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Video game linearity matters: here's why

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Grand Theft Auto has a lot to answer for. I’m not talking about the decade of tabloid hysteria following the release of the third game, or the fact that--as an unfortunate by-product--the world actually paid attention to Jack Thompson for a while. All of that stuff, ultimately, was good for games. We got free publicity, we got mainstream coverage, and inevitably, we were vindicated when everyone realised how silly the whole made-up controversy was. 

No, Grand Theft Auto’s greatest crime, which coincidentally also lasted around a decade, was that it seemed to make a generation of game designers think that ‘linear’ was a dirty word. And for me, games lost a great deal as they journeyed along that path. I’m not a big fan of open-world games, for reasons that I’ll get into a little later on. Now the few that I like, I loveRed Dead RedemptionGrand Theft Auto VBatman: Arkham CitySkyrimBorderlands… All stunning experiences. But the ones that I love, I love because they’re not strictly open-world games, not in the strictest, most traditional sense. 

You see for me, the faddish obsession with wide-open design that came along after GTA III’s entirely understandable success didn’t expand the horizons of game development, but hamstrung it. In the scramble to jump onto the open-world bandwagon, many devs became so concerned with openness and scale that they lost track of the intricacies of game design that make for the really compelling experiences. That’s a problem that I think games have only just in recent years recovered from, hence the largely contemporary nature of the games listed above. And ironically, they’ve made that recovery by seasoning--nay, tempering--their openness with the good old fashioned linearity that free-roaming games initially sought to leave behind. 

While linear game design does not bring with it the illusion of freedom that an open-world game does, it has one massive advantage. Structure. Think about your favourite, most resounding memories of your favourite games. How many of them came about via pure, open-world freedom, and how many of them were the product of structured level design, and developer-led pacing and set-pieces, combined with your own input into those situations? I’m willing to bet that the majority are cases of the latter. 

While non-linear games can bring about some excellent, emergent gameplay from time to time, the most exciting and resonating moments in gaming still come from the type of calculated, structured drama that springs from predesigned parameters unfolding within specially designed environments. The random factor of non-linear design throws up great anecdotes, but truly affecting, intense, satisfyingly challenges, victories and crescendos need level design. 

Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Two of, if not the best, first-person shooters ever made. What makes them good? Free-form, improvised gunplay within very structured environments and scenarios, which are in turn designed with very specific intended effects on the gameflow. Halo and F.E.A.R. are the same. Their firefights are fuelled by high-level, dynamic enemy AI, but their linear level designs, even in relatively open areas, are the engines that give that fuel purpose. They shape what’s possible, for both the game and the player. 

They sculpt lists of possible behaviours and reactions--both AI and player-driven--into narratives, struggles, and specific turning points in an overarching story. And then around all that you have scripted and semi-scripted set-pieces, and developer-dictated pacing, that create the overall sense of journey and resolution that makes so many single-player games such satisfying and enriching experiences. 

Think about Call of Duty 4. The core gunplay is slick but unremarkable, as is the case for every entry in the series. But ask anyone--even the staunchest CoD-hating modern day anti-fanboy--about the first Modern Warfare game, and they’ll rightly sing its praises to the heavens. Why? Because its set-pieces and structure are excellent. This stuff is that important. 

And linearity isn’t just important in creating stand-out moments. It can really help make a game more coherent, more cohesive, and much stronger as an overall work. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is one of the best games of the last generation. No question about it. It’s also one of the most linear games on any post-16-bit hardware. Every step of the way, that makes it a stronger game. Over the course of Gabriel’s journey into the literal and figurative heart of darkness, CLoS displays a unified intent, tone, and sense of dedication to its chosen purpose unmatched by most other games of the last eight years. 

Each ‘level’ in CLoS plays out in a resolutely straight line, contained by almost totalitarian use of level boundaries and fixed camera angles. You don’t go anywhere the game doesn’t want you to go. You don’t see anything the game doesn’t want you to see. But the entire game is realised with such an immaculate, deliberate, articulate sense of sheer direction--in both senses of the word--that this potential flaw is only ever to the game’s most extreme benefit. 

By ensuring that what is on-screen is always a deliberate composition; by eschewing any tonally inconsistent side-quests and tangents; by simply cutting out any and all potential for the player fucking about, CLoS creates one of the most artistically consistent, utterly tangible worlds and atmospheres seen in any game of recent times. At the same time, it affords the player one of the steepest, densest, yet most unintimidating learning curves I can remember. It also does a flawless job of pushing the player ever-forward with the same immense, steadily growing momentum possessing its increasingly obsessed hero. On every single creative level, linearity and focus maketh the game. 

