By Grimhild 26 Comments
I've always been a fan of non-linear gameplay. This probably stems the most from my early introduction to AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) 2nd Edition at a very young age by my cousin (doomed from the start, right?). I savor the notion of carving my own story and path through any given setting, which summarizes the PnP (pen and paper) gaming format pretty succinctly, given the inherent, blissful chaos of absolute freedom. You can also imagine the amount of weight I had to pull as a player, being in the 1st grade, sitting at a table surrounded by a bunch of old school nerds in their twenties, drinking Jolt and listening to Led Zeppelin. Obviously, they weren't complete asses to me, and gave me a hand in understanding some of the more convoluted aspects of the rule set, but it was made clear that if I wanted to game with them, I had to be useful. And I was, being the clever and elusive halfling that I was. And thus began the obsession with RPG's.
The notion that a character's story can be completely woven together by our actions from their inception, and continue to evolve in a non-linear way, is still something we're chasing in the modern CRPG. Obviously there are tangible restraints to this, as technology will probably never rival the human mind when it comes to chaotic algorithms and creativity. It's part of what makes us human, and a development team can only write so much code into a $60 package within so much time to accommodate that style of game play. That's not to say that there aren't admirable efforts, or that there's no place for a predefined story arc. There naturally need to be conflicts to be resolved, or antagonists to be fought that can move the player down a path. All my hours of playing TES:Daggerfall (of which there are many), I never once finished the main quest. Not once. Matter of fact, I didn't care about it at all while I was playing, and basically ran wild throughout the game world. And it worked, since the main story arc was such that the world would keep turning even if my character was never sent on the quest to begin with.
Unfortunately, though, I feel as if we're getting far too comfortable with a messianic or savior hero archetype being the focus of many games that are released. The stories of many of these characters play out in disappointingly similar ways. Big bad thing appears and threatens all of existence, our "Chosen One" hero or heroine shows up and saves the day after realizing their true potential or sole and special place among the galaxy's conflict. Hooray!
...I guess. I've already seen how this ends.
Shelf that idea for a moment, and follow me through this madness. Think of those times where you may have followed, stolen from, saved or killed a random, or otherwise "unimportant" NPC. Why can't we have branching arcs that spread out from there, instead of a simple, single, pointless reward or penalty? As long as you add at least three variables to each subsequent step of a dynamic system, the possibilities grow exponentially. If set in a GTA-esque setting, would it be inconceivable that you could simply start as "you" and grow into a crime lord or famous vigilante from there over a long enough time-line, instead of being confined to a path that is either linear or constantly nagging at you to complete because you're not following the core story?
What if I don't want to be a Specter, or Grey Warden, or Dovahkiin, or Master Chief, or Ultima Stranger? Why can't we write our own, unique stories where our characters can grown into being every bit as influential and revered (or despised) as the fatalist roles we've gotten used to playing in other games, but are your characters? A fraction of gaming is self-expression; how we choose to interact with the virtual worlds that we have also chosen to put ourselves in.
I guess until then, there's always d20's, Jolt and Led Zeppelin.