(Major Spoilers for the Assassin's Creed series and L.A. Noire abound.)
Last week, I discussed how games could be used as a storytelling medium. I talked about the benefits of using games to explore philosophies and scenarios in a free form way: That player choice was an important concept and that it is vital to show the consequences for those choices. After the article was posted, a friend of mine pointed out something to me. In hindsight, I may have unintentionally snubbed linearity in video games. It is absolutely possible to have a strong linear narrative using video games. I would argue that doing this well is much more difficult. It has to be done in a certain way. A developer must tailor the experience to the medium of video games in order to make it work.
Again, video games have strengths that can be played with. By default, video game players are more likely to sympathize with the protagonist because they are the protagonist, at least on a superficial level. The main character (at least a well-written one) has a good backstory and motivation for his/her actions. With that, they are allowed and encouraged to have preconceived notions of morality and ethics. A good way to help further define and flesh out the character would be to use the mechanics of the game. The original Assassin's Creed did this incredibly well. The player did not have a health bar, it instead had a “synchronization meter” which showed how much the player was in sync with Altair's, the protagonist, memory of what happened. This mechanic allowed the game to inform the player of Altair's morality without bogging him/her down with exposition or allowing for Gameplay and Story Segregation. When the player kills an innocent person, the synchronization bar is immediately reduced by 33% of its maximum value. This shows while Altair is an assassin and known for killing people, he still has a degree of morality and was not a complete psychopath. It is also possible to increase the maximum synchronization by doing things in line with what Altair would do like analyze the city from high building or by saving people from corrupt guards. This avoids Gameplay and Story Segregation as well because in the story the events of Altair's life occurred very long ago and the player is simply playing a simulation created using his memory.
In the case of Assassin's Creed, the mechanics are more than a way for the player to get from point A to point B. They are used to reinforce the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood also did this in a particularly powerful scene at the end of the game. At the end of the game, the player character, Desmond, finds and ancient artifact called the Apple of Eden with the help of his friends. Someone from behind the scenes uses the Apple's power to control Desmond's body and freeze time for the other three people with him. The cutscene has Desmond extend his hidden wrist-blade and begin to move toward his love interest, a fellow assassin named Lucy. When the player regains control, he/she (if they are anything like me) will try to steer Desmond away from her. However, when the player moves, no matter which direction they point to, Desmond will move towards Lucy. When Desmond is close enough, then the player will be directed to press attack and he/she will have no choice but to comply. This is a powerful scene because it helps the player to empathize with Desmond. It demonstrates his complete powerlessness and inability to stop his body no matter how hard he tries to. This moment is made powerful because the mechanics in play support the narrative and brings the player into the story.
While a linear story can be significantly bolstered if in a video game, there are dangers to attempting to do so. If one does not keep the story and its central themes in mind, there is a strong chance of the gameplay weakening the story. A storyteller can risk undercutting the whole story with the mechanics of the game if they are not extremely careful. As much as I love the Uncharted games, they are prime examples of this. Naughty Dog has constantly said that Nathan Drake, the protagonist of the series, is the everyman. He is the person that the player can relate to. This is very hard to take seriously. The reason for this is that the Uncharted series is a third-person cover-based shooter. For the uninitiated, that means that the player, as Nathan Drake, is almost always slaughtering tons of nameless, faceless pirates/soldiers. Furthermore, he has the tendency to talk... and snark... a lot... during each engagement. The overall image of him (at least during gameplay, the actual story is significantly better) is one of a murdering psychopath who has no concept of mercy or remorse. This runs contrary to the kind of character Naughty Dog wished to make and the type of narrative they intended to weave. While they are fortunate that the overall story and gameplay hold up, many more like them have similar problems in their games and fall into this trap.
Other pitfall in making a good, linear narrative in a video game is that players will be inherently more critical of the plot. This is because the strength of having instant sympathy with a protagonist can also be a weakness. When the players feel like they are the character, there is the potential for a disconnect with the character if, at any time, the character begins to exhibit unreasonable or irrational behavior. I had a personal example of this when I was playing L.A. Noire. In L.A. Noire, the protagonist is a man named Cole Phelps, a marine recently returned from World War 2 who decided to join the LA police force and quickly ascended to the rank of detective. He is shown to be a happily married man with two daughters. The game introduced Cole to a German singer who escaped to America before the war started. In the second half of the game, Cole visits the singer in her apartment for an undisclosed period of time at night. I did not think much of it when I saw the scene (I was being pretty dense there, admittedly) until later, when Cole is accused of cheating on his wife and is demoted to Arson as a result. At first, I thought he was set up. I thought that there was no possible way that Cole would do that because it seemed out of character. As it turns out, Cole really did “pork that German whore.” I was stunned. I sat there and thought “Cole! What the f**k were you thinking!? I saw you at the beginning! You f**king kissed your wife that morning! Are you KIDDING ME!?”. This one scene completely broke the game for me. I could care no longer about the story or what happened to the characters because I felt that the game betrayed both me and any conceivable notion of common scene. Finishing the game became more of an endurance test. That is the power of interactivity. When the story makes sense, it can bring players closer to the characters and the world. When it does not, then the player can feel betrayed by the plot and disconnect from the whole mess.
Linear storytelling is a perfectly valid form of narrative in video games. It relies much more on the writer's skill than free-form games do. The key is once again to use the mechanics to reinforce the narrative. Developers and writers need to get together and stay on the same page throughout development. It is difficulty simply because it requires a great deal of synergy between all departments of a game development studio. While an amazing story is difficult to pull off, when it is, it is extremely gratifying, both to the player and the developer. I would hope developers, either in the present or future, would take a minute to think about how a narrative can be woven into and reinforced by a great game.