Resident angry-man Matt Reynolds returns with a new box of hate. This week, he wants to know why linear games get such a bad rep – not every game needs to be open, and linear isn’t a dirty word…
Linear seems to have become a dirty word this generation. It conjures up images of identikit corridor shooters, of prescribed pathways littered with quick time events. The general consensus appears to be that if your game is linear; you have in some way failed to create a meaningful experience. I’m here to tell you that this way of thinking is total bullshit, and an insult and disservice to all the hard work that has gone into some of this generation’s very best games.
Linear Is Not Always Lazy
So what is the definition of linear as it applies to games? I guess it could be described as Point A to Point B with little deviation from the main path and/or story. Back in the day with games such as Super Mario Bros. and Sonic The Hedgehog; linear wasn’t such a bad thing. In fact; it was expected. Hardware limitation was no excuse – you only have to look at games such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the SNES to see that creating a play space with the scope for exploration was perfectly possible. However, the majority of titles stuck to the accepted straight-ahead level design. It would appear that in this day and age of massive open worlds seen in games like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto, we expect more. If a game does not offer us extensive exploration, plenty of rewards off the beaten path and seemingly endless side missions, it is somehow ‘less’, or a lazy effort.
Taking a look through my extensive collection of Xbox 360 games I can pick out many titles that have stood out for me. Some of them are of course open world, non-linear games such as Fallout and Borderlands. But more often than not my very favourite games of this generation are linear. The thing about them is, the myriad game mechanics inside the linear experience are crafted far more tightly, and taken by themselves make for a more enjoyable experience. Massive games that try to be all things to all players end up trading off on the smaller details, sometimes to the detriment of the game. The razor-sharp shooting and limb dismemberment of Dead Space is vastly superior to the flailing firearms of Fallout 3. The balletic fisticuffs of Arkham Asylum put to shame the hit-and-miss guessing game of Assassin’s Creed’s melee combat. I would much rather stab and slash enemies with pinpoint precision in The Darkness than hack away fruitlessly at a non-reactive damage sponge in Skyrim. It goes for plot too. Bioshock Infinite’s masterclass in linear storytelling puts to shame the almost non-existent plot of Borderlands.
Tight and Focused
As we can see, there are plenty of reasons to create something tight and focused. There have also been cases where during a game’s development the studio have decided to make the change from open world to linear. One good example is Alan Wake, which started life as an open world game but was changed to a linear story as developer Remedy felt that an open setting was detrimental to the horror atmosphere they were trying to create. They didn’t want the player rocking up to an emotional story beat driving a tractor, for instance. And some open world games are too ambitious in scope. The island network in Just Cause 2 is so vast that travelling from one side of the map to another is an arduous task, even when piloting a fighter jet. You know you’re in trouble when flying a jet is boring!
So, we’ve established that a linear game is more or less a straight journey from A to B. But are the so-called open world games truly non-linear? Even within something as vast as Skyrim there are a finite number of crafted sidequests (procedural doesn’t count!). Leaving aside the actual missions for a moment, the game systems are also linear. You might be able to go anywhere and do anything; but you are still levelling up from level 1 to 65 (or whatever arbitrary number the designer has decided on). You will eventually stop; and although you can pick the order in which you learn certain skills it is usually inevitable that you will end up with them all. Something that purports to be open world and non-linear like GTA is also presenting false choice. Sure, you might get to choose which letter you head for next on the map; but eventually you are going to have to complete all these faceless goons’ requests. The Mass Effect series lets you choose from a huge selection of moral dilemmas and a sizeable selection of planets with optional missions; but eventually you will hit an impenetrable brick wall in the story and will be unable to proceed until you complete the prescribed mission.
Another thing that appears in abundance in linear games that is sorely lacking in more open adventures is spectacle. The only thing an open game can give you is the spectacle of size – an epic map size; a beautiful skyline. A game like Call of Duty 4, Enslaved or Uncharted can blow your eyeballs out of your skull with adrenaline-fuelled setpiece spectaculars, and do so on a regular basis. It’s a more polished, frenetic experience and feels more professional for it. The Tomb Raiders of old had the potential for exploration as a central device; but at no point did they make your heart pound like some of the reboots more bombastic moments.
Lastly; linear games often by their tighter nature provide a smaller and less time-consuming proposition. Of course this isn’t always a good thing when games are £40 a pop; but for many people (myself included) who have to juggle kids, jobs, and other extra-curricular activities they provide a fantastic gaming experience that doesn’t require you to sign your entire life away. Often you will see several open world games released very near to each other (especially at Christmas) and there just isn’t enough time to fully invest in them all.
Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely LOVE open world, non-linear games. I put 300 hours into both Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas. I’ve played all the Assassin’s Creed games, and GTA 5 is my most anticipated game this year. But it really grinds my gears when people complain about a game being linear like it’s a bad thing. Stop bloody moaning and enjoy the spectacle.
– Matt Reynolds. Follow him on Twitter @thelostmoment