Part I - Roundtable: Setting
Part III - Roundtable: CharactersWhat are your preferences and thoughts in regard to storylines? Linear or non-linear? Epic or low-key? Formulaic or "chaotic"? Taking control from the player for extra drama (i.e. you fell asleep, was captured, and thrown in jail. Surprise!) or leaving the player completely in charge? What are your storytelling trademarks (or what storytelling aspects would you like to develop into your own trademarks)?
* * *Chris Avellone
I believe in non-linear “stories,” but I’d much rather have a game world filled with game mechanics and game systems that allow the player to make their stories without the drama being imposed on them. I think that gives more credit and fun to the player without dictating the experience to them – which to some story writers may seem to create a stronger experience, but I don’t agree, I think it just paralyzes the player and everyone else who plays the game to the same course of action, which isn’t really what a (Western) RPG is all about. It may work for other genres, but not in our case.
When creating a narrative for a game, stick with a theme, and have the world and the story echo it. Make it something you’re passionate about. As an example, I’ve always liked the Star Wars movies, but I always thought the premise behind the Force sucked. And the way it works raises a lot of disturbing questions. So, for a storyline, let's go with that… and the spine of Knights of the Old Republic II begins.
But setting up a story and a theme is not enough – and doing too much story can be claustrophobic to a player. In an RPG, letting the player share the world of the story is important – while the players should react strongly to the situations and setting you present to them, you need to give the player the room to have a story on their own, based on their experiences with the system and the encounters you've set up. As an example (and a poor one, but easy to identify with), players can respond more strongly to their story of how their dwarf warrior was able to defeat 20 orcs with only 3 hit points remaining by channeling them through a narrow dungeon corridor to emerge victorious… which is solely their experience with the game, and can be far more exciting and personal to the player than something you've scripted into the storyline. To this day, people still talk about their methods for trying to keep Dogmeat alive at the end of Fallout 1 in incredible detail.
Story-wise in the world, the player's experience in the world should matter. They should see changes and consequences based on their actions, and see that their existence and actions in the world are having an impact. It should also allow a player to interpret and develop their character, both game mechanic-wise and through interaction in the world. Some RPGs can provide a static character and character type from the outset and let the player step into their shoes, but I prefer RPGs that provide the player with a blank slate that they can sketch on. In Alpha Protocol, we do this by providing a cipher for the player to step into and then begin to develop his personality and his attributes through his interaction with the game world.
If I had storytelling trademarks, I say that most of the stories and worlds I’ve worked on have tended to veer to the dark end of the spectrum. I may have a pessimistic view of the world, but I think heroic actions become more heroic in a world that’s against you rather than one that’s cheery and helpful. I also lean toward not-quite-perfect endings, where not everything ends up happily ever after, mostly because I don’t believe in that.
I also believe in unrequited romances, but George Ziets helped me break some of that in NX1, which I will be thankful to him for until the End Days.
* * *Josh Sawyer
All of my published work to date has been highly linear, but I strongly prefer to work on non-linear storylines. I prefer thematically-driven storylines to event-driven storylines, and I like to give the player freedom within the general confines of the setting. I like to let the player explore the setting and the story at his or her own pace while always keeping the core of the plot up-front. I think that even side content should ultimately reinforce the central themes of the setting to make the work feel cohesive. I don't have any storytelling trademarks, but it would be good enough for me if people felt that they had a high level of personal agency in exploring the settings and resolving the storylines I create.
* * *Kevin Saunders
I do favor taking control from the player, but not really for dramatic reasons. In the ideal game, I’d love to give the player complete control. But the amount of work required to make a game experience (and story) compelling explodes proportionate to the amount of control the player has. The less control a player has, the more the designer can focus their efforts to entertain the player.
This illustrates a ubiquitous game design trade-off: the more distinct options you give the player, the less satisfying each option will be.
This isn’t exactly a story example, but take a typical D&D game like Neverwinter Nights 2 (NWN2) or Mask of the Betrayer (MotB). The player can choose from about a dozen distinct classes. So you need to balance encounters, loot, options, etc. to be suitable and entertaining for each type of class. That’s a lot of work. And that work means that the experience for each class gets watered down a bit (because you have a finite amount of time and resources to make the game). Suppose instead that one of these games forced you to play a bard. You could gear the entire game toward that class and have an incredible amount of reactivity. The game would be richer, more immersive, better balanced, and overall a much more satisfying experience – for players who wanted to play a bard, that is. This is one advantage that RPGs with a specific character have over those that allow character creation.
