7 reasons why linearity beats the crap out of free roaming.

The latest Greatest Game Series of the Decade poll on GameSpot got dominated by open world series crushing such franchises as Super Mario, Street Fighter or God of War. Combine it with yesterday's premiere of GTA V and people orgasming as soon as they touch their own copy. Add to that yet another article where I read that a game's flaw is its linearity, I feel obliged to stand in defense of linearity, that not only raised me as a player, but is also a foundation of roughly every game there is.

I don't want to get into the whole "is this game open-world?" or "is this game non-linear?" debate. There's Skyrim (or whatever it aspires to be) on one side, Contra on the other and everything inbetween is a subject to discussion. Some would argue that Dark Souls is a non-linear open-world game. Others would say Dark Souls is beaten in 6 linear steps with some wiggling area inbetween, like which bell to ring first. Why is that nobody calls the second and third trilogy of Final Fantasy open world games even though they all have world maps, free roaming and a decent number of NPC's, quests and substories? Most people don't even see a difference between a sandbox and open world (The Sims are a sandbox without open world). Let's just... not get into that, as it's a topic for a book. A thick one. 

Here's 7 reasons why linearity in games is in my opinion superior to free-roaming.

1) Every bit of your experience can be predesigned. It of course sucks ass if the designers have little imagination and you are forced to go through a cliche story using a clunky gameplay. If, however, the designers know what they are doing (and have cash to deliver it), you will watch the ending credits with a feeling that you just lived through something beautiful. Imagine ICO with 10 sidequests and 5 villages added. Instead of a story of a boy escaping a castle with a girl it would become a story of a boy dragging a girl around to find some chest to get a key to open a door to kill a spider to buy a bigger wallet to carry more cash... You get the idea :)

2) Story and pacing in linear games is much easier to nail as limiting possibilities pushes the story and gameplay further and doesn't distract. I always care deeply about the story elements. In Oblivion or Baldur's Gate I barely had motivation to reveal the quarter of the main storyline before I got bored with endless sidequests. I have no hard data to back that up, but I can bet that the open world games completion rate is way lower than with linear games. Way to tell an unfinished story. No wonder stories in free roaming games are mostly close to irrelevant - would be a waste of a good story anyway.

3) Open worlds must offer something to do, which means hundreds of filler quests. It's pretty much impossible to make hundreds of cool, innovative small stories or tasks. What we get is dozens of trash-quests like "help me find my cat" or "I seem to have misplaced my Broken Sword of Forgetfulness +4 in the dumpster". I'm a hero and savior of the universe, goddammit, not a catcatcher. If I wanted tasks like this, I would go outside and help old ladies carry their groceries. In a game, I don't want to be running errands. I much more prefer to have a decent main storyline with two or three fun and/or interesting subquests and a cool minigame.

4) Just as quests, the NPC's in open-worlds are mostly generic and without any personality. They sometimes have some shallow backstory, but mostly they are just bartenders who heard some gossips or shopkeepers who just returned with some goods. Boooring! In a linear game, NPC's count. Even the Crestfallen Warrior from Demon's Souls (a guy who basically just sits and whines) is way more interesting than majority of open-world NPC's.

5) In a linear game, I don't have to run for 20 minutes through mountains, wastelands, plains and villages just to get to the interesting part. And in an open world game, this interesting part will most likely be some trash-quest or generic NPC. No, thank you.

6) Sorry, but general gameplay quality of open-world games sucks most of the time. Shooting or driving in GTA sure is fun, but nowhere as fun as shooting in most of decent shooters and driving in any decent racing game. Fighting in Skyrim is not nearly as fun as in any given fight-oriented RPG or Adventure game. Heck - the first Legend of Zelda (1986) has fighting mechanics equally compelling as Skyrim (2011) - you just have to mash the "attack" button while standing in the right spot, facing the right way. Even a simple jumping mechanic: in linear games it's used to solve jumping puzzles or as an element of fighting, in open worlds it's there because it'd be just frustrating for the players to not have the jumping ability in a game that's supposed to offer freedom. 

7) The illusion of freedom paradox. The closer you get to giving the player complete freedom, the worse he will feel about the restrictions. While a linear game can be designed around a limited range of features, sandbox can't. In a linear game you will accept that you can't enter every single house, can't get to the top of a faraway mountain, can't jump or can't have a hour-long dialogue with every guard, barmaid or peasant. In an open world, every limitation is taking away from the main promise of the game - free exploration. And sooner or later, every player will encounter a limitation that feels unfair for him/her. What's worse, even if the game did give you the possibility to do literally everything, it would still feel weird, limited or just plain counter-intuitive with the currently available controllers.

