A Rare Argument For More Linear Video Game Stories

One brilliant thing about video games is that they can react to what players do and have multiple endings. Books can't do that. Movies can't, not even Clue. Many in gaming argue for branching storylines. Here's an argument against:

"What we found is that if you over-branch the storylines [is that]if there was one route you went down and got one reaction - and a completely different route got another reaction - we found that people would get really disappointed. They always felt they were on the wrong path. They always felt, ah, I wanted to see the dragon!"

That's Peter Molyneux speaking, in an interview with Kotaku at Game Developers Conference last week, riffing on some talk about Fable III.

We had been discussing the propensity for gamers to abandon the games they are playing, a potential problem for Molyneux, whose Fable III is supposed to reveal its true scope only in its second half. The first half of the game is a hero's journey, the player-character's fight to stop a villain in the fantasy world of Albion and Aurora. The latter half of the game sees the player as king, now required to rule the people he saved and either enjoy or suffer the reactions of the people to whom he promised favours on his rise to power. That concept of playing through kingly responsibility was inspired, Molyneux had told Kotaku, by a curiosity he had about super-hero comics that never showed the aftermath of big super-hero fights. How did the people react to the damage caused by the heroic battle? How did they live in the aftermath? That is the back half of Fable III.

But many people don't finish games, Molyneux conceded. He mentioned that he was already fading on Bioshock 2, because it felt too similar to the first Bioshock. He said he was playing through Heavy Rain, but doing it in small bits because he found the game "harrowing," something he could handle only in 20-minute doses.

To compel people to play, Molyneux believes, players should want to know what's coming next and must sense that that next thing will be something cool, something their friends will urge them to accomplish or see without spoiling it.

But the buzz-kill, he said, can be when the player believes they can't experience that next cool thing at all, because of a choice they made.

It's surprising to hear Molyneux dismiss the over-branching of game stories, in part because the technique has been used a lot by role-playing game makers like BioWare or even by the creators of Heavy Rain. The allure of multiple endings and varied experiences can backfire. The first Fable, Molyneux recalled, was going to have a dragon in it, but a dragon that only some players would find, if they played the game a certain way. That frustrated the people who tested the game and was dropped.

Should a game's story branch? Should it be a choose-your-own adventure? For once, the argument is in the negative. The argument has been made: Sometimes forking your gaming story is just too much, too frustrating and too annoying.


Comments

    I've been saying this for ages. Branching storylines are cool sometimes, but (a) they're inefficient content development, because the vast majority of your audience will only see about 60% of what you've spent time making, and (b) the responsibility of an author is to tell the single best story they can; no-one wants to see your second-best and third-best stories at the cost of your best one.

    It's much more efficient to send every player down the single optimal path while making them FEEL like they made meaningful choices with consequences.

    Linear stories that don't branch can tell the best stories if executed right. They are far more immersive and interesting because you are more interested in the story than the sandbox aspect of a game. I love games with a linear story (lots of plot twists would be good though) more than most other things in a game or most other games.

    For all those that disagree with me, i'm not indicating i hate all other games, not by a long shot, i just really love a good story more than anything else.

    I've ALWAYS thought this about branching storylines. I hate them, because I take one path and then think to myself, "ugh, I kind of want to see what would happen if I had done that instead... man it's going to be a trek to have to play though again to find out". I can't enjoy the game because I'm always wishing that I could see what would have happened otherwise.

    Something that would fix this in my opinion is if they had a map of the story on the main menu once you've finished the game, so you can have a graphical representation of different paths the story can take, and you can play from certain parts on the map so you can immediately play from a part where you want to explore a different branch. Does this make sense? Anyway, this way, it'd be easy to see the branches you haven't taken and where you need to play from to "unlock" them.

    Man, the more I think about this, the more I want it.

      THIS!!!

      If one of these 'flow charts' was unlocked in Mass Effect 2 after a single playthrough, it would be the greatest thing ever.

      Given that, it would completely demystify any illusion of choice...

      @matt: I think you want to patent that..
      @PaulP: 'THIS!!!' - my sentiments exactly.

      Just like True Crimes Streets of LA

    I agree totally! A linear story, good or bad, has more impact and engages you more than a broad series of seemingly arbitrary goals. Too much freedom distracts me, if I dont have a main focus I'll get bored. In Fallout/Oblivion and GTA I just do the main mission and never play again.

    good games only need a few things...
    first: have my avatar do i fucking tell him to do via keyboard/mouse/controller!!! FFS.
    *ahem*
    second: captivating story (waits paitently for Richard Morgan's EA titles to happen). linear is best for story for the 'not missing out on story' aspect, but you have to incorporate active choices that don't necessarily differ the final outcome... rather on differ the small time outcome. just a small thing like choosing what time of day to attack someone or, where to position yourself to for the best ambush. you need the ability to strategise very precisely in the small term.

    and third: make it fun- the end

    Another one who agrees with that here. I myself rarely ever play games more than once and so the first ending I get is usually the one and only ending I'll see and I'll get darn disappointed if it's not the ending I want. I blazed through Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor recently only to find out near the end that I'd missed a couple of things - stopped playing. A lot of the time I'll follow a walkthrough word for word just so I can get the ending I want but everytime I do that, it ruins the experience for me.

