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  • Nonlinear Narrative in Games: Theory and Practice

    - Ben McIntosh, Randi Cohn and Lindsay Grace

  • Types of Nonlinear Storytelling

    There are two main categories of nonlinear games and sometimes a combination of both: open world and branching. Open world often means the player is able to encounter different parts of the overall story in whatever order they choose, or, the player is able to access smaller, more isolated side stories in whatever order they choose. Think of quests in Word of Warcraft or missions in Grand Theft Auto 3.

    Open world quests in World of Warcraft can usually be completed in any order for a given level.

    Branching nonlinear stories are generally thought of as one of two styles: 1) a tree that branches out with different end points; or 2) plot lines that converge or diverge like parrellel roads to the same destination. The first option is much more difficult to implement due to programming and asset management challenges. Branching types of stories give the player options that often lead to more options which may affect the overall direction of the narrative. A good example of this would be Heavy Rain with its multiple endings.

    Certain decisions made in Heavy Rain actually change the outcome of the story

    Even games not thought of as linear often have nonlinear elements to add depth. For example, fighting games are not usually known for their complex story lines. However, in games like UFC Undisputed 2010, you can make decisions about how you will respond in your interviews that may lead to rivalries within your ranks. Or, in many adventure games that have only one ending like Siberia, options are given as to which sub-locations and NPC's the player would like to interact with first, even though each chapter begins and ends the same way. It's all about the illusion of control.

    In Syberia, Kate Walker can complete tasks in any order, but they all lead to key plot events.

    Last but not least, there is an entirely different flavor of gameplay, emergent gameplay, where the story is the result of how the player controls their character. The story emerges out of the game's constraints and the resulting response from characters, artificial intelligence, or the combination of both. In this type of design, the author does not necessarily prescribe the specific events, but the rules from which the story emerges. The most common example of a game that falls under this category is The Sims.


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