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The Straight Line

Linearity has become a curse word in the videogames industry over the past five years. Fewer words these days can sink a game’s reputation faster. Take the controversial Final Fantasy XIII: surrounded by malicious Internet mutterings of, “It’s just one straight line”, its reputation was damaged before its release and the stigma of linearity still surrounds it today. Strike up a conversation with a critic of Final Fantasy XIII and the first thing that will be brought up- I guarantee you this- is the linearity. Try it at home, you can make good money.

But are things as different as people think? I went back to Final Fantasy VII– that most treasured of titles- to find out. Upon leaving Midgar, I was instructed to go directly to the nearby town of Kalm. No detours. I decided to defy this order and see how much of this new frontier I could explore. Not much. There was a giant land snake that killed me if I went too far in one direction, and a Chocobo Stable that I couldn’t use. In-between all of that was not a land of unexplored wonder, but a big green blob of grassland filled with unusually-organised groups of monsters that wanted to hurt me. The game refused to allow me to advance, despite teasing me with a brave new world. I was, in fact, on a straight line.

Let’s establish one thing: almost all videogames- save for the most pure of Roguelikes- are linear. Videogames are essentially a row of hoops programmed by the developers that we are tasked with jumping through. At most, we might be able to decide which order we tackle the hoops, but we can’t steer our character to the nearest virtual pub and fob off the whole hoop-based conundrum. Well, we could, but it would involve switching off the games console.

So-called “freeform” games are essentially an elaborate illusion. The games of Bioware may pile on multi-layered conversation options and RPG elements up the arse, but you still have to accomplish the goals the game sets. You have to join the Grey Wardens in Dragon Age, and you have to fight the Blight. If your character refuses, you are literally brought kicking and screaming into the Order thanks to a plot device. You have to recruit certain characters in Mass Effect 2, and the plot simply refuses to move for as long as your stubborness lasts. But wait, that’s because those actions are essential to the story. And that’s what Bioware is trying to do: tell a story.

Then what are games like Final Fantasy XIII trying to do?

The main thing that Final Fantasy XIII lacks is the illusion of freedom. Essentially, it’s suspension of disbelief, the same power that allows us to believe that Bruce Willis can crash a car into a helicopter, or that an elephant really can fly with only the benefit of ear-based propulsion. XIII’s maps are about as linear as those of Final Fantasy X, but FFX included such things as optional side-quests sprinkled throughout and side paths to explore. Somehow, to our little gamer brains that are hardwired to talk to every NPC and search every barrel for items, this was enough to maintain the illusion.

That said, Final Fantasy X also came out in a radically different time, one when no-one gave a damn about “linearity“. Player freedom and emergent storytelling are a trend that has only emerged in the last five years: one only needs to look at the glut of games with “RPG elements” and poorly-implemented “morality” systems to see how important the illusion of choice is today. Final Fantasy XIII’s design clearly draws so much from FFX (still regarded as the best Final Fantasy game by most Japanese polls), seemingly forgetting a title called Final Fantasy XII that played right into the strengths of the new era with its open-world gameplay and powerful customisation tools. FFXIII’s decision to slice off the fat of the dated JRPG design could not have been more poorly timed.

Videogames can impart an incredible feeling of empowerment: arguably this sets it apart from most other forms of media. Whether or not a game is linear by design is irrelevant: it’s whether or not the illusion of power is maintained. Being able to wander an empty green landscape makes us feel as if we have more freedom, even if we can accomplish nothing in it. Modern games have merely invented ways to make the cage larger and improve the smoke and mirrors that hide the boundaries. Of course it’s a legitimate complaint if a game breaks this core illusion, as Final Fantasy XIII did with so many people. But calling a game “too linear” makes as much sense as saying it “has too much blue in it”.

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  1. Gil
    January 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I totally hear you there. The argument of linearity is akin to the argument of repetitive gameplay. It makes no sense to argue about it. I get tired of people cursing games for being repetitive. Look at any game out there whether it be board game or video game. At its core, every game is repetitive. It’s typically the reason we play them. We get to do things that we enjoy again and again.

