look at something less complex: Linearity in Level design.  The protagonist begins at point A.  You need them to be at point B.  You, the designer, are left with a conundrum.  How do you get the player to go to point B?  It's a very real problem.  Designers have implemented lots of methods of forcing you to get through their levels.  Fortunately for them, they are aided strongly by natural human curiosity and the original cause of playing video games to complete them.  Now, we need rely on this less so, since deisgners are able to give the player more complex reasons for getting to point B.  Try writing your level out as a story.  Try writing the player's journey from point A to B.  If at any point you say something like "Then they walk here," you will make a lot of people very upset.  Walking, by itself, is not gameplay.  Walking through a thin hallway in the basement of an abandoned house in serious need of construction as psychotic laughter plays quietly through the echoing stillness however, that is.  Now, things needn't be so extreme, but you get the idea.  Even when the player is forced to walk, make them experience that walking, involve them in walking, make sure they know that they're walking, and they are not bored by it in the least.
  Alright, so I've written this on a friend's computer in notepad, so forgive me if it's significantly shorter or longer than usual, I use a word count to keep me in check.  We'll see what I've done here, and when I can finally get another computer for myself.
Thanks for reading.

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