Linearity in Games Isn't Necessarily a Bad Thing

Linearity in Games Isn't Necessarily a Bad Thing

Recently here on Darkstation, an article was posted about if shooters are growing stale and predictable, and in both the article and the comments, it was echoed that people were all tired of the same thing- linearity. A lot of people seem to be of the opinion that linearity is a harmful thing in and of itself (and not just in this article), and that things get old quickly if they don't have branching paths, choices, or an open world. Linearity isn't necessarily horrible, though, and it's easy to lose what you're trying to do with a game by shoving in unnecessary open-world elements, and it can go as far as hurting the overall quality of an otherwise great game. Grant Theft Auto III may not have been the first open-world game, but it was definitely the one that legitimized the idea and brought it screaming into the 3D world. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen, and people started to try bringing open-world ideas into other genres, from platformers (Jak II) to shooters (Rage). While a well-used open-world can make a game stand out, it can also be pointless and wind up hurting a game in the end.

Rage is a great example of a pointless open world. What is there to the wasteland in the game other than, well, wasted land? It definitely looks great, texture-pop aside, and it might have been fun to drive around in your post-apocalyptic dune buggy, but then there's not else there; there are barely enemies to deal with. It's just pointless, and it's telling how much more people liked the corridor-shooter parts of it. Those were fun and well thought out; the open world was empty and pointless and would have been better as a spoked hub-world.

No More Heroes, meanwhile, has one of the worst open-worlds in a game. In fact, it's SO BAD that some people have made a convincing argument that it's actually there to satire open-worlds in games (and it's the kind of punk-rock mentality thing that Suda 51 would probably throw in). It was kind of entertaining to run around and kick dumpsters to find shirts in them, but the world rejoiced when No More Heroes 2 ditched the open elements for a much more straight-forward map system.

While nonlinear games are definitely fun, it's also possible to make it so open it's overwhelming. I know that when I first played Oblivion, when I finally exited the sewers at the beginning and entered the world, I turned off the game. The sense of choice and possibility were just completely overwhelming. I also remember when Far Cry 2 came out, a lot of people steered clear of it because it was just too much. It's cool to start a fire that eventually burns the world down, but it's also a bit much, and can definitely overwhelm.

The idea of "jack of all trades, master of none" applies heavily to less-linear games, too, and some of them fill the world with uninteresting side-missions and bog the game down with so many systems that nothing is ever fully done. Yes, it's awesome that Skyrim lets you do so many side missions, but then the combat isn't fleshed out and not all of the side-quests carry a good story or interesting events past "kill everything in this cave". Kingdoms of Amalur put in so many side quests that eventually it broke the leveling gave you time to think about how bad some of the systems are. These games may be fun, but they never really rise to the same level of mechanical quality as a more focused, linear game does (they definitely win in "most mechanics", if not "best mechanics"). It’s also a little telling that most of the stories about these games result from the jankiness and glitches that emerge as they’re played, and less comes out about the actual story and scripted events.

It really seems like people are actually getting tired of contemporary-military-FPS games, but are falsely attributing it to being tired of how linear games are. Linearity has some great advantages. You can really preserve the atmosphere and add to the experience. Vanquish keep up a great feeling of overwhelming odds in the fight against the space Russians, and let's not forget Call of Duty 4, the game we all have to thank for the contemporary military craze, is still full of tense and powerful moments, with All Ghillied Up being one of the most often-mentioned missions when it comes to best levels in games.

Would games like Resident Evil 4 or Halo have really been improved by adding in open-world elements? Of course not- yet these are games we remember as important ones that changed how we played certain genres. It’s telling how many games have been taking the mechanics and gameplay modes defined from those games and using them in their own ways. Let’s not forget the Uncharted series, which is of course one of the most well-reviewed series of this generation. Few would make an argument that this series could be improved with less linear elements, as it so expertly uses set pieces and big, explosive action elements to drive the story, up the ante, and develop some of the most beloved characters of this generation.

And what could possibly be more beloved than Valve and their entire oeuvre? Yet they’re a company that has stuck heavily to linear gameplay and level-based structures, and they’re all the better for it. The fervor that erupted around Portal and Portal 2 and the amount of begging and preening for even a glimpse of a new Half-Life game says a lot about this- it’s not linearity that’s bad, and some of the most loved and enjoyed games of all time have been linear, which helps aid in a consistency, tone, and allows for more well-developed mechanics than the average open-world, nonlinear game.

I realize that there are people out there who only play open-world style games, like people who only play RPGs or fighting games made by SNK. That's not a problem- play what you like and what's fun for you, I’m not here to try and tell anyone that their tastes are wrong. Open worlds are definitely more viable than ever before now, with improving technology and greater resources allowed, but we shouldn't be asking for every game to be in the same style. This is clearly the actual problem- everyone is trying to chase after that Call of Duty crown, not by coming up with their own ideas or trying to push the genre further, but by trying to be more of the same. EA even has 2 modern military shooters, competing not just against each other, but against Activision as well. It’s a bizarre side effect of the growth of the games industry, but it shows clearly that this needs to be an industry driven by innovation, or else every game winds up seeming stale and predictable. In the end, I can’t think of anything worse that could happen to the industry than this.