Following The Straight Line: Is Linear Gaming Really That Bad?

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by Bob Reinhard

If there is one thing almost everyone looks for when they play games, it’s the ability to take matters into your own hand. Gaming is the only medium that gives you a real sense of control. Even the best “Choose Your Own Adventure” book still follows a fairly narrow path. With that said, it’s no real surprise that video games often come under heat for following a linear path.

But the question is: it linear always such a bad thing? Is it possible that in certain types of games, linear is actually a blessing in disguise? And is the opposite, the “open world” game, always a good thing? I want to look at the concept of linear vs. open world and shed a little light on both sides of the argument.

I saw a lot of these issues brought up after the release of Uncharted 3. One of the big complaints lobbed at the game was that it felt a bit too “on rails”. As much as I understand that view point, I couldn’t see the game functioning too much better if it wasn’t linear. It’s a cinematic experience, and in order for the experience to work, you must stay the course.

Would adding more Tomb Raider-esque exploring and open worlds make the game better? I’d argue it wouldn’t. Simply because the game is very direct in how it delivers it’s story and it’s action. Large, open areas full of exploration would take away from the game’s very deliberate pacing and ultimately slow down the experience. It’s meant to be a very rapid-fire game that shoves you violently from one direction to the next, giving a sort of sense of urgency to everything.

How Do You Get Over There?

But to what point is a game TOO linear? We’ll continue with the Uncharted 3 example, since it’s fresh on a lot of people’s minds. The game seems to have a very direct approach to telling you how to get over each obstacle. There weren’t a lot of meandering paths or even many options on how to get through some of the platforming segments. The sense of exploration and figuring out how to get from point A to point B was taken away a bit. Even from the second to the third game in the series, it felt like the platforming element was limited and watered down to a more hand-holding sense of adventure. Does this take away from the experience? One could easily say that it does, making the platforming less of an adventure and more of a connect-the-dots mechanic.

So, linearity is a device that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just needs to be exercised with caution. There is a difference between “on rails” and keeping on pace. After all, if the game provides too few options throughout, it does start to feel like those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I was talking about before. But providing a few occasional red herrings of sorts as far as direction can flesh out the game if used correctly. There is a fine balance to be reached between making a game so open-world that it slows the pace and narrowing a game down into a direct and fork-less path.

It’s hard to discuss the linear style without bringing up Final Fantasty 13. A game which took heavy heat for it’s more linear direction than previous games in the series.

Just Stick To The Path… X_X

The Final Fantasy series is known for busting open the world and giving you a ton of room to move around and explore. Usually, they’re stuffed full of side quests and dungeons that you never even have to go to in order to progress. These give the player more time to immerse themselves in the game world and provide extra challenges for those that want to see all the game has to offer. But Final Fantasy 13 was quite a bit devoid of those moments. And this caused a lot of fans to dislike the game quite a bit.

Now, I was never too bothered by the linearity in the game because again, I was caught up in the story line and progression. The game felt more urgent and it was fitting with the story. However, I can understand the frustration. The best part of FFXIII was when the world finally opened up a bit on Gran Pulse. The enormous field and branching optional paths did add much more breathing room and excitement.

That’s More Like It!

But when does it get to be too much? One of my issues with the previous installment was it was almost TOO open! Forcing you to trudge MMO-style through massive worlds just to get from one plot point to the next. While it did provide a sense of realism to the world, it also slowed story progression to a crawl. Which got a bit hard to handle at times when you factor in the games complicated political story. It would take hours to get from one cut scene to the next, which gave you plenty of time to totally forget why you were going there in the first place.

This Could Take Awhile…

The polar extremes that were the last two chapters of the FF series really showcase exactly what I’m trying to conceptualize here: balance. Balance is the most important thing in a game. Every game is built around a goal. What feel are they trying to achieve with the game? Are they trying to tell a story or are they trying to enforce a more open-world feel?

If they choose story, it’s good to keep things moving. Imagine if you were reading a book and the plot was getting really good, but then they took a six-chapter break to talk about stuff totally unrelated to the story. You’d feel as though it completely separated you from the experience and took you away from the main focus. If the same is applied to video games, the last thing you want is pointless side quests and empty open worlds to drag you away from the story.

However, what if we’re going for the opposite? What if we’re busting open the world and putting the story second? This is the case a lot of the time in open-world games like Fallout or Elder Scrolls. One of my biggest complaints in Fallout: New Vegas was actually it’s abuse of the open world.

*tumbleweed* …And?

These are games that are built on real living worlds with tons of content. And with every new area I discovered, I found myself quite disappointed. Most of the new areas I’d find were utterly empty of anything interesting. No good items, most didn’t even have quests or people in them! This led to a ton of disappointment and a pointlessly open world that took away from the game’s progression. In this case, they may have opened the world up too much.

So where does that leave us? How do we find that balance for each game? Is a completely linear game ok? How about one with almost no direction? You have to take it on a case-by-case basis. Linearity is not always a bad thing, it’s sometimes necessary for the game to achieve it’s goal. But it’s not surprising when linearity can also kill a game. Uncharted 3 and FFXIII are perfect examples, as I’ve already shown.

How do you fix it? That’s what Final Fantasy XIII-2 is aiming to do. The creators listened to the fans when they complained about the linearity making it feel less like a Final Fantasy, and they’ve promised to bust open the world a little and give players a bit more sense of freedom. However, they’re still concentrating on delivering a story and keeping you involved in it. It’s going to be the make-or-break for the game, ultimately. How well can they balance the open-world vs. the direction of a story? If they lean too far in either direction, it’ll probably end up with the game being met with disappointment from the fan base.

Hey, Asshat! Moogles ARE NOT PROJECTILES!

Ultimately, the pace and balance of a game is a double-edged sword. Leaning too far in either direction can seriously hurt a game’s playability. But don’t write off either side as bad. When done correctly, both open world and linear experiences can be quite thrilling.

It also depends heavily on the player. Some of us feel the need to bury 60 hours into a game exploring and having a multitude of options, but some people want a quick, to-the-point game. With that in mind, realize that not every game is meant to be open-world, and not every gamer dislikes a linear experience. Games have to be made for each group, and they usually are. If you don’t like the linearity of a plot-heavy action game like Uncharted, go get the open-world time-eater Skyrim. Or go for a more balanced game, like Skyward Sword. There are games made that exercise both sides, as there should be.

That Sure Counts As “Open World”

Enjoy a game for what it is. Odds are, the game makers chose to make the game linear or not based on the goal they were attempting to achieve. Sometimes they lean a bit too far into one side for some people’s comfort, and it’s perfectly alright not to like that. But you have to look at, and respect, how difficult it can be to find the proper balance when it comes to pacing.

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