By carefully thinking about the repercussions of giving (or taking away) player control and options, you can allow most players to feel (correctly) that they own their game experience, while retaining enough control to deliver a great story and game. As with much of game design, you have to properly set and then meet or exceed the player’s expectations. If you establish early to the player what constraints there are, they’ll be less annoyed by them. Continuing with the above example – having all of the different classes and races are a fundamental part of the D&D game. So if you’re using the D&D license, players will have that expectation and there’s a strong incentive to provide all of those races and classes.
But if I were creating my own new intellectual property (for a computer game) from scratch, I’d lean toward fewer classes and races than D&D has. I’d try to focus the experience more so that I could make each aspect of it stronger. While more choices are enjoyed by a lot of players, at a certain point there are better ways to entertain.
Getting back to the question... I prefer Epic over low-key. Well, I personally prefer low-key and would like to make a game like that. But I don’t think it entertains as well. In college, I ran a 2nd edition D&D campaign for some friends. I created the world, the story, the plotlines and it went very well – everyone had a great time. One of my players wanted to DM, so I passed the campaign. I told him the plans I had for the plots and world and then he took it in his own direction. Almost immediately, he sped up the plot progression by at least a factor of three. Where I had slowly, deliberately doled out clues and events, he charged ahead, with dramatic events occurring constantly. Frankly it was more exciting and the experience taught me to be less “stingy” in terms of storytelling. Go over the top and just trust your ability to keep improving upon your own work. Don’t keep your best ideas in reserve – use them.
As for linear or non-linear, it depends on the type of game and experience you’re trying to create. From my above statements, one might guess I’d favor a linear storyline, but that’s not really the case. I think in general it’s harder to draw the player into the story when it’s non-linear. But depending upon how you go about it, that difficulty takes place at the idea stage, not the implementation stage. So I definitely feel it can work.
Trademarks. Do you mean basically what I’d like to be known/recognized for? I do have some ideas for innovative storytelling in games that I’d really like to try out, but I don’t know yet how they’ll work and it’s nothing I’m ready to talk about yet. And, as I mention above, most ideas are cheap, including mine. =) Lots of people have lots of great ideas. So what I’d like to be known for is creating work environments in which the real creative geniuses can excel and entertain, to help those visions be realized and implemented.
* * *George Ziets
Personally, I’m a fan of semi-linear storytelling (which probably sounds like a cop-out, but stay with me).
A true non-linear storyline is awfully difficult to achieve, especially with limited time and budget to create a commercial game. If we try to account for too many possibilities, we can end up with a lot of potential bugs. And we have less time to focus on crafting those dramatic moments and deep, multifaceted characters that players will remember years after finishing the game.
I prefer to focus on meaningful player choices. An overarching storyline can be essentially linear, but the player can be offered critical choices at pre-defined points in that storyline. (And by critical choices, I’m talking about choices that have visibly different consequences, or lead to branches in the story structure.) That way, the design team maintains control over the number of possible outcomes and paths, while players understand that their choices matter, and result a distinctly different experience. And *all* choices should have consequences, or they shouldn’t be offered at all.
Likewise, we should never force an action on the player during a cutscene, or inexplicably paralyze a player character so that he can get captured by the bad guy. If we feel the need to take direct control of the player to advance our plot, then our plot needs revision.
I generally prefer personal stories over impersonal ones, mainly for the sake of motivation. I’m more likely to be drawn into the story if my character has a personal stake - think of how the Bhaal-child is directly threatened by Irenicus in BG2 - than if I’m just an altruistic outsider.
And while I definitely enjoy epic stories, I think we should avoid “save the world” plotlines. Apart from being cliché, they tend to generate unrealistic characters and villains. I’d rather write a story that sends players to epic locations, or pits them against epic enemies, but focuses on villains who have solid, believable motivations for what they’re trying to do.