    Any FPS… Look down the sights and shoot objects… pretty repetitive.

    Any RPG… Walk from one mission to the next while killing stuff in between and leveling up your character… very repetitive.

    Any Fighting game… ummm I don’t see how anyone can argue that those aren’t repetitive.

    Simply put, people are crazy and they will argue about anything just to argue.

    Oh and I loved FFXII. Story was great and the gameply was top notch. A positive step forward for the series. FFXIII not so much. It was good but I preferred FFX. Going from FFXII to FFXIII felt like a step backward to me.

  2. Ross Mills
    January 24, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Are those images indicative of the general maps of FFXIII? If so, I can see one point, to an extent. The game is LITERALLY linear, as well as story-wise.

    But you are right, people telling a story shouldn’t worry too much about linearity, and a straightforward story is often the most easy to tell, and you can also be sure that you can attempt to emotionally or actively (as in “action”) engage the player at points that are balanced, suit you, and suit the player.

    As an example of this done well, in Dragon Age, if you attempt to visit Denerim or Orzimmar, there are high-level mobs which will attack you and, unless you are high-enough level, they will be very difficult to best. These are supposed to gate PCs and stop them continuing along these lines, and instead push them towards other locations until they have levelled up. Players who continue, push past them using health potions (as I unfortunately did), will find the game far more difficult. Now, it’s not DIRECTLY linear at that point, as you can choose between the other locations/quests/whatever, but it’s pushing the player in a general direction. There is absolutely no problem with this.

    In-fact, I would have had less problem if they simply turned around at Orzimmar and said “I’ve not heard of you, I don’t believe you’re a Gray Warden” until I leveled up to some extent. This would have done the same, made me use less potions, and seemed slightly less than the mildly-forced-upon combat it felt like.

    I think I’m rambling a bit, but my point is that linearity is no problem, and can be used to direct a story or other motivation.

    BUT those maps are straight fucking lines. It’s a bit TOO obvious. 🙂

    • January 24, 2011 at 9:21 pm

      The maps aren’t indicative of the entire game. But most maps have one route from the beginning to the end, sometimes with a few sidepaths for exploration. It’s very much like FFX. (The maps also don’t show obstructions that you’re required to jump over, the placement of enemy encounters, NPC or party chatter, or the points where you can observe setpieces that advance the narrative. It’s not like you’re just running down a plain corridor.)

  3. Fatkraken
    January 25, 2011 at 12:30 am

    I would say there is more “nonlinearity” around than just roguelikes/minecraft; until you hit the endgame MMOs like WOW are decidedly non linear, and even when you ding the level limit there are several very distinct ways of advancing (PVP, PVE in dungeons, gear from rep grinds etc). Because the game is so insanely huge, it’s not just a matter of what order you tackle a limited set of tasks, because if anyone was ever to do every quest, sub quest, dungeon and activity in the game for every class and race then by the time they’d finished expansions would have doubled the amount of content.

    There’s also semi linear “branching narrative” games like, I dunno, heavy rain or something. You tackle the chapters in a set order, but their actual content depends on previous actions.

    Plenty of GTA-like games give you a pretty big playground even if you can divide them into the linear quest-game and the freeform sandboxing. Plenty of people ignore the main quest in GTA or red dead or fallout 3 and still have dozens of hours of real fun just mucking around in the world or with sidequests.

    There’s also non linearity of *approach*. In games like the Hitman series, you are presented with a set goal, “kill this dude”, but you can tackle it in any one of a dozen ways, from scaling the outside of the building and killing him with a pillow in his bed to fighting through 100 goons and clearing out every floor on the way. In that way, your decisions make for a completely unique and self guided playing experience. That’s a kind of non linear gameplay/levels even in a fairly linear game. The same might be said in many FPS games with multiple potential routes through a level/approaches to beating a level. It’s not an illusion, there really is a choice on how to play each level even if the start and end points are set.

