I was watching one of those popular YouTube commentators the other day, playing through a game that he was reviewing and he said something that struck me. He described a game as “sickeningly linear” and wrote it off there and then as a “Bad Game” because of this.
But I say no! Too long have linear games been vilified and derided. So let’s look at why some people like to poo all over them, while others like to give them cuddles (keep these two activities separate).
When I say ‘linear,’ it really comes down to two main factors. The first being gameplay, wherein I guess we’re talking about linear paths through environments and the wider world – the worst offender, of course, being the Modern Warfare games, which are so scripted that we’re often told where to look, when to shoot and when we can and can’t open doors for ourselves. There is absolutely no room for player-driven experience, down to how you approach simple combat. Want to be stealthy? Sorry, you’ll have to wait for the designated stealth mission. Want to flank someone? Nope, you can’t hop over that waist high wall.
So yeah, those games are rubbish at player freedom. The one thing that they do exceptionally well, however, is create a big spectacle for you to run through, full of shooting Russians with assault rifles and blowing up brown people with extreme prejudice. They aim to tell very specific stories in a very specific way and as such, a loss of player freedom is the price for such a rigidly structured experience. And it’s not always bad. Remember ‘All Ghillied Up‘ from the first Modern Warfare? Yes, it was tightly scripted and linear, but it was also an incredibly tense, perfectly paced experience.
It’s really best to think of the Call of Duty games as existing on the same plane as Michael Bay films. Shut up, sit down and gawp at it.
That’s not to say that all games with linear gameplay are mindless gawpers. Probably one of the best examples is to be found in the Halo series, which while very linear, is crafted to allow for a massive degree of freedom when it comes to combat. They’re more of a series of events in big, sandbox battle arenas in which you’re free to complete the linear objective however you want.
But what about those games that strive for non-linearity in terms of their story? These were held as the pinnacle of narrative in video games for quite some time, largely because they do something that no other medium can do – they offer player choice and stories that adapt to it. Which is pretty neat. The problem is though, that they can only offer choice and different narrative outcomes up to a point.
These outcomes will already be predetermined meaning that it’s pretty easy to peek behind the curtain and see all the gears at work, calculating which outcome your actions are driving you towards. Moreso when a game works this into its mechanics, whether its with ‘paragon/renegade’ points or whatever else. Sure, there’s freedom to choose between different conversation options or which character dies and which one lives, but because the outcomes are so telegraphed, this freedom often feels incredibly unsatisfying.
Take a game like Dragon Age. There’s freedom in these games to choose who you want to have sex with at certain points, even up to being able to choose which gender you’d like to knock boots with. Which is laudable. But it can also be a disservice to the player’s sense of character – it seems like a token effort to be inclusive – with the only way for a character to express their sexuality in this game being through sexual acts, rather than any other kind of real character development. Surely to really experience and get the most of playing as a queer character, it would work better to play a character who has actually been written as queer.
Part of the problem is that games which promote player choice often need their characters to start as a blank canvas, onto which players can pour the choices and experiences. It’s why your identikit character in Dragon Age or Skyrim, or even Commander Shepherd, are pretty devoid of personality and will never be as fully realised a character as April Ryan or Eva and Neil from To The Moon.
The point being that to tell a really good story the player has to relinquish some control. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Yes, games are capable of other things, but that shouldn’t take away from the joy of experiencing a great narrative.
We are starting to see something of a change when it comes to linearity in narrative. Last year’s The Walking Dead handled it by using a linear narrative on a large scale – the overall arc of the story is relatively set in stone, which allows for rich, fully-realised characters and story. It also, however, used player choice for individual scenes throughout that larger story. The ending and overall effect that the player has on the story is pretty much immutable, but the way that each player feels about their character will be very different, depending on the decisions that they made and how they treated other characters. In a very welcome decision, it also eschews the Bioware-style ‘light side/dark side’ points system, which reduces the jarring and obvious ‘good choice’ versus ‘evil choice’.
In the right hands, the linear story can be a very powerful tool. There’s definitely something to be said for not having a choice in how a story plays out. Can you imagine the game of Romeo & Juliet where the double suicide ending is seen as the bad ending, where if you choose the right options in the right cut scenes the whole thing can be avoided?