* * *David Gaider
Tough call. Taking control away from the player isn't always a bad thing -- complete freedom to wander can be great, but it isn't always compatible with a strong narrative -- yet it can be tricky. It's like in a tabletop game, I don't really mind if the storyteller is guiding me with a strong hand so long as we're heading somewhere interesting. I suppose a large part of it is the unspoken contract you make with the player at the beginning of the game. If you imply that they will have complete freedom to do whatever they like and go wherever they wish, and then suddenly they're restricted on all fronts, that's a turn off. If, however, you are up front with the idea that this is a directed story about a particular person or a particular event a player can be more forgiving with some linearity. I think the thing that you can't compromise on is the idea that the player has some ability to direct their part in the story's events, not without losing that part of the game that makes it an RPG. How they react, if not always everything they do. A player may not need to make choices about every single thing in the game, but when those choices are made the game should acknowledge them... And occasionally those choices should result in some kind of significant consequence. Or why am I bothering? Why give me those choices in the first place if all you wanted to do was tell me YOUR story?
As for the "epic or low-key" question... Definitely epic, though I would say that "epic" itself is such a loaded word. It's so easy to make fun of, since you can always conjure up images of some overblown fantasy melodrama. Epic doesn't have to mean trite or cliché. You don't have to be the Chosen One. To me it means simply that the stakes are really high. What you're doing is important. I know some people have played so many games that they say they're so DONE with epic, they want to veer completely in the other direction -- but I don't want to just be "some guy" who isn't doing anything more important than surviving. I'm sure you could craft a very good story around just being "some guy", but given my druthers I would prefer the epic over the ordinary any day.
In terms of what are my own storytelling trademarks -- I'm not sure. Storytelling when you have a large team to work with isn't a solo craft, after all. How much of the story is mine as opposed to the team's? There are certain trademarks of mine that exist on a smaller level, plots I keep revisiting or character types I like a lot. Overall I'd say I am most at home when writing characters, humourous banter and romance especially. Those are the toughest to get right.
* * *Alan Miranda
My personal preference is to create epic stories, and hence our mission statement at Ossian Studios to create epic adventures. That doesn’t equate to “epic level” adventures, because you can have relatively epic adventures for any character level (both Baldur’s Gate and Throne of Bhaal were epic in their own right). I think everything in life is a balance between different ends of a spectrum, because too much of any one aspect can ruin an experience. For example, people have often asked us whether Mysteries of Westgate is more role-playing or combat-centric, and we always reply that it’s somewhere in the middle and contains the best of both.
With regard to linear vs non-linear, again, I feel that somewhere in between is best because going to the extremes has the potential to either constrict or lose players. As a player, I love expansive worlds to explore, but without something to help guide me down the main path, I can easily lose myself in killing yet another random creature in another nameless cave, and I think that really waters down the core emotional experience the game is trying to get across. So with Ossian’s games, we aim to have a strong main story, while still letting people play the game in a non-linear fashion, but without letting them get lost.
I don’t think removing control from the player in an RPG is usually a good idea. I feel player empowerment (i.e., the freedom of choice) is a very important factor in making players feel invested in a game. So no-win scenarios shouldn’t be used, and instances like “you were captured while sleeping” shouldn’t be used often. A better way is to face players with important decisions and then handle these as different branches in your story. To do that well, so that players are surprised at the outcomes of their choices, you need to have a multidimensional story, where the full motivations of characters (which should always be logical) are obscured until the end. There’s nothing as disappointing to me, either in games or movies, as a one-dimensional story that goes from point A to point B as blatantly as a toddler train ride.
* * *Luke Scull
This may sound like a cop-out, but I think there's room for all the above approaches. Some players absolutely hate having control taken from their character, but if it's necessary to do this to set up a fantastic plot that couldn't be achieved any other way, I'm fine with it as long as it's believable and isn't repeated. Once is probably okay. And it has to be believable, so a 1st-level character being ambushed and taken prisoner is fine, a 10th level character not so much.
I think you'll always get better results, from a narrative point of view, with a linear approach to the story. It's just easier to tell a better story when you know exactly how things are going to play out. That said, these games are called role-playing games rather than interactive novels for a reason. Generally the formula that seems to work best is to split the critical path between linear segments (to drive the story forward) and non-linear segments that let the player tackle things in any order they like. Ideally, the critical path will play out differently depending on what choices and decisions the player makes.
Obviously there's a massive difference between how, say, Final Fantasy works and how Oblivion works. But the above approach is the kind that works best for the type of RPG I enjoy, because it provides the best balance between a strong narrative and involving, interactive gameplay.
I prefer my games epic, I must confess. And by epic, I mean properly epic, as opposed to the lesser varieties of epic that are so popular with PR folk and are attached to anything and everything nowadays. And before you roll your eyes, I'll tell you why.
