In the wake of EA shutting down Visceral Games —the studio working on an Uncharted-like Star Wars game— I began to wonder,”Is this the end of linear story-based video games?” 2017 has been a great year for video games overall, especially for titles that have put a strong emphasis on an open-world nature. With Horizon Zero Dawn and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild being stunning examples of this, it’s easy to see why players are demanding more freedom in their gameplay. Though not every open-world game gets it right, it seems player agency and a less narrated experience are what players want.
Open-world games can be fun and feel expansive. They have this create-your-own adventure feel to them that when done right let the player’s imagination roam free in a meadow of possibilities. A great example of this type of adventure is the aforementioned Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It was in BOTW that I found what I was looking for in a game that literally tells you many times that you are free to do what you want when you want to.
And yet, for all the amazing things BOTW does as an open-world adventure it does nothing for the player in the story department, at least not like the series used to in previous titles like Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker.
Do you want to fight the final boss Ganon? Okay, head straight to the map point and do your best to defeat him. Would you rather embark on a journey to uncover your lost memories? Maybe you’d like to help people with mundane tasks like getting a nice slice of gourmet meat? There’s a lot that can be achieved in this style of game with endless ways to reach your goals. And yet, for all the amazing things BOTW does as an open-world adventure, it does nothing for the player in the story department, at least not like the series used to in previous titles like Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker.
Sure, there are sprinkles of lore and story but only if you feel like finding it. Which is okay because that is what an open-world game should do in practice. It’s about options. It’s about not forcing you to do a task in any order. It’s about suggesting what to do and all the while letting the player do the exact opposite despite any fatal consequences.
Although I’ve greatly enjoyed these open-world experiences, I’m not quite sure I’d be okay with story-based linear games completely phasing out. These story-rich experiences have come in the form of some amazing titles like Bioshock, Resident Evil 2, Dead Space and Halo; giving the player fixed sequences that offer rewarding progression in the form of physical character changes, plot advancement, or both. The narrative and characters stick with you and in conjunction, they do the heavy lifting.
At their best, a linear story-based game is providing the player with an interactive and entertaining path leading straight to the conclusion.
In a great linear story-based game you should get a cinematic vibe that pins you, the player, as the lead actor, and the game’s story as your director. It should lead you through your plot and motive, inspiring you to perform these overdramatic scenes that reward you once you’ve executed on your role. At their best, a linear story-based game should provide the player with an interactive and entertaining path that leads straight to a conclusion.
Kingdom Hearts immediately comes to mind when I think about great linear story-based gaming experiences. The narration, the use of Disney properties, how the game makes you feel about the characters and story, and how the game gives you a sense of choice without consequence; all of these components meshed together to make something magical. Of course, the combat system was iconic in its own right but it takes a backseat to the Kingdom Hearts story without a doubt. People remember Sora, his keyblade, and his emotional rollercoaster of an adventure that submerge you in a pool of intense feelings.Times are changing and though games like Kingdom Hearts are legendary and iconic, publishers are looking at the market a little differently. They’re leaning towards gaming experiences that offer more options than restrictions in all avenues. Open-world, whether online or single-player, is the direction publishers are transitioning to. The most interesting aspect of the shift is that open-world isn’t a special feature anymore, it’s become an expectation.
So I ask the question again, Is this the end of linear story-based video games? If we listen to AAA publishers and where they lead their development team, then the answer is yes. Our linear story-based games will be swapped in favor of an open-world adventure that focuses on exploration and freedom. They may provide the tools to create unique scenarios and the freedom to prioritize them in whichever way we deem important but these experiences only let us feel emotions in passing.
The open-world playstyle sometimes loses the ability to captivate in its story because players are often distracted.
Though we’ve seen this work for adventure games, we tend to lose out on a story while we are actively playing. The open-world playstyle sometimes loses the ability to captivate in its story because players are often distracted. Side missions are thrown at players from all directions, different vantage points, collectibles; it offers you various ways to go in the opposite direction of the endgame.
It’s in these different paths that the story tends to lose effect. The plot twists don’t hit you as hard and you aren’t necessarily forced to deal with them in a timely manner. You have the freedom to go off and complete a side quest or explore an untouched part of the map and by the time you get back to the main story, your desire to understand the plot has probably already left.
I know there are many players who enjoy expansive open-world experiences and don’t care for elaborate stories in their video games. There are also players who only want linear experiences that guide them through a well-written tale. I stand somewhere in the middle, having loved games that fall on either extreme and learning to take them for what they are.
In a perfect world, publishers would view video games in the same light. In the real world, however, the issue is far more complex. As much as I love story based games, I can see how they would be a gamble with today’s generation. Publishers and developers have to compete with games that offer new moments with every login and it’s tough to win against an experience with that kind of replay value.We’ve come to learn that properties, ideas, genres, and companies don’t actually die off with their video games and often reinvent themselves in innovative ways that can drastically change the tone. Think about Sega. Think about the resurgence of fighting games. Think about Nintendo and the Switch. I believe that linear story-based video games can and will do the same.
Now I ask you what do you believe? Is this the end of linear story-based video games?