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This Writing Life: Linear Narratives vs. Open Worlds, in Gaming and Fiction

14 February, 2012

There’s been a lot of gaming going on in our house recently (there usually is), which has got me thinking about RPGs and – of all things – narrative structure. Take two games that are both classed as RPGs but which are actually very different: at the moment I’m thinking of Final Fantasy XIII (or most JRPGs, for that matter) and Skyrim. Both set out to immerse you in a fantasy world, and feature a fair amount of customisation for your player characters, but that’s where the similarities end.

Let’s start with FF-XIII. I’m not going to go into the story – that’s irrelevent for this post. Suffice to say it has a story, and a very linear one at that. As you play through the game, you are forced along a single path, uncovering backstory, world details and character development as you go. For many gamers, being ‘railed’ (stuck to a single path within the game, with no player choices to be made) is something to grouse about. I, on the other hand, really like it. This is the form of gaming that, for me, most closely mimics the narrative structure of a novel. Whilst it’s not for everyone, the strictness of the structure does ensure that you really know the characters by the end of the game, and you’ve lived through a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end (as long as the writers/developers have done a decent job, of course).

Next we move onto Skyrim, which is entirely at the other end of the spectrum. Skyrim provides the player with an extremely open world. You could easily spend weeks playing the game without ever following the ‘main’ storyline. Your character develops entirely as you choose, and world-building comes from talking to NPCs or reading books within the game (woah, meta). Whilst this can be rewarding in its own way, it’s not something you could ever achieve in fiction, as far as I can see. A book with so little structure would just be unreadable – in fact, it would become essentially a piece of world-building and nothing else, particularly as Skyrim doesn’t go in for deep character development. I’m not sure it can, when there are so many hundreds of NPCs and your own character’s personality is built up from your responses and nothing else (you essentially have no history before you arrive in Skyrim, a trait which all of the Elder Scrolls games seem to follow).

What really got me thinking about this was the latest Final Fantasy game, XIII-2, which employs a system of jumping around between different time zones. Essentially, the player can experience the story in almost any order, although within each zone, the story and events are fixed. Does this map onto a style of fiction? I’m not sure. I considered the Choose Your Own Adventure books I talked about recently, but they provide a different ending for every read-through, whereas I think the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2 is fixed. Perhaps it’s closer to this sort of thing, in which the pages/scenes can be read in any order. Each re-reading of the book/play-through of the game will reveal new insight into the overall story, but the constituent parts remain the same.

This is not a blog post for which I can draw any sort of conclusions, because I don’t have an argument as such, and I’m not going to choose one structure as superior to the rest. All I would say is that there are all manner of sources out there from which writers can draw inspiration, including for their narrative structures. I know there are writers who will sniff at gaming, just as there are literary writers who disdain all ‘genre’ works. However, until you’ve sampled a little bit of everything, you can’t really know what you’re going to like – or what you can learn from.

  1. 15 February, 2012 1:34 pm

    Amy, I love this post. I’m a fan of both kinds of games, but I agree with you that there’s something about the linear, well developed story games that keeps me hooked til the end. I haven’t played Final Fantasy (perhaps I should!) but bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect seem similar from your descriptions. You learn so much about the NPCs and the story that surrounds them. It’s like you’re playing out a movie!

    Skyrim is also amazing, but I do miss the relationship and story-building that comes with the linear games. World building is the perfect way to put it. A thousand or more novels could be based off a game like Skyrim, but the game itself, as it’s played, would make a messy book.

    Thanks for the awesome post!

    • 16 February, 2012 3:43 pm

      I don’t know if there are any Skyrim books yet, but I think there might have been one or two for Oblivion… Not sure about that though. There certainly COULD be books – the world is definitely big enough.

      Final Fantasy is definitely worth a try, if you like RPGs. My favourite has always been FF-X, but that’s ten years old now. FF-XIII is probably a good one to start with, and it’s available on both the next-gen consoles.

  2. cnickal permalink
    19 February, 2012 11:39 pm

    There’s always something about fantasy games that makes me hook up with them. I can say that Final Fantasy XIII has given me a lot of fun times, some tears and quite a few angry screaming for bosses. I haven’t played Skyrim, but I’ve heard that it’s too complicated for a linear rpg fan, and hard to enjoy. Anyway, I’ll try it so I can say the same, just joking.

    By the way, I’m kinda new to this blogging thing, and I’ve always read your blog. So you are like an inspiration to me. Keep the good work!

    • 20 February, 2012 3:04 pm

      I don’t know that Skyrim is overly complicated, but you really have to be prepared to make your own story, as it were. There’s a lot to see and explore, but just following the main storyline won’t expose you to much of it.

      Hah, I think most Final Fantasy players will have screamed at a few bosses in their time!

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