    It's ok when the game's endings are clear cut like in Mass Effect 2, the game basically told you over and over again if you didn't prepare, it could be a disaster. Most of the time though, this isn't the case. Granted, heck knows what will happen in ME3 with the decisions I made in ME2. Fallout 3, got one ending and didn't bother with any others. I spent more time running around aimlessly than doing much else.

    If I do play a game again though, I rarely ever make different choices to what I did before so for instance the KoToR games - I would always play as a goodie two shoes. Mostly because so many branching storylines nowadays have to do with some sorta karma system and I don't tend to play as an evil prick most of the time.

    People who bag out linear games in my opinion are being harsh. A lot of us out there just like walking in a straight line for a good story and a nice ending.

    I've lost all faith in molyneux. He seems to just say outrageous things to get printed, then down-talks the competition then backpedals.
    Linearity can be great and so can branching storylines. I personally love chatting to my friends about a game and finding out what they did in a certain situation and how that worked out. For linear games it's just a like a tv show - "man did you see how he killed that monster? that was cool "

    I like branching, but hate the boring branches.

    Also I don't think "THERE'S ONLY ONE WAY" of doing it, branching or not, there's a way of making it work.

    I for one unlike Peter Molyneux, finish my games. WTF, i can only finish 20 minutes of Bioshock 2 at a time because its too harrowing. I understand that many people loose interest easily, however i am not one of them, also, come up with a better excuse Molyneux.

      Opps, made a mistake, bioshock was meant to be Heavy Rain.

    Whoa, that first image looks like exactly like something I did a long time ago. Creepy. http://sirmuffinman.deviantart.com/art/PurpleHaze-3597027

    Molyneux hasn't even finished Heavy Rain yet he hails it as "the future of gaming". And can only play it in twenty minute doses. That sounds more like the symptoms of an attention-defeceit disorder than an appraisal of Heavy Rain. "Too harrowing", geez Peter.

    GEEZE.

    I agree with the idea of having less "alternate endings". I'm completely on par with Molyneux's explanation that you feel you missed out by "choosing" your particular ending, and then thinking aww the other ending would've been better. My theory is that a real treasure is something that can only really have one ending; the best one. Even if it's not an exceptional ending, at least you'll be satisfied that it couldn't have been any better and you got the best experience out of your game.

    My most loved games (Half Life 2, Halo series, Uncharted 2, etc) are linear. I respect alternate ending-infused games like Heavy Rain, for example, but I tend to tire of the adventure due to the fact that I really don't know what's happening next - it could be another outrageously boring investigation scene, or I might need to fry some eggs - and so I'm not excited, and it doesn't hold my attention.

    Of course, I do like the alternate endings in the sense of an addition to the story - something that really isn't important, but is significant - such as the human soldier hugging the covenant soldier at the end of Halo 1 if you played it on Legendary. And I did enjoy Mass Effect 2, though I'm a hard customer to impress so at times it was difficult to force myself to get through it. I certainly got sick of looking for minerals on planets. God that sucked.

    I've thought the same for a while. I'm really enjoying Mass Effect 2, but having loaded my save game from ME1 I'm already feeling restricted by my previous choices... now I'm going to have to re-play both games just to experience them a different way... and who knows what will happen when ME3 comes out!

    Who has the time to spend doing this? I'd prefer a really well thought out story (that can be completely linear) that takes 10-20 hours to complete for a decent player.

    One important point I'd make though is that linear story does not have to mean linear gameplay. Clever level design can mean you can "go anywhere" and feel unrestricted whilst still progressing along a single linear plot path.

    I disagree.

    I think all story lines need to be good narratives, but giving me, the player, some control of events leaves me feeling empowered and like I'm actually finding my own path, instead of follow the preordained path set before me.

    Rather than moping over what could have been, I enjoy watching my character evolve and his decisions effect the world around him.

    I never do the save/reload at decision points to see what the best possible outcome is, because I think it cheapens the experience.

    Ultimately I think it comes down to what you define as an RPG. If your idea of an RPG is to level up and get loot while following a set narrative, fine.
    Personally I define an RPG by the decisions you can make and the consequences of those actions.

    I think Bioware do it well, the games don't truly branch a whole lot, but how events happen and you handle them can be governed by earlier decisions, it gives that sense of the characters impact on the world without having to create significant extra content for "what if the player chooses to x"

    Books can't have multiple endings?

    I'm sure we all read "pick-a-path" books when we were growing up, no?

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