Gaming as a medium is constantly evolving. Like any entertainment medium, video games are effected by trends; unlike some other mediums, our trends are directly influenced by available technology. When the industry could do 3D, 3D was all it did for a long time. When online connectivity became available on major platforms, online play was pushed forward. Now, we're adding social features into games, allowing players to share videos, screenshots, and in-game items. The problem with following new trends is the old ways of doing things get left behind, even if they're still valid ideas.
In an interview with OXM, Far Cry 4 creative director Alex Hutchinson said that he believes linear story games will suffer in this new social-sharing market.
"I'm really interested in emergent games and where that's going with video sharing and Twitch," said Hutchinson. "I think linear story games are really going to suffer in the modern marketplace.
"They're already super high-quality, and we're already seeing their audiences migrate to the big open world games. If I open my friends list and see everybody on the same mission, doing the same thing... I think that's nowhere near as strong a sales pitch as opening your friends list and seeing 40 people doing completely different things."
Where Did You Go, My Story?
This is not a particularly new sentiment: single-player was under threat in the last generation with the rise of online multiplayer. Many single-player linear titles had additional multiplayer modes added on to pad out the experience. Some worked - Mass Effect 3 was surprisingly decent - while others were a complete waste of time.
The drop in linear story-based titles is partially due to technology and partially due to the rise of games-as-a-service (GaaS). The GaaS model is focused on getting players to buy a game and stick with that title until next year, when a developer or publisher can release a sequel or related game. That's why you have things like ongoing downloadable content releases or the season pass. Constant content drops, leaderboards, developer challenges; these things are all made to keep you focused on whatever game you're currently playing. That's only part of why the linear game was fallen a bit by the wayside.
As games have gotten bigger and more advanced, developers are still having issues telling a coherent story at times. I just reviewed The Evil Within and the story in that title wasn't too great. Plot, themes, characterization, all of these things are an important part of telling a great story. It's not enough to say protagonist Beardy McGrizzlechin is in a bad situation and then he's in another bad situation. It's about cause-and-effect: this happened, and because Det. McGrizzlechin is this kind of person, he did this, which causes this to happen..., etc. It's about a character arc: why is this story important to the character, what did these situations reveal about the character, and where will they be emotionally by the end of the story?
Games sometimes forget these basic building blocks of storytelling. A player having motivation - wanting to level up, not die, or get a better score - is not the same as a character having motivation.
Open-World, Closed Story?
Open-world games in particular have mechanical issues with storytelling. The genre prizes player freedom above all else - go where you want, do what you want - which can stand at odds with a linear tale. In my recent preview of Assassin's Creed Unity, creative director Alex Amancio noted this push-and-pull problem in open-world titles.
"Assassin's Creed has traditionally been about the narrative," he explained. "You're following a story. This is effective in a more linear and narrow game. The problem with the open-world is the narrative tries to push you forward, while the open-world tries to get you to explore. You're getting these two parts of the game fighting against themselves. By changing the motivation from narrative to player progression - everything you do in the city gives you something to progress Arno - it becomes more relevant."
We're seeing the potential problem of replacing character motivation with player motivation. Arno may have a full, robust story, but an open-world game tries to pull you towards gameplay and quantifiable character progression. That's the strength of the genre, so it makes sense to focus on it.
Another big issue with the open-world genre is bloat. Many times, these games are sprawling worlds with tons of things to do and collect, whereas telling a good story is about stripping out the extraneous and leaving the viewer with that which matters most. For the last generation, one of the open-world titles I enjoyed the most was United Front Games' Sleeping Dogs. Part of the magic of that game was the lack of huge budget meant the game was laser-focused. There wasn't too much to do and more of the open-world content related directly to the life of the lead character, Detective Wei Shen. The relative tightness of Sleeping Dogs' overall presentation meant that the story ended up being much stronger than some other open-world competitors. There's fine line that needs to be balanced in creating an open-world game with a narrative.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
What about linear titles, telling a story from beginning to end? Are they simply doomed? A story-based game stands against the idea of games-as-a-service. If you're playing for a strong narrative, once you're done with the game, you're done. Developers can stave off the inevitable with new DLC or gameplay-unlockable side-stories, but eventually, that's it. Pack it up and move on.
Why is that a problem? As I grow older, I find that I want more games that ask for a finite period of my time. MOBAs, MMOs, and open-world titles can demand hundreds of hours of your time and as an adult, you may not have those hours to spare. Evil Within's roughly 15-20 hour runtime meant I was in-and-out within a week. I appreciate that from a game. Sleeping Dogs has around the same running time for the game's campaign and a number of side-quests. I didn't 100 percent the game, but I feel satisfied that I had gotten my money's worth. I'm more likely to pick up sequels for great done-in-one titles that don't try to pad out the experience.
I admit that the growing use of YouTube and Twitch adversely affects linear story-based titles. I'm not sure how to fix that problem. Right now, you can go on YouTube and watch an entire game from beginning to end via Let's Plays. For many, that's enough. I got what I needed out of Metal Gear Solid 3 for example, by watching a movie-length compilation of the cutscenes. These streaming services mean that developers have to make sure your gameplay is still up to snuff. The games need to be so good that players watching a Let's Play think, "Hey, I want to play that right now." that's easier said than done.
Will this generation be rough for linear titles? Yes, but smaller developers (Telltale and Double Fine say "hi") will pick up some of the slack, because they have creative stories they want to tell and they lack the budgets to throw everything into the game. So, if Hutchinson's comment scares you a bit, don't be afraid. Story isn't going away yet, but you need have to be willing to move away from AAA titles on a regular basis to experience it.