Less linear games, I found until recent years, always failed to impress me by presenting the opposite of all that. While evoking a great sense of immersion in their chosen worlds via the freedom to explore, the vagueness of structure inherent to that freedom traditionally turned me off due to the lack of developer intent in the experiences provided. Early GTA games, for instance, always bored me after the initial gosh-wow of their world building, as a result of their flaccid, samey mission structures, limited as they were by the very openness of the overworld they played out in. 

But things are, as I said earlier, improving a great deal, as a direct result of the reinfusion of linearity. GTA 5 has some of the best mission design in the series so far, stemming from a greater use of interior level design and more frequent, set-piece driven missions occurring ‘outside’ of the overarching hub map. 

The same is true of all the open-world games I praised at the start of this article. Arkham City is effectively a smartly-paced, linear adventure that plays out within a giant, explorable film set, enjoying the twin benefits of deliberate level design and an immersive sense of real place. Red Dead, Borderlands and the Elder Scrolls series, while less structured than the previous two examples, do great work by way of threading linear, standout missions, dungeons, and shooting raids through the big-picture composition of their vast canvases. See also iD Software’s Rage for a great example of the same structure. 

So it seems that after the initial, frantic race to make games as open and free-form as possible, developers are now settling into a more mature, more satisfying model. And that’s only right. Any new innovation is exciting at first, by nature of its sheer newness, but ultimately nothing in isolation ever presents the one, true answer. Smart use of any design element--much like smart adoption of any philosophy or political viewpoint--is not about taking an individual idea to its nth degree, but about understanding how and why it can compliment and strengthen the full roster of existing, often seemingly contradictory possibilities. 

I’m going to keep on enjoying GTA 5’s glorious, evocative world. I’m going to keep exploring Skyrim, ever-drawn to the horizon by that next interesting-looking cave I’ve spotted several miles away. I’m going to gleefully jump straight into Borderlands 3 when and if it’s released, and I’ll immediately drive off into its beautiful cartoon wilderness in search of a bandit camp to raze to the ground. And I’m going to love all of that. But I’m going to be even happier when my picturesque, ambient journey rewards me with something of real substance at its end. 

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70 comments

  • Danter72 - February 8, 2014 9:40 p.m.

    Finally an article I agree with about where video games should be headed. I just registered to the website to PRAISE this article. Lately I have seen a lot of articles about how games should become more like the role-playing board games like D&D where it's all about complete freedom of gameplay and story, articles about how video games should drop their maturity and start making games that are just fun, but this article finally acknowledges what games should become in my opinion. I honestly just play games because of their artistic value and their great potential to share great and deep storytelling and this could only be achieved through the vision of a person and not just a random event made by a machine. I understand people who want to play games just for fun but I recently felt alienated by those articles who completely ignored the audience who actually wants a meaningful and deeply constructed experience out of games.
  • tonypang - February 8, 2014 9:16 p.m.

    Resident Evil 4 ~ one of the best games ever made, yet also one of the most linear.
  • Revolt189 - February 8, 2014 2:43 p.m.

    I could not agree more with this article. Especially the perfectionists and OCDers out there, open-world game play is almost daunting. I remember playing the Elder Scrolls IV for the first time, and, after reaching the end of the sewer near the beginning of the game, I remarked: "Well now what?"
  • ObliqueZombie - February 7, 2014 8:27 a.m.

    Great, great article. Story and characters reign supreme for me, but add in fun game mechanics and I'm set. I enjoy the same open-world games you do--weirdly, to a T-- and our reasons are the same. I wish this "open world" fad would quickly lessen itself so developers stop thinking it's the answer to all their development woes.
  • gilgamesh310 - February 6, 2014 6:03 p.m.

    Good article. Linearity reigns supreme in my book.
  • bobob101 - February 6, 2014 1:51 p.m.

    What about a game like FF 13, which left an long established line of open wordiness for the prettiest damn tube I have ever played through?
  • sephex - February 7, 2014 5:47 a.m.

    That game isn't liked by anybody.
  • db1331 - February 6, 2014 12:13 p.m.

    Linearity is fine when it's done correctly. I really only ever notice it if the game is trying to mask it. Like with The Last of Us. It had these gorgeous sprawling views. Dense wilderness, huge buildings, etc. But you could never really venture off the path. Every alleyway had a fence. Every staircase was blocked by a stack of furniture. I remember when I first got to the area with the dam and was looking off into the woods and mountains thinking how badly I wanted to just go in the woods and explore, or walk to the base of that mountain. But I could only follow the little dirt path. I'm not saying I wanted it to be open world. Just a little more freedom would've been perfect. I realize they were limited by the PS3 though. It just makes me wish they had designed it for the PC instead.
  • BladedFalcon - February 6, 2014 12:42 p.m.