Don't get me wrong, guys. I really appreciate the amount of work put into the open worlds. In general, there is no such thing as a perfect game. Every title focuses on one, maybe two aspects and more or less accepts that the other elements will be just good enough. And that's ok - Mario Kart doesn't have to use newest graphic technologies to achieve the goal of being a great family game. BioShock wanted to tell the story and show an interesting world, but the shooting wasn't really the coolest experience in the genre. Lollipop Chainsaw aims at the joy of slashing zombies in little pieces without much focus on mature or even consistent storytelling. It all happens for a reason. Developing a "perfect game" would be just plainly too expensive and time-consuming in today's reality. Even titles with hundred million dollar budgets can't  afford to have it all.

Open world games often have no choice, but to choose the balanced model because of the budget limitations.
Images stolen from the best MMO ever - Ragnarok Online :)
Open worlds are no different when it comes to the budget limitations, but at the same time they are promising to give the player almost unlimited freedom. That's where the problems come from. They need to have all these features that other games can live without. Players want to get into every house they see, swim in every river, run, jump, shoot, brawl, cut, fly, drive, craft, trade, interact with as many objects and talk with as many NPC's as possible while having a vast world to explore. That's a lot of features and graphical assets to deliver and it's not surprising they won't be top quality.

And I understand why the games offering open worlds are so highly praised. After all, they are usually titles offering many, many hours of gameplay. It's no wonder that players prefer to spend $60 on a game that offers 80 hours of diverse, even if just "correct" gameplay rather than pay the same cash for a game offering 8 hours of brilliant gameplay. Another obvious reason for open world or sandbox games popularity is the actual promise of being able to do so many various things - telling your own story (even if crappy, still your own) rather that playing the main role in someone else's movie. 

I get all that and I am definetely looking forward to seeing how these games develop and how (terrifyingly) close they can come to real world simulation. At the same time though... Don't be dumbasses, guys. Even Elder Scrolls series have lots of linearity in them (every chain quest, includint the main one is linear). All these reviewers who use "linearity" as a synonym of a bad game, teaching the young players to associate linearity with low value should be forced to try to jump up the side of the Skyrim mountain for eternity.

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  1. Nice article!
    When it comes to Skyrim NPCs I think they have 2 main flaws:
    1. There is too much TES lore in dialogues. Every time I speak with some NPC I feel like I'm on some kind of lecture. And I think everyone agrees that most "unwanted" lectures are boring :D
    2. Every NPC uses the same animations. Everyone walks the same way, stand the same way, cross their arms when talking, etc. Body language is very important and in Skyrim it is exactly the same for everyone. I'm not saying every npc needs custom animation, but the most important ones should have something that makes them different from others. Imagine the Greybeards to start walking like an old people with a walking stick. It's small thing, but it would make them stand out of the crowd.

    1. Not everyone is aware of that, but animations are a very expensive and time-consuming part of the production. In most cases, they take more than producing the model itself. I am not surprised that Bethesda didn't bother with having much variety in animations. What's more, I am sure that if all the Greybeards had outstanding animations, it would seem weird faster than having all the NPC's having the same set. It's like the old hag in the first Witcher - all old ladies were using the same model and halfway through the game it looked completely ridiculous. They weren't the only non-unique model, but they were just standing out so much :)

    2. Wow, honestly, I thought making few new animations is not some kind of the big deal.
      I've played Witcher and I don't remember the old ladies at all. So if I don't remember, then maybe they didn't stand out so much after all :D

    3. I guess I should add "Jobs in gamedev: Animator" to the list of topics to cover. This list is just getting longer and longer!

  2. I used to think that I'm the only weirdo not getting overexcited with this trend of ending up with linearity in games and making nonlinearity games' best feature.
    In Skyrim, I was so confused choosing between following up the main plot or helping some random merchant who might later become my friend for life number 100000, even though I won't see him again.
    Let me enjoy my epic story, allow me to make influential choices and leave me the choice of who I want to be. But don't ask me to remove cats from the trees between dragon fights.
    Interesting article and blog, good luck!


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