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Is Linearity A Bad Thing?
“It’s pretty linear.”
That line alone is said often about games, particularly in the reviews or demo impressions. An just as often as it is said, I feel like it’s intended to have a negative connotation attached to it.
Linear. Straightforward. To-the-point. Eww.
But is linearity in gaming a bad thing? Should all games eliminate a linear progression to their single-player campaigns?
Before we explore this, we first need to consider what exactly makes a game “linear”. In my mind, a linear game is classified as a game with an on-track narrative; while there may be collectibles and other items, the world itself is not open, and the player is continually forced down a “hallway” toward the next objective or cutscene that develops the story. There are no side quests, no additional plot lines to follow, just one story moving in a forward direction at all times.
So, why would some people consider this to be a bad thing?
If there’s one thing gamers love, it’s options. Options on how to play, options on how to tackle a mission, options on what quests to accept, options on what weapons to use or how to use them…we like choice. It gives the game another immersive quality, allowing players to essentially experience a game in a tailor-made way that feels unique and individual. When you create a truly linear game, you lose these attributes. There is only one way to tackle an objective, only one story to pursue. It takes the freedom away from the player, in a sense.
But there is something to be said about the masterful storytelling of a linear game. Think of the Uncharted series here. They aren’t open-world games rife with exploration. Instead, they feel more like a movie, with action, great acting, interesting set pieces, and clever writing. And that’s exactly what a linear game manages to perfect: a solid narrative. When there are no auxiliary objectives or side quests that players can explore, you have the unique opportunity to build tension and flesh out characters in a way that you might not have before. In open-world games, you have the opportunity to take as long as you want, without worrying about the possible consequences. Oh, there are dragons wreaking havoc all over Skyrim? The entire nation is locked in a deadly civil war? No big. I’m just gonna study magic at Winterhold instead and pick up on that saving-the-world-from-Alduin stuff later.
But in a linear game, there is no option for this. It’s do or die; it’s get to this objective to get the story rolling. There’s nothing more to see here…you need to move on and help solve whatever conflict plagues this universe.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of open-world games with fantastic storytelling that can really beef up the game and make it interesting. Instead, I’d like to argue that linearity within a game is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. While it may take away freedom and choice from the player, it also has the opportunity to introduce a consistent story arc that, when done right, can feel even more real and compelling than its open-world counterparts.