The Lie of Non-Linear Games
###There are two main schools of ‘non-linear’ games, and both are lies.
The first is the indie darling, the art piece, the subversion. It deconstructs, it explores ‘choice’ in games, it is oh so clever. And there is a cleverness to it, sometimes. Take The Stanley Parable, for instance. A similar office, different paths, and the narrator follows along. The story branches, you don’t have to follow it in any order - each is as good as the next. It is quite cute sometimes, and the jokes are often funny.
But here’s where it lost me. I was in prime video-game mode, exploring the different branches. So I walked into the closet, and got a humerous bit of banter. Then the next line - I was still in the closet. And it continued, and it was funny. And then no line came, and I stood and waited because there might be a line, and I don’t want to miss it. I want to follow this branch as far as I can, before I backtrack. But there is no cue, no information that I am doing the right thing. Except then there is a line, and now I wait again.
The timing is gone, the humor is gone, now its just a familiar and not particularly welcome gaming trope - waiting for action, because you can’t act yourself - you don’t know how to trigger what is supposed to happen next. This was the first clue that the story was not ‘non-linear’ at all - in fact it was perfectly linear. There was a sequence, and the sequence was meant to be heard in order. All of its humor relied on that, relied on a certain telling of the story.
Of course there is a fair amount of freedom - and you can mix up the order a bit. But that’s just it - mixing up the order doesn’t make a non-linear story, it makes different linear story. Your personal story, in your playthrough, might as well be fixed. In fact, I suspect this is why people have such varied opinions of this kind of ‘non-linear’ game. Games like Her Story, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Dear Esther etc. all are quite polarizing - and I don’t think it’s just the genre. It’s the fact that everyone is playing cut up versions of the same story, and some of those versions just don’t work.
The other genre that tries its hand at non-linearity is the sandbox game. Here what is created is the ‘world’, and you can explore it as you see fit - in the order (or lack thereof) that you see fit. The claim is here easier to justify. The worlds really are (except when they aren’t, but then what is?) open, and while there might be objectives or a overarching story, you can happily ignore whatever you want and focus on whatever else. Except… do you? Can you?
Most sandbox games have a progression, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the story. It can mean gradually unlocking territory, weapons, cars, like in a GTA game. It can mean opening up new missions or activities, or even abilities in games with an upgrade or leveling system. It often means that ‘areas’ in the open world only have meaning in a mission - you can fly a plane to the jail in Saint’s Row 2, but you can’t rescue anyone until the game lets you.
Obviously there are technical limitations, and budget limitations, and all that. But for the most part, a sandbox game plays in a certain order and with fairly tight restrictions as far as the story goes. Most of the meaningful content has a planned trajectory, and the giant missile silo in Just Cause 2 is not really very impressive when it is just a spawning point for generic enemies.
So what is non-linear? Well, it could be something like Minecraft - completely openended with no push towards anything. But that’s not the only way to do it, nor does every non-linear game have to be as open as Minecraft. It has to do instead with what is being conveyed - whether it is something linear, like a criminal’s ascent of the gang ladder, or non-linear, like a sense of place, or history, or character.
What do I mean by that? A place doesn’t have a beginning or an end. It exists, and can be explored - to varying degrees of depth or complexity. Despite being in many places a very ‘linear’ game in terms of movement, Dark Souls provides this kind of non-linear storytelling. The world is the story, not the character. In a sense, the character’s actions are almost a destructive investigation of the place, rather than an attempt to change it. Similarly a person or a history (though they each technically have ‘beginnings’) can be explored in a similar way, though the technology is less kind to these attempts.
So a sandbox game might give you a sense of place, and Her Story might give you a sense of character, but the cut-up technique does not serve the story they are trying to tell. The mechanics are at odds with the linearity of the story, but they don’t have to be.