I've played dozens of CRPGs and literally hundreds of NWN modules. After a while, the low-level grind becomes intolerably boring. You're a farmer's child sent to rescue the lost cow. You're an aspiring adventurer who wants to prove yourself by killing a cave full of goblins. The village is being attacked by a bunch of random weenies and you're the only survivor. Yadda yadda. I've seen it a million times. Planescape: Torment was a brilliant exception, but normally these things are a chore. They don't have to be. However, you're asking designers to step outside their comfort zone and start writing like G R R Martin -- it doesn't normally happen.
That doesn't mean these low-key adventures can't be fun, but on balance, they are a heck of a lot less fun than an epic adventure. I can generate my own enthusiasm for the latter while, for the former, I'm relying on the writer to be unusually talented and write scenarios and characters that I care about.
I love stories that subvert expectations. Most CRPGs are far too predictable for their own good. G R R Martin is a good example of how modern fantasy storytelling has started to evolve. You know, people acting in a semi-realistic manner and a story growing organically rather than following a ridiculously predictable structure. You don't want to push it too far and start looking like you're pulling stuff out of your ass as you go, but keeping the story unpredictable and surprising goes a long way towards appeasing the ever-more-jaded fanbase.
* * *Mat Jobe
Ideally you'd have a storyline that's epic and compelling, but also allows the player the freedom to forge their own path. Unfortunately, those goals are often at odds. It's easy enough to think of how a storyline might branch in different directions, but much harder (not to mention time-consuming) to make sure each branch is equally compelling.
Given that, my preference is for a relatively linear main story combined with a lot of optional sidequests. As a designer, this sort of structure allows you to focus on making each story -- whether it's the game's critical path or a minor sidequest -- as good as it can be, while still giving the player plenty of freedom. Even if it's just the freedom to do things in a different order, or not do some things at all, I still think that's rewarding for the player.
I also think this helps create the sense of a living, breathing game world. If every area you visit and every character you talk to is related to the main storyline, you start to get the sensation of being an actor on a stage. I prefer a more realistic "sandbox" environment where there are plenty of things going on that are unrelated, or only tangentially related, to the main story.
* * *Russ Davis
When developing a story, I try to start by determining what is happening before the player even arrives. In other words, I don’t start from the player’s perspective but rather from the perspective of the other characters (often the antagonist, but sometimes other characters). One of the questions I always ask myself when I’m fully in control of the story is “what would happen if the player didn’t show up and do the hero thing?” This helps me develop “smart” plans for the enemies that have fewer obvious holes. Once I know what those characters are doing, it is then much easier for me to plan what the hero would see and what they would discover and when they would discover it after they arrive on the scene.
This is a long way to say that the dastardly plans I devise for the enemies dictate the way the story develops. While I prefer open-ended adventures when it makes sense, I’m not against having linearity when called for, and it often is for me, especially as the enemy’s plans come ever closer to fruition. When some devious plot needs to be defeated, I can’t very well allow the player to decide they want to go explore the back woods somewhere instead. At some point, freedom must yield to story.
As for your other questions, my own personal preference is for low-powered, low-key adventures, as those are just the levels I enjoy playing more myself. I’ve become less of a power-gamer and more of a story-gamer as I’ve aged. Finally, the story trumps everything for me. If I need to take control of the player for (very) brief periods to drive it forward, then I do. However, I try very hard to keep this to a minimum or to do so at a point before the module opens (i.e., as a plot hook to get things kicked off). Many people are rightfully annoyed when a role-playing game does not allow them to play a role, and doing this too often is most likely the result of a weak story that should be tweaked.
* * *Jeff Vogel
I've done all of them. I always write the sort of game I would enjoy playing in that particular year. Sometimes it's open ended and sometimes it's linear. I change it up frequently because that helps me to come up with new ideas.
* * *Thomas Riegsecker
I enjoy a non-linear game with a personal storyline. I don't mind being the savior of the world as long as I have a sense of "personal investment" in what is happening. While it's somewhat difficult to have an RPG storyline that doesn't involve some sort of an epic, end-of-the-world plot, you can have a personal subplot that does not assume failure on the players part if they don't chose to save the world. This is the type of thought process that goes into our storylines.
It's also a fact that you cannot have a true "non-linear storyline". That in itself is an oxymoron since a story must be linear to make sense. However, you can break that story into segments separated by goals and let the player figure out for themselves how to reach those goals. Stories can then branch depending on how goals are met. The important thing is to let players feel a sense of freedom as they go from point to point- the absolute worst scenario you can give your customers is a concrete storyline with railroaded, one-way map designs.
