It’s a word that is used often while critiquing a game, usually in a derogatory fashion. It is used by reviewers and fans alike, and has become the bane of many a promising game. The word is linear, and it is a truly dirty word in the video game industry. Sometimes though I wonder why exactly this is. Is linearity (that’s the word for it) a measure of a game’s quality? Does it really make a game less appealing or less worthy of purchase if you follow a pre-determined progression or is this just a symptom of a consumer base that places heavy emphasis on expectations? Gamers can be pretty judgmental of products that don’t match up to their pre-conceived notions, but I for one do not believe that this mindset leads to fair assessments of game quality.
There was a time when all games were linear, if you could even call them that. Some of the very first video games didn’t even have different levels; it was the same every round, only increasingly faster. Still, a player felt like they were making progress, not standing still. I’ll admit that games had different goals and gave a different sort of satisfaction at that time, but we still had fun with them. The point is that nobody judged those games as anything more then they were. They still offered a lot of interactivity and strategic decision making, and were a great foundation for the industry. Of course, things must evolve, and games did just that, becoming more complex each generation. But complexity is not necessarily an improvement in its own right though many see it as such. It is funny that the classics don’t get called out as being linear like a modern game would.
It wasn’t until the later generations of video games that the ability to take multiple paths through a game became so important to players. While there were 2-D style games that allowed a player to take multiple paths, this didn’t become something that gamers expected, or even demanded, until much later. Really, it was the creation of 3-D environments that closely resembled the real world that created the whole non-linear game play phenomenon. It was probably the idea of a “go anywhere” world that was so similar to real life that made gamers really crave a non-linear story progression. Making these decisions helped us feel more immersed in the games universe, which is certainly not a bad thing. In fact, this was a true evolution of the medium that added a lot more diversity and life to the industry.
So with this great boon there also came problems. For some reason, players began to expect games to offer them a lot of freedom and choice, and this can be a great thing, but only when implemented properly. The thing is that it just doesn’t work for certain game designs, and for some reason this has become quite a stigma for a game to have a linear progression. It is such a prevalent notion that linear games are subpar that many developers will take to shoe-horning in branches and free-roaming segments just to avoid the label. In fact, a very recent example of this would be the city of “Santa Destroy” in Suda 51’s No More Heroes. Now, as much as I like this game, it would have been just as good without having to drive across a barren city to get from mission to mission. This is the major flaw cited in many reviews of this otherwise great game. So why include it at all? It’s there because it gives the illusion of choice to the player. It feels like they can go wherever and do whatever they want. Of course, all the free missions are pure fluff and completely unnecessary to the game. But better to add a bunch of nonsense than be called out as linear by the gamers.
So, if one game has already suffered for the inclusion of free-roaming, non-linear elements, why do gamers continue to insist on it as a cornerstone of good game design? I think it has mostly to do with a perception of value. Non-linear games tend to be longer as you might sometimes take a wrong turn. You make more decisions and feel like you get more of a reward. I’m not too sure that tons of backtracking is a reward, but it can certainly add to the hours logged. For story driven games with multiple paths, there is the replay value aspect as you can get a different experience each time through. While neat, I find that I don’t replay a lot of games anymore, especially super-long ones. It starts to feel like work after a while, and that’s not what I want from my entertainment. Most real replay value comes from multiplayer anyway, which makes more sense to me than wading through the same basic plot over and over again. For me, the biggest value is fun, and I have found, especially recently, that I can have just as much fun with a short game as an epic one.
So really, to me at least, linearity is not a good judgment of a games quality. In fact, I’ve played many recent linear games that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Viewtiful Joe comes to mind as a stand-out from last generation. I enjoy shoot-em-ups like Contra 4 and rail shooters like Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles. These are all quality games worth playing even though the progression is very linear. These types of games reward the player in different ways than story and character development. If that is your primary purpose in playing games, then I can understand how a linear game might be unappealing. Still, as I have often said, a game should be judged for what it is, not for what it isn’t. Fun can be had in all shapes and sizes, be it a side-scrolling “run, jump, and shoot” game, or a sprawling RPG with many nooks and crannies to explore.
I believe that with an open mind, all games can be fun, linear or not. It just doesn’t matter to me how I progress through a game. Sometimes all you really want is to run and gun, without too much decision making. I respect the effort it takes on the part of development teams to really create interactive experiences that can vary greatly each time through, but I think this is overvalued by consumers. Some games don’t need to have branching paths to be fun, and really the fun is all that matters in the end. I hope to see the linearity of a game become less of a judgment factor, with people accepting games of all types as compelling and worthwhile, no matter which direction it takes to get there.