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I just finished a game that totally blew me away with its story. I also just finished Assassin’s Creed 3.

I’m a huge Pokemon fan, but I couldn’t believe how much I fell in love with Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team [PMD], the first entry in a spin-off series of less hardcore, Pokemon-themed roguelike games. (“Roguelike” is a fairly antiquated genre of generally difficult, turn-based dungeon crawlers, originally using just ASCII characters for graphics. Dwarf Fortress is a recent example.)

I have never before played a game as heavily as PMD. I was totally addicted until I beat the main storyline, which conveniently was only about 12 hours long.

So, I started considering what the draw was. I knew the gameplay was nothing special, and since I didn’t care too much to play the post-story missions, I thought that it must’ve been the story, or, at least, something about the presentation.

I also just finished Assassin’s Creed 3 [AC3], and I didn’t much care for that for many reasons I won’t get into here. But, AC3’s story was also quite good, and I had a similar problem of playing the game for far longer periods than I meant to.

Yet, after finishing both, I found I was far more engaged in the story for PMD than AC3. Rather, I should say I felt more connected to the characters for PMD than AC3.

Connor in Assassin's Creed III

The real problem with AC3 was the disconnect between my experience of the story and that of protagonist Connor. Connor had his own set of values, and at the times in the story when I disagreed, or even when I wanted to try something different, I was still dragged along with him, without so much as the option to say “Yes” or “No” to anything. The game is so bogged down by scripted events and context-sensitivity that I simply cannot do anything with the story outside of exactly what the writers intended.

Heck, I couldn’t even talk to an ally unless there was some relevant plot tidbit involved. I couldn’t make the experience my own, because I’m stuck with the experience prescribed by the plot. So, while the story might have been interesting, it wasn’t engaging, and that’s the critical factor in making a compelling story, however linear it is.

I think this brings attention to the right and wrong ways to do linear storytelling in games. To a point, there’s been a push away from linear storytelling lately, but there’s no reason why a linear story can’t be compelling; the player just has to feel like his/her decisions in the game have an impact on the story or characters even when they really don’t.

Think Phoenix Wright: The stories are completely linear, but all of the Ace Attorney games have great, engaging storylines. I believe that part of this is the ability of the player to make decisions that affect how s/he traverses the story. There’s a linear progression of story events, but getting from one to another can take a variety of courses and depends on the player. When Phoenix enters a new area, the player can choose to look around, examine almost anything, talk to people, or just continue on; and even knowing that the plot won’t advance until a certain series of actions has been taken, being able to make all those little choices and, especially, to have the characters react to those choices, brings the game to life.

Because the important thing is to connect with the characters. However grand or narrow the plot is, however many choices the player has, if the characters aren’t engaging, the story will be bland.

Screenshot from Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team

That’s what really got me with PMD: Even though the story was pretty plain (You were a human, but now you’re a Pokemon! Go save Pokemon!), I could interact with the characters in a variety of ways. I was given dialogue options that helped develop them, from the trivial (“Yes!” versus “Okay!”) to some actual dialogue sections. I was greeted by the Pokemon I saved back in town and had some changes in the dialogue with NPCs in the main town as I progressed.

Even though none of these made a difference to the main story, they really brought the characters to life. The plot was predefined, but the experience of the plot was my own.