(today’s post: 750 words)
There are many ways to sub-categorize RPGs, but for the sake of this post I’m going to refer to the commonly-used “linear” and “non-linear” genres.
By linear (since these words are *not* intuitive) I mean games that are story-focused with little emphasis on activities outside the story or deviating from expected solutions. To better aid your understanding here, I’ll use BioWare’s titles as my example. Non-linear titles, sometimes, by some people, referred to as “sandbox” (again, consistency in regard to definition is uncommon), have a story but it can be largely ignored in favor of “running around and having fun”. Bethesda is a great example of that type of game, in my mind. Both have flaws and strengths and, as an equal fan of both (ha! Diplomacy for the win!), I’d love to see each borrow from the other.
I say this to lead into a couple observations on VtMB (Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines), the game I am currently playing – and which we’ll call a linear RPG.
In the game’s opening, you leave your apartment and walk down an alley toward the main street. Before you get there a cutscene steals control from you in order to show you a bloody mess-of-a-man stumbling into his apartment.
I like this and I don’t like it. I like it because it sets up a mystery. Why is he bloody? Who is the man? What’s the importance? It raises curiosity. It sucks you into the story. On the other hand, I dislike it because its passive entertainment. Non-interactive, like a movie. There’s a desire to skip the cutscene and get back to actually *playing* the game.
But it’s a greater failing in a game like Bloodlines because it doesn’t need to be there.
- There isn’t a lot to look at when you arrive on the main street. The chance that you’ll spot the guy is pretty high, especially since he’s moving awkwardly and making grunting noises.
- There is blood leading to the apartment complex from a poorly-parked car in a nearby lot. If you miss the guy entering his apartment, you’d have to be blind to not notice the mis-parked car and blood.
- In your apartment, where the game starts, you have a laptop. In your e-mail account, you receive a note saying to meet [the bloody guy] in his apartment – so you knew you had to go there eventually, anyway.
- The game doesn’t advance until you enter the building and speak to the bloody man.
The only way I think I’d “approve” of the cutscene is if it were based on your character’s Perception skill. At least then, you could tell yourself that the cutscene was a reward for how you created your character.
But the truth is that the game wants to tell its story and it wants to tell it in its way. And that’s sort of the main separation between “pure” linear and non-linear titles.
Another separation is that time often stops in linear games – waiting for you to “trigger” the next jump in time. Back to our apartment scene…
- You catch up to the bloody guy in his living room. He’s sprawled out on the now blood-soaked couch. He’s hurting. You can offer to call an ambulance but he refuses. Just get him some morphine, he says. That’s all he wants.
So what do you do? You go back to your apartment and check your e-mail again, then wander around the hospital for a while – giving up when you can’t get to/find the morphine. You wander down to the beach and onto the pier to catch the crime scene. Then you head to a club to dance for a while before getting a mission to chase off some Asian guy. You complete the mission and check your e-mail again – only to remember the morphine. But at the hospital you find a couple other items of interest and that distracts you some more.
When you finally get back to the bloody mess, it’s as if 5 minutes have passed – even though your actions would have taken hours, if not days. In other words, the game was kind enough to wait for you. Just try to do that in a game like Oblivion. The guy would be long dead and buried. But again, that’s the difference. In a non-linear game, retrieving morphine is just a side mission. If you miss that the guy went into his apartment, no big deal. If you don’t get him the pills in time, no big deal. He dies. You move on to another mission.
I’m loving Bloodlines as much as I loved Fallout 3 (non-linear). But I think it’d be cool to see RPGs try to hit that middle-ground.