* * *Jay Barnson
Whatever works for the game, really. Many of my favorite games are wide-open "sandbox" games with very little story to speak of, and some of my favorites were tightly scripted, linear stories.
I don't know if I'd want a trademark there. I think there are too many possibilities to explore in combining gameplay and story to try and settle on one thing right now. This aspect of our field is still in its infancy.
* * *Jason Compton
Everybody wants to rule the world, so the song tells us, but first they must save it. It turns out that "saving the world as I know it", aside from providing a very clear and present danger for the player to tackle, is something which many, many different personality concepts for a player character can get behind. "Well, *my* guy doesn't want to play *your* game" is an objection a CRPG plotter has to get past, so threatening the Imminent Destruction Of All is one handy way to get past that issue and get on with the individual plot lines which make up the whole.
I would actually very much like to do CRPGs at some point which are more condensed and personal in scope. These concepts would have far less at stake, where the final outcome may only truly matter to a few of the participants and their victims and/or beneficiaries. The tongue-in-cheek code name for one such game is "Alassa's Big Night Out", and I've scribbled down notes for a small game which would extend the story of one of our serial stories as well, from the point of view of one or more of the central characters. And I don't mean a game which starts out sending you on a flower-picking quest when you then *discover* that you must save the world, I mean one with no swerves, no mysterious conspiracies revealed in chapter 3 that you stumble into—just one with personal stakes.
With TBH we decided to go with a game that would allow more flexibility and freedom in the personal definition of the player character—who, by the way, is threatened with the Imminent Destruction Of All. Just in case you were thinking that your character would prefer to stay in bed and not play the game after all.
I don't mind taking control from the player in some ways. It simply can't be helped in many situations. Sometimes we just can't let you look in their medicine cabinet. Sometimes you just can't open the door right now. Sometimes you just can't shoot this person in the face, because it would break a plot-critical quest in a way that there's no sensible storytelling fix for on our side. I prefer avoiding this whenever possible, but in a way I think the greater danger is creating dissatisfaction with unique and clever storyline resolutions which upon reflection make the player feel even more constrained and limited.
For instance, consider a quest which involves convincing Person A to do something for you. Let's say we offer you a resolution that involves killing Peasant B and stuffing B's body in A's closet, then blackmailing A over this situation. If this isn't handled just right, players start asking, "But, sir, why can't I just stuff peasants in every closet in the game to resolve other quests? Surely nobody else in town wants to be framed for murder!" There has to be a compelling reason why A is uniquely susceptible to this type of outcome—or the designers have to be prepared to write an awful lot of "I have hidden a body in your home" dialogue. Again, there are good reasons the tried and true "kill somebody special for me" or "employ your dialogue skills upon me" resolutions endure and thrive.
Trademarks? I can only hope that our mark will be providing a gameworld and characters good enough to come back to again and again.
* * *Gareth Fouche
I like to think of the my game's storyline not as one continuous, linear path but as a series of intertwining smaller strands, each pulling at and straining against the others. Even though these strands may not be very significant by themselves when you step back and look at them from a distance they form a larger pattern, a greater whole. Like a spiderweb. If you take the spiderweb analogy further the player is then the bug that flies into that web. While they may only initially touch one single strand their movement within the web will draw them into contact with further strands, ensnaring them further and further into the greater plot. And as they tug at the strands of the web they pull some threads into new positions while completely severing others.
Following this analogy I would definately say I favour non-linear storylines. In fact I have designed the plot in Scars of War so that strands tying into the main plot can be found and picked up on in many locations and from many different characters/factions. So that even if the player chooses to wander off and explore the world of faction politics they can still pick up a plot thread somewhere else and it will lead them towards the heart of the story. I'm hoping that my plot weaving is good enough that they will find themselves drawn in whichever path they choose to follow. I think this type of plot design suits computer games more than a linear narrative does since a linear narrative runs the risk of clashing with the player's desire to forge his own path.
As for epic or low key, well, can I cop-out and say neither? Or both? Epic is a bit of a buzzword these days, it tends to mean saving the world. I don't generally care for the standard implementations of such a plot, most often they are clumsy and just seem rather forced on the player, like you're a teenager wearing your fathers old tuxedo. A bit too tight around the shoulders, a bit too long in the arms, never quite a comfortable fit. Which isn't to say that kind of plot can't be done well, it most certainly can, but it requires a lot of skill and a fair amount of subtelty to pull off in a believable manner. What I don't generally like is any plot with strong overtones of Your Awesome Destiny (Fill In Your Name Here). I've never really seen that done in a way that doesn't feel hackneyed and cheap.
