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  • Nonlinear Narrative in Games: Theory and Practice

    [08.17.10]
    - Ben McIntosh, Randi Cohn and Lindsay Grace
  •  When it comes to writing for video games, there are a few decisions that need to be made before you even begin brainstorming about plot points, characters, or dialogue. Even if the genre and style has been determined, there is a bigger question about the story that must be answered: Will this be a linear or nonlinear narrative?

    If you are a game enthusiast, you are probably already aware of the exciting complexities, depth, and robustness of nonlinear stories. However, if you have ever attempted to write a nonlinear story, you may have encountered several infuriating problems that are typical when trying to present the player with multiple options. This article will take a look at some of these issues as well as offer some thoughts on how to work through them. Why is nonlinear writing important to know? Because as more schools offer degrees in game design, the competition is greater than ever. In a world where some video games are outselling big budget movies, you have to put as many stunning bullet points on your curriculum vitae as you can to stand out from the crowd.

    What is Nonlinear Narrative?

    Before we address the issues that arise in writing nonlinear narratives, we must first define the differences between linear and nonlinear. Linear stories are written in such a way that the player progresses by reaching predetermined sequential plot points. A successful completion of the game would mean that the player has arrived at the end point of the game via the single path that was laid out by the designer. Think of a novel or a movie.


    Plot points in a linear narrative are usually in a fixed chronological order.

    The linear storytelling tradition is well established. Most follow what we call the "three-act structure" or "Aristotelian approach", where the story can be broken down into a clear beginning middle and end. In the beginning, there is an exposition of a problem, that problem comes to a climax in the middle, and that problem is resolved at the end. This structure works well in games because it gives the player a goal or set of goals as they work toward solving the problem.

    Nonlinear narratives extend the benefits of linear narratives. The player is given options as to what he or she chooses to do. Historically, these options were presented as predetermined choices, as in choosing to go to one town or another. Yet, nonlinear narrative is much more than merely offering choices. It also includes games that dynamically generate plot elements and alter potential endings based not only on the choices a player makes, but also on other factors such as their performance, timing, or other circumstances tied to the narrative.

    The key to nonlinear narrative is variability. The player's experience is enhanced by variety and a sense of efficacy. What the player does has real consequences on the world in which they interact. They are at least provided the impression of influence. These narratives may offer multiple endings, or perhaps converge fatefully to an inevitable outcome. When you give a player the ability to affect the narrative, it gives them an opportunity to identify with their player, creating more of an emotional investment.

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