Friday, August 29, 2014

Choice and Linearity

Not a particularly original thought, but I'm struck right now by how little influence the player's actions have on any of the games I've been playing recently.

The story in Tomb Raider 2013, for instance, unfolds not only regardless of what you do, but regardless of whether you even know what is going on. I fought the big guy on the ship without having the faintest idea who he was. Turns out, in some earlier confrontations you can chose to overhear the bad guys talking. The game actually and actively discourages this, however.

Now, that might have been a nice little mechanic. That you'd trade gaining useful information against the increasing odds of discovery (and the bad guys are a lot tougher to handle if you don't get the opportunity to silent-snipe them from hiding). Except that no action you the player is ever given is the least bit influenced by what you might overhear.

You can totally go through the entire game ignoring the conversations, skipping the journals, even fast-forwarding past the cut scenes. Because the only real "choice" ever made is to stop playing. (And the only active role you ever take is in playing well enough to get to the end.)

Half-Life 2 and Portal 1 and 2 also give you no meaningful choices. You can't chose to work with Wheatley, or leave him in charge, or leave the PotatOS in the bird's nest. It is rather amusing to view Portal in the meta-view; in-game Chell is renowned as never giving up. External to the game, there is no nonstandard game over. You can quit the game, but there isn't an option to send Chell to a corner and refuse to solve any more portal puzzles.

The meta is even stranger in Half-Life2. Freeman has a reputation as unstoppable killing machine. (Lara gets the same). Well, unless you are really, really good at shooters, you have been stopped. Multiple times. And restarted from a save point.

I know there are some games where internal choices matter. Bioshock, which I've just started, gives you at least two different game endings based on your actions within the game. And, for that matter, even the Civ series will play a different victory video depending on whether you won a diplomatic victory, or stomped the rest of the world into bloody submission under your iron heel (yes; the ending video is very much phrased in that way!)

I think what brought this on is it is a continuum. And that the railroading can seem less onerous depending on how it is done and what is done. Gordon Freeman finishes Episode 3 having effectively kicked the Combine off Earth, and both he and Alyx are still alive.

Tomb Raider 2013 ends up with Roth dead, as well as a whole bunch of other people who didn't necessarily deserve to die. Especially those who died at your own hand; and unlike Half-Life, you can't bypass more than a handful of them. There's no equivalent to gunning the engine and fleeing past the metrocops instead of choosing to fight them. Instead you have to slaughter 98% of the people you meet because if you don't, they'll shoot you in the back as you run past.

(The map is also more linear. Even Half-Life2 -- which is quite linear -- gives you options to bypass concentrations of troops. Tomb Raider 2013 not only gives you only a single path, in well over a dozen instances it places you in the middle of a fight during a cutscene before giving the controls back to you.)

I don't know why the illusion of helping to construct the story is so much thinner on Tomb Raider 2013. But it is. And that makes a poorer game.

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