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From The Vault | Gaming In A Straight Line: Is Linear A Dirty Word?

Author:
Matt Gardner
Category:
Features
Tags:
From The Vault, Linear games

My preview for The Order: 1886 ignited a pretty heated discussion regarding the nature of previews themselves and the merits (and weaknesses) of linear gaming experience. I'm going to write a little extended piece on player freedom and why that broad, nebulous term "gameplay" is actually the key to any interactive experience, but for today's From The Vault feature, we go back nearly five years to Tamsin Oxford's piece regarding the perception of linear structure in games. My quick two cents on the matter -- linearity isn't a problem in and of itself at all, some of my favourite games have been heavily-scripted, enormously-prescribed affairs. I do believe that player-driven narratives can often be more powerful, but there's something to be said for an interactive rollercoaster that puts you at the heart of the action, though I would posit that linear games demand a greater degree of mechanical scrutiny. There'll be more on this on Monday, but absolutely weigh in with your feelings and opinions on the matter.

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From The Vault | Gaming In A Straight Line: Is Linear A Dirty Word?

The idea of immersion in gaming has long been a point of interest in the gaming community. Certainly it makes me feel a little tingly in the toes. While I can not profess to be an expert in this field, nor am I completely au fait with all the values and debates that surround it, I nevertheless feel that this is an exciting issue.

In essence, immersive gaming is all about the player-driven narrative. The idea is that the player is dropped into a complete world and that they are left to their own devices in order to complete quests or tasks set them by the game rather than being propelled through the game in a straight line with little deviation. That's the idea, anyway.

From The Vault | Gaming In A Straight Line: Is Linear A Dirty Word?

Deus Ex is an example of such a title. This game placed you at the controls. You had to kill someone, but how it was done was entirely up to you. There was no right and wrong in your approach so long as you did it. It made this game into a legend, an immersive and hypnotic experience that thrilled.

Games that follow this ideology offer a far richer gaming experience and theoretically give the player the kind of control over these fantastical worlds that they long for. Er, but do most gamers really long for this? I don’t have any statistics but I'm not entirely sure that gamers really do prefer a non-linear title. Not many people really like the idea of being left to their own devices and there is also the issue of the amount of development that goes into such games.

From The Vault | Gaming In A Straight Line: Is Linear A Dirty Word?

If you think about it, part of the success of titles such as Half Life 2 are their linear structure.

When you know that every player is going to encounter a specific scene or creature then, as a developer, you’re able to put far more time and effort into perfecting that engagement. This is not really possible in the non-linear game. If players are able to wander anywhere they like, whenever they like, there is a good chance they won’t see the giant squid, man-eating toenail or whatever that lurks in one corner of the world.

An interesting article on The Brainy Gamer has the writer praising the ideology of the author. She believes that controlled narratives in games should not be dismissed out of hand, that there is still a role for them to play in the future of gaming.

From The Vault | Gaming In A Straight Line: Is Linear A Dirty Word?

I must admit that I agree. While the non-linear titles have certainly blown me away, Far Cry 2 being a good example, I am one of those people who always ends up doing the safe thing. I ended up sneaking and sniping my way across Far Cry 2. Sorry but I am a total coward unless brow-beaten into obedience.

I may sit and moan and complain when a game forces me down a violent track that has me dying repeatedly, but in the end I love it. I enjoy beating the game, taking the challenge by the teeth and biting the hell out of it.

Narrative led games have their advantages and I don’t believe that they should be dismissed and abandoned. A well structured, balanced and tightly woven linear game is as immersive and powerful an experience as a non-linear title.

From The Vault | Gaming In A Straight Line: Is Linear A Dirty Word?

Authored narrative can be extremely compelling. The cinematic, emotional and physical involvement it engenders as you play is entertainment to the core. This is, of course, not saying that player-driven narrative fails to do this, but rather that the lazy gamer may not get as much value when left to their own devices. A forced run up a hill towards a steaming clown wielding chainsaws may not be your first choice but you’ll love every second you spend taking him down.

Clint Hocking, a genius in his field and well worth reading up on constantly, has developed his own views on this subject. He says, “The games of today unsurprisingly strive to mimic the linear, authored structures of previous generations of media largely because gamers and game developers have grown up in a world where those media are culturally dominant.

So, does placing a player into a world and saying, “Go!” really epitomise the perfect title and the future of gaming? I know that when I read other reviews and spoilers of Deus Ex I felt enormously disappointed that I’d missed certain scenes and areas.

From The Vault | Gaming In A Straight Line: Is Linear A Dirty Word?

What do you prefer? Do you want games to become more immersive player driven or do you want to just sit back and enjoy the experience? I know that I’ve barely touched the edges of this discussion and probably missed a thousand essential points so feel free to yell at me.

Article written by Tamsin Oxford. Originally published 13th February, 2010.

Add a comment3 comments
googleberry  Dec. 14, 2014 at 19:23

I think game structure that leans towards the linear works better for me personally. Highly non-linear games generally lack narrative force. I'd take the game design philosophy of mass effect over Skyrim any day. Everything i did in Skyrim felt superfluous and kind of meaningless. On the other hand I was genuinely devastated or elated by numerous events during mass effect.

There is one outstanding non linear game experience i'd like to mention which is the first crysis game. I found the non-linear set piece levels embedded within a linear structure a perfect fusion of freedom, structure and purpose.

In short, a bit of both skilfully woven together works great.

r3tract  Dec. 15, 2014 at 09:39

I think game structure that leans towards the linear works better for me personally. Highly non-linear games generally lack narrative force. I'd take the game design philosophy of mass effect over Skyrim any day. Everything i did in Skyrim felt superfluous and kind of meaningless. On the other hand I was genuinely devastated or elated by numerous events during mass effect.

There is one outstanding non linear game experience i'd like to mention which is the first crysis game. I found the non-linear set piece levels embedded within a linear structure a perfect fusion of freedom, structure and purpose.

In short, a bit of both skilfully woven together works great.


I tend to agree that open world games can lack narrative focus. Skyrim is a good example of this as you point out.

However, I think in recent times developers have been looking to address this issue. Games like Shadows of Mordor and Dragon Age: Inquisition tie the majority of the side-quests and lore back into the main plot. This helps you feel like the quests that you are doing genuinely make a difference to the world and its not simply a case of fetching items for people simply because they seem to lazy or incompetent to make the journey themselves.

Have you played either of those games, if so what did you think?

googleberry  Dec. 15, 2014 at 16:42

Games like Shadows of Mordor and Dragon Age: Inquisition tie the majority of the side-quests and lore back into the main plot. This helps you feel like the quests that you are doing genuinely make a difference to the world and its not simply a case of fetching items for people simply because they seem to lazy or incompetent to make the journey themselves.

Have you played either of those games, if so what did you think?


I haven't, and I resonate with everything you've said. I'll definitely pick both up at the nearest opportunity. Thanks for your analysis. As a DA:O aficionado, Inquisition might well be my first stop :)

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