Some Thoughts On Cinematic Narratives and Linearity

As I have previously said, I never had a Sony console until I bought a Playstation 2, but the first game I bought with it was the now classic Final Fantasy VII. I have mixed feelings on it now, but at the time I was in love. When I was first playing the game, I was immune to the polygon puppet people and the horrible localization. I wasn’t bothered by how easy it was to break the system during the endgame. I was having fun, and that’s all that mattered.

Within the first few hours of the game, your characters are captured and locked up in the holding cells of the Shinra Corporation building. When I wake up, the cell doors are all unlocked, and there’s a trail of blood leading down the corridor and up the stairs. All of the guards are dead. What in the hell happened here?

At the time, this was a huge moment to me. I distinctly remember running to my Livejournal and writing about this. I realized I was a few years late to the Final Fantasy VII party, but I didn’t care. This was an amazing, cinematic moment in gaming to me. This was also one of the first moments where I really thought of gaming as something more than just the stereotypical bleeps and bloops.

I don’t hold Final Fantasy VII in the highest regard, but I’ll always remember this scene because it helped sell me on a post Final Fantasy VI RPG, but it also gave me a real indication of what games could become within the next few years.

That was exactly what happened.

In the last few years, video games have become much more of a cinematic experience and are much less restricted to the limitations of the video game medium. Unfortunately, a side effect of this has been that games have become much more linear. Final Fantasy XIII was greatly criticized for being a series of corridors with a bunch of battles thrown in. I myself contributed to that criticism. It was a big part of what I didn’t like about the game. The majority of shooters have also followed this trend, becoming linear shootfests.

I don’t find anything wrong with games like Gears of War or Halo. I’ve put time into both series, and while they aren’t what I like to spend my time playing, I had a level of enjoyment with them. I don’t necessarily like how linear they are, but I understand that in games like that, that sense of linearity is a proper way to tell a story.

I really worry about gaming becoming more cinematic over time, because at some point I feel like it ceases to be a video game. I love interesting takes on narrative and storytelling, and to be able to do it within the constraints of video game logic is surely a great challenge. Games like Bastion do a great job of telling a story without forcing it upon you by way of a narrator that watches over you as you play and actually narrates what is going on on screen. Other games like To the Moon, which can barely be considered a “video game” in the true sense of the term uses the style of a 16-bit SNES game to visualize a strong, sorrow filled narrative.

This really is a hard topic to get into in a blog format, so I’m going to keep it at this: I love narrative in games, I love seeing interesting ideas involving said narratives. I don’t like it when the narrative itself forces me into a rigid, linear progression because of game design choices.

Let video games stay video games.

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4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Cinematic Narratives and Linearity

  1. Nice post, however I think there are some things to consider. It’s as you suggested, a design choice for the “Linear” progression in a video game. It’s a tough one to design for, because if you make a game completely non-linear it becomes increasingly hard to have a solid narrative story. Point being, is from a design standpoint you want to have enough variety that you have the illusion of control and choice but ultimately have the player stroll down the proverbial yellow brick road you have constructed. I good example would be the Mass Effect franchise, for the most part they did an excellent job of making you feel in charge, but ultimately you still had to follow the same path.

    On the second point about cinematic experiences, I think you nailed it on the head there. Consumers are quickly getting tired of the QTE (Quick Time Events) in games, or too many CG cutscenes. When used properly they can have a really nice dramatic effect, however when used poorly and too much it makes you feel like your playing a game on rails essentially.

  2. I think this can be tied into the points you made about creating your own narrative from your Minecraft piece. Games like that, or SimCity, etc, have no narrative of their own except what you create, and thus are entirely non-linear. That, I think, is one of the unique strengths of games as an art form, the ability to completely create your own story.

    That said, and Randen Dunlap made some excellent points on this already, if the game designer has a story he or she wants to tell, it’s almost impossible to convey it without at least some linearity. However, and I think this is the issue you’re touching on, more and more game designers are using linearity as a lazy way to get their story over with. I’ve noticed this extreme linearity is usually coupled with bad stories, although their are notable exceptions (like Killer7, which, while having an excellent story, is among the most linear “games” I’ve ever played).

    The best narrative games approach the linearity in a fresh or original way. Braid’s levels have a very strict way they must be completed, but it’s up to you to figure out what that way is, which makes it feel like you’re putting it together on your own, like a puzzle (appropriate, since puzzle pieces are a big motif in the game). Games like System Shock/Bioshock and Metroid Prime never force the story on you, they literally let you discover it as you play (or not, if you’d rather just blow through). Bioshock Infinite takes this to an even higher level, pairing the player up with an AI companion that can respond to specific actions the player performs, completely unscripted. I’ve noticed this approach to narrative structure is usually coupled with very good stories.

    So I think the issue is lazy storytelling, which leads to extreme linearity and over reliance on cut scenes. If writing was approached more as an essential element of game design, that needs serious attention, as opposed to a necessary obstacle to finishing development, I think game design opportunities would open up and games wouldn’t feel so stale; that is, actual, trained writers need to be hired. The Mother series is a great example of what can happen when a great writer is the main creative force behind game design, and I’d love to see more and more established writers spearhead new IPs.

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