Editor’s note: Here’s Omar’s second piece in his series on non-linearity in games. In Part 2, Omar discusses narrative freedom, and how developers may be closer than you think of achieving it. -Jason

Those of us old enough to appreciate the instinctively daunting capacity that videogames possess must be considered fortunate. Today, we stand on the precipice of realizing what used to be wholly unrealistic objectives. Without hesitation, we can imagine videogames that will offer “narrative freedom,” a form of storytelling that can be considered eons more progressive than mere non-linearity.

Metroid offered just five endings. Star Wars: Jedi Knight II — Jedi Outcast presented two choices. And still, Fallout 3 is arguably linear in its finite number of quests, objectives, and characters. Yet in the past two decades, the industry has overcome such distance in technological progress, and this leaves me hopeful of what might emerge in the coming years.

Designing a world as convincing as The Matrix may not be so
far-fetched. Just don’t expect to plug yourself in anytime soon!

When I use the term “narrative freedom,” I refer to videogames with no limit in directional and storyline choices. I’m talking about games that will adapt and evolve to accommodate any combination of desires and decisions made by the player. Instead of following one of many predetermined story paths, the player will be free in every sense of the word — free to approach and select his or her objectives, free to stand idly by or rise to the occasion, or free to terminate characters or negotiate.

I wrote the first part of this article in the spirit of recent releases famously flaunting the term “non-linearity” — games like Infamous, Red Faction: Guerrilla, and Prototype. But as Destructoid’s Anthony Burch put it, these games limit the player at every turn. You can solve problems only through violence, and you can perpetrate this violence in only a handful of ways. The game designers essentially guide the player through a series of deceivingly linear choices.


So, how far are we from “freeing our minds,” in the words of Morpheus? We must consider many factors and barriers, but we may still have a long way to go. However, fear not: The industry has come considerably far, so it would be myopic to allow these shortcomings to hinder our optimism.

The scope, size and convincing appearance of Tamriel and the Capitol Wasteland immediately remind me of the fictional Matrix that successfully enslaves humankind in the 1999 sci-fi classic. The player-driven experience imparted to the characters in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ seems considerably similar to the experience endowed to player upon launching Far Cry 2.

Wondering why you can’t just “talk things out”? It’s
most likely because Infamous
isn’t truly non-linear.

Narrative freedom is certainly within our sights, but it is paramount to consider the bulwarks to progress as well as other pertinent questions:

Immeasurable Ceilings

The concept of non-linearity in videogames is one that is founded on the very non-linear, non-scripted sequence of events that make up our lives. There are no giant librettos or manuscripts that dictate our colloquial actions, so why then should they exist for videogame characters?

Our humble planet is home to billions, each with their own beliefs, convictions, demeanors, and dispositions. Billions, each with their own story to tell. How do we create that reality in videogames? I’ll be the first to admit it: The idea is very intimidating, but it’s one we must overcome. Because without the same immense amount of variables and forces, a videogame can never be truly free in its narrative.

The term “immeasurable ceilings” refers to the infinitely rising costs associated with developing an increasing amount of variables, assets, and characters in videogames. If you look at the time and capital investments made to develop a game like Fallout 3, it is immense. And yet, it will look miniscule when compared to the next generation’s sandbox titles. As the world gets larger, the characters become more detailed and genuine. And as their stories become more interesting, the costs of development increase. It’s inevitable. So how do you deal with these costs?

Let’s hope Star Wars: The Old Republic delivers on its promises of non-linearity.

One answer is to simply absorb them. In the comments section, Suriel Vasquez was observant enough to ask what I thought about massively mutliplayer online games, which allows me to introduce a very compelling example. To paraphrase one of the Star Wars: The Old Republic’s designers, “If you were to play TOR every day for 5 hours each day, forever — you would never repeat the same story or plotlines.”

And yet, in the development of BioWare’s upcoming MMO, the developer hasn’t devised an ingenious plan to procedurally produce the thousands of stories that it boasts will exist in the game. Instead, the company has decided to simply endure the costs associated with creating a more complex world. BioWare has a staff of more than 12 full-time writers in their studios in Edmonton, Canada, and Austin, Texas, some of whom have been working on the game for the past two years. At this point, BioWare’s only option is to bear the consequences of its own ambition. However, the future may bring alternatives.

Bitmob community member Brett Bates chimed in: “Maybe Valve could tinker with Left 4 Dead’s A.I. director to determine not just enemy placement but entire plotlines….”

It may not look like it, but this procedurally developed breeding simulator took quite a lot of work.

Coincidentally, this is something that computer scientists and engineers have been struggling with for some time. The notion of self-replicating automata seems like it may only exist in science fiction, but we’re well on our way toward achieving it. British mathematician John Horton Conway created a program in 1970 called The Game of Life. It was a zero-player game that involved no human input. An initial configuration was set up, and the program would evolve.

Today, programs like Euphoria procedurally create sound, animations, and movement. While I can’t provide any examples of storylines being procedurally developed, we have systems that can create in-game assets like buildings, human models, and textures without any human input. The voice work and writing would still have to be manually performed. Until we can work around that limitation, we will have to bear the burden of immeasurable ceilings and costs.

A Sense of Progress

Bitmob community member Nicholas Feinig introduced the notion of progress in non-linear games. Games like Infamous and Grand Theft Auto 4 are forced to implement certain linear mechanics in order to create motivation and a sense of purpose. If a game were to throw a player into a living, breathing world, where would the player begin? Where would the player’s motivation come from? Would any “objectives” to speak of exist?

When we discuss pure non-linearity, we likewise have to discuss its environs. We will eventually have to rethink this very barbaric mission-based design philosophy that the industry’s adopted. A game that offers “narrative freedom” will have to relinquish the reward-punishment system of conventional story progression. We’ll need to re-evaluate the relationship of the developer as a leader and the player as a follower, with the players guiding themselves. Otherwise, we will likely be forced to suffer stagnancy quite often.

In fact, many games like Grand Theft Auto 4 suffer from dull and parochial side-quests and busywork that seem to have no purpose outside of achievement farming. This lack of incentives and goals may eventually be the death knell of “narrative freedom” — something that more linearly composed games never suffer from.

In Half-Life, the player never suffers bouts of boredom, because the story
is bound by tightly choreographed events that propel the plot forward.

Regardless of this potential boredom, something about being truly free to do as you please strikes a chord with me. Hopefully, we can find a practical solution to this issue.

The Holy Grail

What will be the fate of linear, tightly choreographed games if non-linear games become successful? If we do come upon the possibility of creating liberating worlds the likes of eXistenZ (rent this film if you haven’t seen it yet), how will companies like Valve and Infinity Ward compete?

Brandon Erickson of GameCritics.com claims that the idea of “a non-linear, free-roaming game as some sort of holy grail for the medium is a bit bogus.” Maybe he is right.

I believe a market for well-written stories will always exist, whether these stories are in the form of literature, films, or videogames. While the prospect of an infinitely branching interactive videogame is certainly appealing, I doubt it has the capacity to render linear games “obsolete.” Not only is it a matter of taste, but some people do not have the time or patience to enjoy non-linear games.

So have no fear; Gordon Freeman will undoubtedly continue his (mis)adventures in the future, regardless of the progress that non-linear games make!