Make Mine Linear: The Importance of Narrative in Video Games

In a report made by Gamesindustry.biz towards the latter half of last week it was revealed that in an interview, Ubisoft chief creative officer Serge Hascoet expressed that going forward the company will use “less narration” in its coming games. Now I don’t know about you, but this phrase of expression set alarm bells ringing in my head immediately.

You see, I’m of the belief that if video games truly want to be able to earn the respect of their peer entertainment mediums (i.e movies, books, music), it shouldn’t be the intention of triple-A games to shy away from the challenge of telling an engrossing or in-depth narrative within the frame work of their structures – Actually, quite the opposite.

Hascoet’s comments almost certainly are a direct reference to the fact that in more recent years, Ubisoft has made a conscious effort to move closer to the typical gameplay loops seen in most open-world games. Most commonly waypoints, tower take-downs, and side missions as seen in such Ubisoft franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. If the goal is to make “the worlds in Ubisoft games [more] interesting to players”, the goal should be fill it with actions worth meaning and heart, not to simply populate it with more randomised instances.

“If the goal is to make ‘the worlds [more] interesting to players”, the goal should be fill it with actions worth meaning and heart, not to simply populate it with more randomised instances.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for both open-world and linear narrative games in today’s modern video game landscape. Like many I regularly enjoy indulging in an extended setting a couple of times throughout the year be it the doomy gravelands of Mordor in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor or the sunny vistas of San Francisco in the recently released Watch Dogs 2, but that doesn’t mean I want to be swimming in them.

It’s all very well and good letting my actions “change the world”, but what’s the harm in letting these actions be somewhat scripted? Take a game like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End: in no other game this year did I feel enthralled, hooked, and just generally glued whilst playing, largely due to the entirety of the game being a finely-tuned interactive experience that set me on a specific narrative. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t changing the world, because through many well-crafted set paths and actions I was changing Nathan Drake’s tiny bubble of it.

The old and cranky 23-year old gamer in me also shudders at the thought of a world dominated by triple-A open-world experiences, mainly due to the fact that there are already too many of those kinds of experiences as it is. What we need to apply here is a simple remedied dose of “less is more”. After all, there’s only so much time to play games for those who are lucky enough to support their own living alongside a full-time job, and it’s for this reason that I’d sooner settle down with a Firewatch than I would a Mafia III more often than not.

Despite these points, I can’t help but feel that I’m in the minority. As games become more ambitious and expansive experiences like GTA V continue to sell an outstanding number of units, it’s only natural for developers and publishers to want to move further away from the finely-tuned experience. Already this year we’ve seen this in its most drastic form in No Man’s Sky, but my argument there is: well, just look how that turned out!

“What we need to apply here is a simple remedied dose of ‘less is more'”

It shocks me that for the majority of the gaming audience today, it’s simply not enough to have agency within the well-refined path of a linear narrative. Most want to point to a mountain in the distance and say, “I’m going to go there now”. But what if I told you that eventually you will go there, but only when you’re ready for it, not on a whim? If that’s what it takes for me to stay immersed within a gaming world rather than see various NPCs glitch through it, sign me up.

I take pride in knowing that for me, developers such as Naughty Dog will always endeavour to create handcrafted gameplay experiences at a triple-A level that prioritise the immersion of the player. In no other type of game will you find Hollywood-level performances and acting talent, a deep and meaningful narrative and of course, incredibly detailed worlds.

Much like the way life itself is given meaning due to its necessity to end, the beauty of visiting an area like Shamballa, El Dorado or Libertalia – to stay with the Uncharted analogue – is that it doesn’t exist outside of itself. I may not quite be able to travel to it whenever I like, I’ll be damned if my time there isn’t even more more memorable and amazing because of it!