    Love how you just HAVE to incorporate a jab at consoles even when the topic or even the initial point of your post had nothing to do with that XD It's pretty endearing actually, almost as if it was a built-in feature of your online persona :P
  • db1331 - February 6, 2014 12:51 p.m.

    You don't think it's fair to say that designing the game for a 7 year old console limited what they were able to do? It was a great game, easily the best console game I've ever played, but yes I do wish it had been made for PC. Then you would have higher resolution, no plummets in the frame rate when you get to one of the pretty set pieces, AA, less linearity. MODS. I'm not jabbing consoles. I have two. I also have no delusions that either are anywhere near as capable as my PC.
  • BladedFalcon - February 6, 2014 12:53 p.m.

    You do realize I was mainly ribbing you, and not being serious, right? :P I know you have a point, it's just that it's ALWAYS the same point you ever make, is all XD
  • db1331 - February 6, 2014 12:58 p.m.

    I know. And I love you for it.
  • Tyrlanae - February 6, 2014 12:52 p.m.

    Exploration would have really screwed up the pacing of TLoU, though. Joel and Ellie weren't there to explore, they were moving with a purpose almost the entire game. I don't think PS3 or PC made a difference on that one, I think that was a conscious choice to maintain narrative structure and keep the game moving. There was a very clear intent with the direction of TLoU and a more open world had the potential to really mess it up. That's not to say that future entries in the franchise can't be open, however. We may see a different story of a different survivor who is doing just that, surviving. That has the potential to lead to a more open form of gameplay. Now that we've been introduced to the world there's myriad directions they could go from here.
  • db1331 - February 6, 2014 12:58 p.m.

    There was still a fair amount of exploration in the game. I thought it was well paced with bits where you could just scavenge buildings for supplies for 10 minutes. In my earlier example about wanting to explore the woods, imagine crossing the river and walking a little ways into the woods, and finding a cabin or old campsite with a handful of supplies. That's all I mean. I don't want to go off and hunt deer or rabbits for an hour before getting back to the main plot. I'm just saying, I constantly felt like I was being funneled somewhere when I played. Speaking of scavenging for supplies, anyone played it on Survivor yet? Good lord are they stingy with the items. Finding even just some tape is enough to make you excited in that mode. It's fun not having listen mode as well.
  • BladedFalcon - February 6, 2014 1:28 p.m.

    I have, I platinum'ed the whole game, actually. And yeah, it's a very different experience in that move, makes it feel as if even hard more was not much more than training wheels for this mode. And yeah, they are super stingy with craft items. So much so that if you want to have enough shivs to open every locked door, you have to pretty much avoid ever using a shiv to actually attack or kill an enemy during the entire game, or create bombs or anything that uses the materials needed to create shivs for that matter XD
  • db1331 - February 6, 2014 1:34 p.m.

    Haha, yeah it's funny that my first time through the game I was having to leave ammo behind because I couldn't carry any more, and I would craft items just so I could pick up more materials. Now I'm walking around with 4 bullets and a roll of tape. I'm actually having an easier go of it this time around, but only because I know the game mechanics and enemy spawns. But yeah, I'm stingy as hell with my shivs. First time through I shived just about every clicker I came across. Now I sneak by them unless I absolutely have to kill them. And even then, I round 2 or 3 up by throwing a brick and then chuck a Molotov at them.
  • Timstertimster - February 6, 2014 5:37 p.m.

    I have that frustration with Killzone Shadowfall on PS4. Awesome set views and no way to explore any of it. Real shame.
  • sephex - February 6, 2014 12:09 p.m.

    It's interesting though that you didn't mention Arkham Asylum. Which to day stands as the better game and if Arkham City is better it is only because of the upgraded weaponry and bigger storyline not the freedom it offers.
  • sephex - February 6, 2014 12:02 p.m.

    I always lose it halfway through your articles.
  • SpadesSlick - February 6, 2014 11:54 a.m.

    Completely agree. I have never minded linearity in games as I find I enjoy the direction and purpose it gives you. Probably the reason I didn't mind FF 13 while the rest of the internet did. Open world is best to dick around in, but I have so many games I want to tackle I just like to experience the main features and get on to the next one.

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