Balancing Narrative Linearity

Lately I have struggled on the game I’m working on—since Jeff and I still haven’t named it after eighteen months I am just going to start referring to it as The Game. My struggles have not been so much with the code, although there are always improvements to be found and bugs to be fixed in that arena. Instead of that my recent problems are with the story, and more importantly finding an answer to this question:

“How much freedom can you give a player while maintaining a highly focused narrative?”

You Remember Final Fantasy 13?

I loved Final Fantasy 13, much more than I ever anticipated. Since I was born in 1984, which makes me feel ancient in ‘gamer years’, I have been able to play every Final Fantasy upon their North American release. I say that not to try and present myself as more of an authority on the series than anyone else, as I am not. I only stress my experience with the franchise from its origin because I feel like the only guy on Earth who has played every non-MMO Final Fantasy and also says that Final Fantasy 13 is the second best ever.

Note: For what it’s worth, I believe Final Fantasy 6 is the best.

I watched Final Fantasy 13 receive a lot of negative criticism for its extremely linear design in twelve of its thirteen ‘chapters’ (the exception is Chapter Twelve). The paucity of any real overworld, towns, and named NPCs who spoke more than one line felt like salt in the wound to crowds of angry gamers. It’s not as if I can’t understand why players did not like being led by nose; I have been a die-hard fan of the Elder Scrolls series and its open-world nature for years and years. The style of story-telling in Final Fantasy 13 is as opposite to any Elder Scrolls game as you could get.

So I understand why a lot of gamers were unhappy. At the same time I truly sympathize with director Motomu Toriyama. His opinion was that it is difficult to tell a story when you give players an open world. Think about it—how many people do you know who rarely or even never spend time on the ‘main quest’ in games like Skyrim or any Grand Theft Auto? I can think of plenty. Even though I’ve enjoyed the main stories of the Elder Scrolls series the constant temptation (and sometimes necessity) to go off and indulge in unrelated side quests softens the impact of the narrative as a whole. Final Fantasy 13 removes distractions in the extreme but maintains a constant focus and velocity on its story as a result.

An Ironic Counter-Example

Final Fantasy 6 is my favorite of the entire franchise, with a story I love. Yet that game presents a non-linear approach in multiple places, most notably the entire second half. Final Fantasy 6 tasks the player with a small number of mandatory excursions to get from the middle of the game to its conclusion; the bulk of the second half consists of optional side-quests to reunite the large cast of main characters—the largest of any Final Fantasy game.

Those side-quests do not detract from the value or impact of the main story in the way that side-quests do for me in a game like Oblivion. What is the difference? I feel it comes down to not having any avatar. The player in Final Fantasy 6 is an invisible entity that manages the pace and direction of the story and its characters. The player has no character. I believe that key distinction from other open-world, non-linear role-playing games makes the plot of Final Fantasy 6 feel more cohesive even though it can easily unfold in a different order for any given player.

Resulting Thoughts

We give the player no avatar in our game. Instead of providing a blank character for the player to project upon we offer up a pre-designed character that we hope players accept. I believe that is a more appropriate approach since we want to tell that character’s story and not the player’s.

However, we do not want the game to be entirely linear. The consequences of choice happen to be at the heart of the game’s story, and the interactive medium of video games fundamentally demands that we make the player an active agent in those choices. But how much freedom can we give the player while still presenting a rigidly structured story?

I don’t know. I hope we can find the right answer for our game, but it is proving to be a difficult balancing act.

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