Spoony Bard 1: There’s No Such Thing as Nonlinear Narrative

Spoony Bard will be an offshoot of what interests me most in game design: the writing. Whether it be good or ghastly, hilarious or unintentionally hilarious, video game writing has always been fascinating to me. However, it should be noted that in this column I’ll also talk about narrative and the nebulous term storytelling in addition to discussing regular writing within games, such as dialogue. To be honest, anything that strikes my fancy about the way a game uses words to engage with its audience could find its way into this column – but for now, please enjoy the first edition of Spoony Bard.

Ah, gaming conventions. Is there anything they can’t do?

As I considered this column’s inaugural topic, many possibilities came to mind; should I consider the trappings of Braid, or maybe Portal‘s environmental storytelling? Then I remembered I was going to the Penny Arcade Expo in the coming weekend – my first PAX in fact – and subsequently this column’s topic came to me the moment I finished listening to my first PAX panel.

Due to being let in to the convention a little early, I was able to make it to the front of the line for the Game Design 101 panel . I was actually attending it because, like most sensible people, I’d love to be a game designer. That said, one of the panelists just so happened to talk at length about the process of writing for video games. The panelists were Divide by Zero Games’s CEO and panel moderator James Portnow, Magic: The Gathering founder Richard Garfield, producer for EA Mythic Jeff Skalski, and writer for Microsoft Game Studios, Tom Abernathy. It was Abernathy who was the most talkative, and not just about gaming narrative since he’d often take the spotlight away from the other fine folks on the panel – ah, the curse of the writer.

This column’s genesis came from Abernathy’s repeated use of the phrase “nonlinear narrative” with regards video games. To paraphrase, as my recorder was painfully low on battery because its practical owner had failed to pack an extra one, Abernathy said that the idea of a nonlinear narrative had only recently come about – in the past 10 or 15 years – and before that we, as a species, had only previously had linear narratives to go on. Though I’ve heard similar sentiment expressed before, something about Abernathy saying this made something click in my head; why do people keep using the term nonlinear narrative for games which are arguably linear? Is it just that something that isn’t necessarily linear suddenly becomes the opposite?

Niko, my boy, everything starts and ends in the same, controversial place.

I have trouble buying into the entire notion of nonlinear narrative that seems to be so prevalent today. In my mind, there’s no such thing as nonlinear narrative. No matter what you do inside a video game, you’ll always start in one place and follow a direct path to another. Each playthrough can be different, sure, but that doesn’t make the narrative nonlinear. If we’re going to argue that different paths to the same outcome make for nonlinear narrative, then the old Choose Your Own Adventure books would fall under this broad term.

Most games which have been touted as nonlinear experiences can easily be classified as linear. While being one of the most infamous sandbox games in gaming history, Grand Theft Auto IV is still very much a linear game in that there are certain missions, or “tentpoles” as Abernathy christened them, that add up towards completion of the game. It doesn’t particularly matter what you’ve done between said tentpoles, as those specific tentpoles are the ones that progress the main narrative. Each and every person who picks up, plays and completes GTA IV will begin in the exact same place, and end in the exact same place. It’s the minutiae that change, not the major events. Again, this falls into a grey area that isn’t really linear or nonlinear.

It’s difficult to describe what those books and video games have done to the traditional form of narrative, so I don’t fault the popular opinion being hat if it’s not linear, then it’s clearly nonlinear. Nonetheless, it doesn’t do the concept justice for the reasons listed above; it isn’t nonlinear. The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that it’s more of a patchwork or quilted narrative. When making a quilt, it doesn’t matter what pieces are used. Any of them could be used in the place of the others, but in the end I still have a quilt. Not only that, but if any one piece of said quilt is of shoddy craftsmanship then the entire thing is made worse for it. I don’t expect this perspective on the matter to change the minds of any of the great thinkers out there, but I do hope that it provides some food for thought for those individuals who’ll end up making the next generation of video games. Perhaps game designers, free of muddled concepts of narrative, can better focus on what they need to do to make their games that much better, instead of worrying how linear or nonlinear their games are.

Author: James Bishop