Published on May 1st, 2013 | by Liam Dean3
Exploring hand holding and linear game design
Call me conceited if you want, but I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person. Don’t get me wrong – I’m probably not going to win any great scientific awards like the ones they give to real life geniuses, but I’m (hopefully) not going to appear posthumously in the next edition of The Darwin Awards either. As a person of modest intellect, I occasionally like to stroke my beard in a sage-like manner whilst pondering the mysteries of the universe, and I have even been known to solve Sudoku puzzles in the dark. Why is it then that I find myself playing and – for the most part – enjoying many games that simply involve travelling from A to B?
The notion of linear design in video games hasn’t always been a popular one. The mention of “linear” in a design context immediately conjures up images of a player being pushed down narrow artificial corridors, getting forced to use a single method to tackle a given problem or even (gasp!) being inundated with dreaded QTE’s. These are obviously not always desirable design traits, and as a consequence it’s not uncommon for video games journalists to use the term as an adjective for poor games design. It may even be something that a moderately intelligent, incredibly good looking person such as myself has been guilty of in the past. However, this should not always automatically be the case. I believe that there are actually many instances in which linear design can benefit the overall experience of playing a game.
Many people believe that the idea of an open ended game world is a relatively new thing. It’s easy to look at the impressive scope of games like Skyrim and scoff at early arcade efforts like Asteroids for being incredibly simple in comparison, and yet Asteroids actually includes a random element to its gameplay not seen in every modern day title. Whilst it’s true that the complexity of game worlds – and more importantly the graphical constructs that represent them – seem to get more ambitious as computer science evolves, the notion of linear and non-linear game design has actually been around since the dawn of video games as a medium. Taking an example like Metroid on the original NES, we can see how the idea of giving players free reign over how they tackle a game’s world has been around since at least 1987 – quite the contrast to 1983’s Super Mario Bros, which still has an incredibly popular linear gameplay approach to this day.
The truth is that there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to designing a game as a linear or non-linear experience. They are two very different and yet equally valid approaches that can work very well for specific types of games. The advantage that linear design has over non-linear is that it can be applied in a much more tightly focused way. By looking at a game like Max Payne 3 – incredibly well-received and totally linear – we can see how non-linear design would have actually detracted from the experience instead of making it better.
Rockstar are a developer that is well known for their open world games, but allowing the player to explore Sao Paulo in between shootouts, opting to do side missions and get in fights with local gangs in the same way that the Grand Theft Auto series has typically allowed players to do would have made zero sense in the context of the story. Rockstar knew this, and consequently delivered a tightly focused narrative that is one of the most cinematic gaming experiences I can think of playing.
When you really think about it, many successful modern games fall into the category of “linear” game design. Halo 4, God Of War: Ascension, DmC: Devil May Cry, Uncharted 3 and even Half Life 2 are just a few examples of how linear games can be popular and just as affecting as their non-linear counterparts. One of the best recent examples is, of course, the great Bioshock: Infinite, which apart from being a visual and storytelling benchmark, was a totally and utterly linear experience. Throughout the game, players are shepherded from A to B, only being given the illusion of a grander world to explore as they complete the chapters in a sequential order. Everything that happens in the game is scripted and apart from the individual battles and the upgradable abilities, the player isn’t given any real opportunity to affect the course of the story or put their stamp on the game’s world. And yet, the overall effect it left on me was one of complete satisfaction – a masterpiece that couldn’t have been delivered in any other way.
Of course, there are times in which linear design can be used in lazy and unimaginative ways. The constant quick time events of Asura’s Wrath, for example, often felt far too overused to me. Whilst it’s true that they were tempered with brilliantly choreographed fight animations, it felt like they weren’t offering me an experience any more interactive than passively watching an anime cartoon. Similarly, the artificial corridors and constant forward momentum of recent Call Of Duty campaigns have often left me feeling as though pressing “walk forward” and “shoot” for the entirety of the game’s duration could quite easily end up with me winning. I don’t know which of these artificial hand holding methods is worse – and there are certainly a lot of games guilty of such techniques – but both of them allow the player to leave their higher cognitive functions behind, engaging the brain only to hammer the same commands repeatedly and occasionally wipe the drool from their faces.
The short answer is that there will always be a place for both linear and non-linear game design decisions. Whether or not a linear game ends up being successful depends upon the experience it is trying to convey, be it a tightly focused cinematic action fest like Max Payne 3 or a measured tour of a beautifully constructed game world like Bioshock: Infinite. These traits can invariably lead to lazy design decisions that can undermine the intelligence of the gamer. They can even be applied in less suitable genres such as strategy or role playing games. However, if they are used properly, they can actually enhance rather than detract from the overall experience.