Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Meaningful Freedom

Non-linearity is something that has been lauded as as great leap forward in gaming. The prevalence of sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, Just Cause, and The Elder Scrolls series are a testament to their popularity.  However, if we're talking about a game driven by its story, does non-linearity actually matter? Or moreover, is it even desirable?

So let's consider the non-linearity present in Dragon Age and Mass Effect. In both games, we get a linear segment to begin with, establishing the backstory of our character and the setting of the game world.  Once this phase is over, we're given free reign to pursue one of three (or four) questlines that belong to the main quest. We're also given a myriad of side quests that we can complete at our leisure, but which have no real impact on the main story as a whole.  Once the major questlines are completed, we decide when we wish to be funnelled into another linear section which completes the game.  If we then look at Morrowind or Oblivion, we have a single, linear path for the main story, again with a myriad of side quests with no real effect on the main story. Arguably, there are some side quests that become mandatory (ie completing a daedric shrine quest in Oblivion), but again, these have no real effect on the plot itself.

Non-linearity exists in terms of side quests for both types, but BioWare's two offerings present some non-linearity in that they allow the player to pick which of the main quest lines to pursue first. However, the question I ask is this: What does that freedom really provide to the player?

Decisions, decisions...

In terms of the progression of well-delivered narrative, what does giving the player the choice to pursue parts of the main quest at different times achieve? By allowing this non-linearity, we give the player the freedom to pick the quest line they believe is the most important or the most interesting. The designer is empowering the player with that ability. Putting the player in control of their adventure is a good thing.  However, at what expense is this freedom granted?

If the players can progress in a non-linear matter, several problems are raised. For one, the development of the plot must be able to cater for every permutation of plot progression that the player can pursue. If there are certain revelations that must occur in order for the plot to progress, this order must be maintained regardless of the player's choices, which may cause difficulties for delivering a coherent story, particularly if these reveals only occur at specific locations. There will likely be an "optimal path" to provide the "best" story due to the delivery of the material. If this is not the case, then most likely the major quest lines are not that tightly coupled, because extra information from one does not inform your character's action in another location.

Perhaps an example will demonstrate this point more clearly. Within Dragon Age, you can investigate the troubles of Redcliffe, explore Orzammar, resolve the conflict in the Brecilian Forest, or deal with the blood magic in the Circle Tower. None of the quests have anything that directly ties them to each other in terms of the plot, as each of them can be done independently. Compare to Oblivion's linear plot, where each plot point is directly dependent on the prior point, arguably leading to a more tightly coupled story progression. This isn't a comment on the comparative quality of the stories (I'll leave that for other people to argue over), but more the cohesiveness of the individual elements in forming a greater story.

You decide the outcome, no matter how long it takes you to arrive.

By providing non-linearity in the main plot, it is harder for the designer to form a consistent and precise narrative for the player.  In which case, I would argue that the player needs to get more out of that non-linearity than the simple choice to pursue the main quest line of their choice. What do I mean? How about introducing some dependencies or effects depending on the player's choices in other "main-quest-lines"? The example I've mentioned previously that I would have loved to have seen in Dragon Age was Connor dying (or being killed) if the player left Redcliffe to fetch the assistance of the mages.

What if your decisions in one main quest line, or even the order you choose to do them had significant effects on other main quest lines?  Without some real and meaningful effects to take advantage of the non-linear nature of the main plot, the lost power of the narrative does not seem to be worth the relatively small degree of empowerment that we as players receive from being able to choose how to progress the main plot.


  1. Non-linearity is overhyped, and when present, often a fallacy. I'm still travelling from A to B regardless of the different scenery and non-plot-related grindfest hack and slash I choose to do en route. So I agree, non-linearity in terms of 'choose which order you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, before finally getting to the main plot' is not as real and satisfying as 'consequences for actions' non-linearity.

    But it is also dependant on how much players replay a game - something I'm not sure what the stats are on what percentage of players are likely to play somethign like Dragon Age more than once, and to what level designers rate replayability (of cRPGs in particular) as an important selling point.

    My favorite cRPGs all have the common factor - that I find it difficult to enjoy replaying them, and lose the marvel that I had in my first play through of a tightly written, engrossing, story driven plot. Redoing it to see 10% new content, when 90% is the same holds little appeal to me. I'm guessing companies figure they will alienate players if they find out that a choice to do quests in a certain order may mean that they can't play the hero and save the day in another quest. So you'd have to stress any time-urgent quests in the game, otherwise players have little to go on in terms of understanding the consequences of saving a mage polymorphed into a chicken instead of clearing out the kobold-infested mines destroying iron trade in the region. But, once you stress that time-dependancy, how many players choose to ignore it..?

  2. I think you're spot-on with the last few sentences. I consider non-linearity to be a great thing myself but it often comes down to "choose which order to do quests in". To fully take advantage of it, things should be connected (not everything, but a lot of it) so that every quest is not done in a vacuum. This will be taxing on the developer but as a consumer, it's something I really want.
    It's also a reason why I've always found the Baldurs Gates to be a bit overrated as well. Don't get me wrong, I like them. But it always nagged me about how people will talk about the freedom and all that... And yet, how many real choices with consequences are there for you to make in the game? Same with Oblivion. Brand-open world, but nothing you do in it matters and gets back to you in a meaningful way.

    I've mentioned it before on this blog but I think, again, Alpha Protocol handles this in an interesting way. It's rather different due to its mission-based setup, and each hub still has a order of events that you go through until the end.
    But your choice of which hub you do first can unlock things in other hubs later on. If you're nice to Steven Heck, he can help you in Moscow against Brayko. If you spare Brayko (and get some influence with him) he can call his thugs off your back in a mission in Rome. It's not perfect but I think Alpha Protocol took a rather large step forward in terms of providing choice and reactivity within the context of story-driven games. Too bad that contribution gets overlooked (or praised when a more popular developer does it in the future).

    That said, I think if you're making a story-lite game then that non-linearity can be desirable. For a game such as Storm of Zehir, I think it makes all the sense in the world for the gameworld to be largely open. Hell, in Fallout 1 you could (technically, but would never happen) march straight to the endgame locations I believe. I *love* that type of freedom where the game doesn't place bars around you, but it's for a different type of game.

  3. "I've always found the Baldurs Gates to be a bit overrated as well. Don't get me wrong, I like them. But it always nagged me about how people will talk about the freedom and all that... And yet, how many real choices with consequences are there for you to make in the game?"

    This comment is completely contradictory. If the quests all had "real consequences" then how is that freedom? Feeling obliged to do a quest here and now because something bad might happen is compulsion. You can't knock something for one thing and say it lacks the same thing.

  4. I wouldn't say its a contradictory comment - and it seems as though you've conflated Wyrin's suggestion re stressed urgency with Starwars' comment re freedom and consequence.

    People say Baldur's Gate had freedom, which it did to a degree, but the issue is that none of the non-linearity had any affect on the main quest line. The freedom was all in the "side quests", a number of which were quite lengthy because they were "required" in order to make money to progress the main plot. That said, they still had no effect on the main plot itself.

    I think the issue is that if we're going to be provided non-linearity in the main-quest lines of the game, then there ought to be a point to that non-linearity. If each segment plays out exactly the same regardless of the order you perform them in, why bother having that choice in the first place?