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  • Nonlinear Narrative in Games: Theory and Practice

    [08.17.10]
    - Ben McIntosh, Randi Cohn and Lindsay Grace

  • Challenges Inherent with Designing Nonlinear Games

    If nonlinear stories are so compelling, why aren't more games written this way? The short answer is that it is expensive and difficult. There are challenges for the writers, producers, and engineers, and in most cases, the costs outweigh the benefits. In fact many critically acclaimed AAA titles have been largely linear, such as Uncharted 2.

    From the production perspective, the more options you give the player, the more time and resources it takes to design each possibility, as well as to generate the assets associated with each scenario. Thus, the fewer the outcomes, the easier it is to create. There are several examples of games that were designed as extensively nonlinear plots, but ended up quite the opposite due to time and expense constraints.

    Consider a game that offers two major choices, just three times during the entire game. As shown in the branching tree diagram above, the game would require eight distinct endings. Not only would that mean that the production team would need to create all the additional assets for those endings, it means that each player would experience only an eighth of the game endings. It's hard to justify creating that much game, if players aren't going to see it. However, this may also increase the replay value.

    Secondly, the technical challenges for the engineering team are substantial. With each branch of the game comes additional code to control the flow, and variables to keep track of. While smaller games may be manageable, larger games get out of hand quickly. Due to the exponential growth of the decision tree, there are hundreds if not thousands of variables to manage. The advent of simpler game scripting languages like Lua, eliminate the need for designers to be expert programmers. However, the game engine that interprets the scripting language needs to be sufficiently robust to support complex nonlinear experiences.

    Lastly, the actual methodology of writing such a story can prove to be much more difficult than you might imagine. Think about how complex it would be to write a story that could be read in any order. How would you arrange the paragraphs of each plot point? How would you write for dialogue that could end in multiple ways which would lead to another dialogue that would also then lead to a number of new choices?

    Good nonlinear narrative authors understand that story has dependencies. A good storyteller reveals enough information to keep their audience engaged. A common technique for doing this is layering, where the audience is provided additional information that builds on the last information they were given. The first layer might be a problem, the second layer might be about an item that helps to solve the problem, the third layer may tell where to get that item, and so on.

    The challenge with nonlinear narrative is that you typically don't use time to layer. Nonlinear stories are often linked by conditions. For example, it may be that certain plot points are revealed after a player completes a required action. Or, a certain action by the player may exclude an entire portion of the story. This is very difficult to express using traditional storytelling tools. For example, when we write stories in English, we write them from the top of the page down, tying events together by time. As such, most word processing or storytelling software is designed the same way. The expectation is very linear; there is a first, second and a third part, all tied together by time.

    Nonlinear narrative is very difficult for game writers to express with current writing tools, like Microsoft Word, Final Draft, or even Excel because they link story elements in a linear fashion. Modern games are more than just a chain of decisions or a series of events, like the branching storyline of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Nonlinear games also consider conditions such as inventory items, character relationships, and past interactions as part of the equation for conveying their stories. Given these difficulties, designers are still able to successfully create nonlinear games.

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