    Even the “you only choose the order to attack the tasks” type games are non linear in a way, because importantly, you can choose to just NOT DO the task. the 3D Marios are a good example, the only real choice is what order to collect stars/shines but importantly if there’s one you don’t like, you can just not do it and still beat the game. That’s a really useful choice, being able to circumvent obstacles, especially if you’re not very good at that kind of game. In a linear platform game, you can get genuinely stuck and not be able to continue, in Mario 64, if you get stuck on one star there are a dozen other stars you can go for and it doesn’t block you from seeing the rest of the game.

    Really that’s what non linearity means to me, the ability of the PLAYER rather than the game designers to dictate and influence the play experience. In a “true” sandbox like minecraft, it’s entirely up to me how to play the game and it’s very creative. In a fully linear game like Sonic the Hedgehog or something, the only difference between my play experience and yours will depend on our respective skill levels, not any actual decisions we make. Between the two extremes there is actually a surprising amount of different ways of being non linear, from choosing routes or approaches to reaching a goal to player decisions influencing the way parts of the game play out.

    Don’t get me wrong, I actually LIKE linear games if done well, some of my favourite games pretty much railroad you from task to task and there’s one correct approach to completing each task (even if you’re given some freedom to do it wrong). Games like ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, which are very linear in terms of goals and the order in which they are presented, but give you enough freedom to wander even if you can’t do much when you go off task. But there’s a place for minecraft too.

    • January 25, 2011 at 1:38 am

      I’m not arguing that one type of game (non-linear, linear) is better or that non-linearity doesn’t exist. It exists, but it’s an illusion. Short of using cheats or glitches, or emergent gameplay caused by random chance, you can’t do something that the creator of the game has not accounted for.

      Mario 64 is designed so you can decide which stars to attempt and which to miss. Fallout 3 is designed so you can have fun wandering around. Heavy Rain is designed so you can make all these choices, but you’re ultimately still travelling down a line on a developer’s flowchart. Even something like Hitman, where you have five or six different ways to accomplish a mission: those solutions have been designed by the developers. Your “freedom” is essentially restricted to six paths that have been decided for you. There is no option *not* to use one of those paths. So even though the player thinks that he’s dictating the outcome, he’s only doing what the developer allows him to do.

      This isn’t a good or bad thing, it’s just how things are. I love games that give me multiple options, that allow me to create a personal experience that I identify with. But my point is that linearity is omnipresent to an extent in all but a handful of games, and the argument that a game is bad because “it’s linear” is bunk.

      • Fatkraken
        January 25, 2011 at 2:17 am

        that’s making a distinction *I* didn’t make. There’s choice, it’s not an illusion. It might be a choice from a finite number of programmed options, but it’s a real choice, just not unlimited choice.

        In a linear game, if you decide “I want to play Ico” and you load up your save file, you have one choice: do the next puzzle. In WOW, you can do a dungeon, or go get rep, or do some PvP, or grief newbies, or whatever. Sure, all those choices are things the developer anticipated you might want to do and programmed accordingly, but it’s still a whole bunch of things you could do next rather than one thing. If there’s choice, it’s a branching experience, and is *by definition* non linear. Obviously one thing happens then another one does, but that’s a function of reality and time itself, not something limited to the game.

        I actually often find freeform games to be unfocussed and boring, and I trust a really good developer to come up with appropriate pacing and event ordering MORE than I trust myself, because they have a whole team of artists and writers coming up with a narrative structure for the game. I also worry about missing cool bits in non linear games and don’t like having to search to find fun. But not everyone likes being railroaded into doing a specific thing next, they like a feeling of discovery.

        And it IS discovery, as much as exploring a new city is an experience of discovery, even though of course you can only go to buildings that someone actually made. Some people like guided tours, others like to wander around on their own, and if they are not allowed to do so, they can get frustrated.

  1. January 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm

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