While I wouldn't say my plots are chaotic, I would call them dynamic, perhaps somewhat unpredictable. I like to set up a whole range of competing forces held in some sort of precarious balance then hurl the player(s), as wildcards, into the middle of it all and and see what happens. I like the sense of dynamic tension that creates. Even though the individual path taken through the storyline may vary wildly from player to player I try to ensure that they will encounter enough plot threads that a sense of the greater narrative emerges.
I don't like to take control away from the player really. Certainly I can brute force them into a decision, for instance if you resist arrest the guards will attempt to beat you into submission. But the player should never feel like someone has taken away control of their character. Accepting odds that are stacked against you is fine, having the game just assume that you accept them is disempowering. Let them decide it they want to put up a fight, even if just so they can learn it is a hopeless cause.
My storytelling trademarks, well, I'm hoping I will become known for plots that you can view from multiple directions, with a strong focus on characters. I tend to build my stories around interacting with characters, their motivations, goals and histories rather than some object or event. So "betrayal and redemption" rather than "collect the 5 pieces of the staff that will save the world". And by multi-dimensional I mean that you can view the story from more than one side. Take your typical RPG plot of good versus evil. Even something that simple has two sides, yes? But generally we don't get to play along the evil path. Why can't we join the dark side? Why can't we give the ring to Sauron? What if I want to accept the villain's offer of money and power in exchange for serving him? It requires a specific type of plot and game design but I think it is more than worth it. In many games that offer faction dynamics I personally tend to find that side of things more compelling than the main plot. But what if we can have the best of both worlds, if the faction dynamics are a key element of the main storyline? The thought excites me as a player, hopefully it will excite those who play Scars of War.
* * *Michal Madej
The Witcher has definitely already introduced a few new or uncommon features to the computer RPG genre. First of all we introduced a fresh approach to classical fantasy, with a much more mature theme, deeply developed NPC personalities and even some contemporary problems, instead of the tiresome Good vs. Evil cliché. Another element was redesigning the idea of “choice," which in my opinion is the most crucial element in the genre. I think people play RPGs because they want to feel that they have freedom of choice; they love making all kinds of decisions and observing how they affect story and gameplay. That's why we came up with the idea of offering choices with delayed results that are hard to cheat with the save/load trick. Additionally we employed lots of cutscenes that tell the story in a cinematic way, especially flashback cutscenes that remind the player of their decisions and the outcomes. As for everything else, we tried to use what is most appropriate for that part of the story, and we try to stay away from any kind of dogma.
Summarizing, I'm sure The Witcher introduced several RPG trademark elements – a mature fantasy world, contemporary elements, morally ambiguous decisions, delayed results, flashback cutscenes and cinematic storytelling.
* * *Leonard Boyarsky
It is all about what serves the story and the game you're making. You can never tell what combination of story and setting will work, and sometimes the most obvious choice is the least interesting. It really has to be about giving the player a great gaming experience, so I think it's a mistake to limit yourself by saying there are things you'll never do. I think when you look at something from a fixed perspective for too long, applying the same methodology to solving different problems, your work will start to feel repetitive. I try to approach things from as many different angles as possible. I have even made an attempt on occasion to tackle things from directions I specifically think are wrong just to see if my prejudices are getting in the way of good ideas.
As far as linearity vs non linearity, if you want to tell any kind of story, you need to have a beginning, middle and an end. That doesn't mean that there can't be a hundred paths between those points (and variations on those points themselves) but you can't have a story without at least some linearity. If you don't have linearity of some sort, you can't build suspense or drama (or even a good joke). Now, the linearity can all be in self contained quests and not build to anything bigger, or the quests can combine in different ways to tell different stories, but a story can't have its end happen before its beginning. Unless you're making Memento the videogame.
As far as a 'trademark' goes, I'd have to say that my main focus has always been on creating stories, worlds and characters that resonate with people on a deeper emotional level. That doesn't necessarily mean heavy, dramatic and serious – humor can resonate as much as drama - but I really want people to become involved with the worlds and stories of the games in a way that they'll remember long after they're done playing. But I don't think you can single out your style of creating the story as something separate from the world and the characters. They all need to live and breathe as one entity.
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