Player Freedom vs. Narrative Cohesion

Having recently played the Heavy Rain demo, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Uncharted 2, I’ve been thinking about linearity in video games and the impact on game play and narrative. As I have already written a piece on the subject, this is more of an addendum.

I have come up with a Theory of Player Freedom vs. Narrative Cohesion (working title): The scope of a player’s freedom to explore a game world and choose courses of action is inversely proportional to the cohesiveness of any overarching narrative structure.

Example #1: Oblivion (The Elder Scrolls IV) – A vast open world where the player might have ten or more open quests at any one time. The player is free to follow the main storyline or simply wander off to muck about in a dungeon. The impact to the narrative is that, though the immediate fate of the kingdom depends on you having a conversation with the captain of the guard, you can go off adventuring for weeks of game time and return to the castle to find the captain waiting for you as though only moments had passed. The credibility of the narrative is sacrificed somewhat in order to grant the freedom of an open world.

Example #2: Uncharted 2 – Were one to take the 3D mesh of any level of the game, remove all of the textures and objects, and stand it on its side like a big grey unpainted diorama, you could drop a ball from the top opening (the start of the level), and it would fall, rolling and bouncing, all the way through to the bottom opening (the level’s end). There is a single correct path through the entire structure. Yet, because of this, the designers have tighter control over the narrative’s choreography, which, in this case, is masterful.

Because Uncharted 2 is so well constructed and so well presented, I didn’t mind that I did not have as much freedom to explore or solve problems. Had the writing or the production quality been sub-par, I would not have finished the game.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is balanced between these examples. The next objective is always clear and the narrative always supports it. But you are always free to explore Arkham island, pursuing other challenges. The narrative always channels you in a particular direction, but the architecture of the game rarely shifts in such a way that you have no choice but to move forward. Also, within each stage of the game, you have multiple vectors of approach to solve various dilemmas.

Giving the player much more agency over how they will use their gadgets and skills creates a stronger connection to actually being Batman. In Uncharted, I always felt like I was watching Drake do his thing; I never became Drake.

I will approach the full version of Heavy Rain with a cautious optimism. If my theory holds up, what promises to be a very controlled, linear “game” may offer a spectacular narrative experience.