New Game+: Linearity in games

May 16, 2010

In recent months, I’ve heard many reviewers note that a game with a very linear structure is not as good as it could be, especially if the prior game or games in the series are more open for exploration.

Linearity has become something that many people consider a bad thing, but why? It seems like gamers enjoy exploring the world the developers created more so than being lead on one particular path that is held together by a story. I definitely do not blame them, especially since game worlds have become increasingly more interesting and free to explore, but there is no reason to discount linearity entirely.

What makes linearity great? Even in this day and age, there are plenty of video games with a very linear structure. You mainly see action oriented games, but RPGs tend to focus on more wide open worlds for you to venture around. And RPGs have been like this since the original Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Yet, when RPGs become even bigger, one series dared to tighten things up and lead players down a very specific path.  

Final Fantasy XIII, the game I’ve been referring to, is the one that has taken the most heat from being almost completely linear when compared to the previous games in the series. Almost every area leads you down a very narrow pathway with a few branches in the path here and there that might lead you to treasure. People were unhappy with the lack of towns, a real over world to explore, and they all felt like something was missing. This is especially true when compared to Final Fantasy XII, which was incredibly wide open and almost required exploration.

But, I like Final Fantasy XIII a lot, and enjoyed the very linear structure to the game. While the story was far from perfect, it allowed the developers to lead you to where you needed to go to develop the story exactly how they want it to be developed. Fallout 3 is a game that is built on exploration, but because of that, it loses its narrative focus. The story becomes lost and muddled, and by the end of the main missions, they tend to lose interest entirely. Final Fantasy XII received similar complaints from fans who felt like the story could have been a lot stronger.

I’m not saying that it is impossible to create a strong narrative in a game with an open world, but it does become increasingly difficult the more developers focus on exploration and the bigger the world itself gets. There is nothing wrong with creating a non-linear game, but I think in doing so; developers know the risks they are taking in terms of narrative. 

To look at a game that is not an RPG, BioShock is one of the few shooters that benefits from having a strong story and being truly linear. Sure, there are parts of Rapture that you can explore, but you are essentially following the game’s instructions and going exactly where you need to go to progress the story. Sure, there are audio logs you can find to expand upon characters and on Rapture itself, but the story that is presented is one of the best seen in a game. It is one I feel would get lost or muddled if things were left more open to the player.

Another recent release that is pretty linear in nature is Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. Although this is not a new game, it’s the first time we’ve seen the popular Japanese series localized here in the States. This is quite an amazing and endearing game that is part SRPG, part dating sim. And while it may be an odd combination for some, it really does work, and the rather linear nature of it all helps the characters develop and become more than just cardboard cutouts with one particular trait.

Sure, there are plenty of choices you can make in the game, but that will only impact the girl you end up with at the end of the game, not the overall story. It is a game that still takes you from point A to point B, but does so in quite excellently. Sure, there are times when you are free to explore, but these only benefit your relationships to the characters and not to the overall story. 

In the end, linearity is far from a bad thing in video games. If a game is going to be linear, especially an RPG, there is a good chance it is done to keep the player focused on the narrative and truly develops the characters. Not every game should be linear, but games should never be faulted for it either, especially RPGs. If every RPG played the game, I think people would grow tired of the genre rather quickly. Final Fantasy XIII and Sakura Wars are examples of linear games that benefit because of it. I believe linearity good for the industry, especially when some of the best stories are told from these particular games.