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Open ended versus linear?

Romier S

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In playing and subsequently completing The Suffering a week ago I got to thinking about what I have come to expect from a game in 2004 as opposed to the satisfaction I felt years ago when completing a completely linear game. The Suffering for the most part was a very linear game. Sure you were able to make choices as to whether to murder or help the people you came across but for the most part you were taken from start to finish in a linear fashion so as to reach the culmination of the story. Did I find this to be a problem? No, not really but have we as gamers come to expect more than simply a linear experience in our games today? I will be frank in saying that sometimes I prefer a good solid linear game that wants to take me on a journey as oppposed to a huge open ended world that requires me to put forth effort to find the goals I am attempting to complete. The reason I present this argument is because linearity is generally frowned upon by the gaming press these days. Of course there are exceptions but how many reviews have you read where a game was taken to task for being too straightforward?


For now, before we can make an educated commentary on what we feel we prefer to see in a game we need to define the types of games available and exactly what amount of choice we as the player see in these titles. These are my own personal observations and nothing more. Feel free to dispute or add your own as you see fit.


First and foremost I would like to talk about Morrowind and its subsequent expansions. Here is a game which remains, to me at least, one of the champions of open ended gameplay (along with its predecessor Daggerfall which is so open ended it becomes a fault that, at times, mars the experience). It is of course on the extreme end of the spectrum and not a game that every player will enjoy. As the protagonist the player is really allowed to progress however they see fit and most importantly whenever they see fit within a defined set of goals. Though as mentioned you have no timetable for when to complete these goals and the almost countless amount of sidequests makes it so that you can completely ignore the main thrust of the story and spend hours upon hours robbing, stealing, killing and fetching without interruption.


Now I will be the first to admit that this type of game is something that I need to be in the mood to play. When I first dove into Morrowind I spent an inordinate amount of time with it and to this day I have poured at least 170 hours into building a level 63 character in the game. Those hours were accumulated over months and I doubt I would have been able to continually play the game without hitting a point of burnout. I will also be the first to admit that this game has its detractors and those that label it as being "aimless" and difficult to get into BECAUSE it's so open ended. The task, so to speak, is simply too daunting to be enjoyable. Or perhaps they simply don't enjoy making choices? There are a few other games you can throw in this particular category. Game such as Gothic and Gothic II that offer a seemingly endless amount of goals to tackle at your own pace.


Looking further down the line we have games that I consider to be in the middleground. Games such as Grand Theft Auto or Knights of the Old Republic. Grand Theft Auto III was hailed as the new face of open ended gaming when it was released. The game and its sequel Vice City offered a complete city for gamers to explore and wreak havoc in. For the most part however there were no definitive goals in GTA when you were not actively on a mission. The main thrust of the game and the reason it was so very fun was that you could carjack any car, pick up any hooker and run over whatever pedestrian at your leisure. The game also blurred the lines of linearity by offering a linear storyline encapsulated in a non-linear mission based setup. You could theoretically tackle these missions in whatever order you wished and during the downtime you could go back to enjoying the world as you saw fit.


Knights of the Old Republic offered a completely different kind of open endedness. Character development was the key to non-linearity here. Wanted to be an evil jedi? So be it. Perhaps you wanted to help the galaxy and become a children of the light? You were able to do so. This type of good/bad dynamic had been done many times before (Morrowind being one of those games) but never in such a direct and empowering fashion. The storyline in KOTOR was again for the most part linear, allowing your character to discover his identity and also providing a myriad of side quests to keep you busy. It was however the choices in how you developed your characters personality through dialogue choices, selection of force powers, techniques and other expertise that made the game such a joy to play. All of these choices had very real consequence and it forced you to think about every one of them.


Finally you have the other extreme. The pure point A to point B game. The very definition of linear. These types of games can range from the common shooter such as R-type to very story driven adventure games like Silent Hill or Resident Evil. Very little choice is given in how you progress and for the most part you are restricted to following the rules that the developers have set in place. Even in the most linear games there are sometimes exceptions such as the multiple paths in Panzer Dragoon Orta or the optional sidequests in games like Beyond Good and Evil but again you are still forced to maintain course and complete the game in the way the developers intended. this seems to be a source of frustration for many players who prefer the ability to do what they want when they want.


Now that we have attempted to define the different flavor of game out there I am curious as to what you feel your preference is within these parameters? Do you personalyy enjoy a linear game? Or perhaps the big beasts like Morrowind? I'd be interested to also hear why you prefer these types of games. Where do you see the next generation of videogames moving in terms of linearity and choice? Perhaps you do not agree with how I have classified some of these titles and would like to redifine the parameters? Please feel free too. Lets discuss it...

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Like, Sam, Mark and I discussed in an older topic, I'm not so focused on open-ended versus linear.


What I found is that before our discussion, I thought I preferred open-ended to linear. What I think I really like is a game that is internally-consistent and gives the the illusion of being in control.


KOTOR, for example, is pretty linear in the story-telling. This is something that became more apparent on my second run-through. Once you kill everything in an area, you're done -- bad guys won't reappear for you to kill. If someone ticks you off, you can't whack them unless the game allows you (if that makes sense). OTOH, we did have control over character development and usually had control over which part of the story to visit next -- this was enough to give me the illusion of being in control and left me a very happy camper.


So I can enjoy game like the Halo or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, even though they both use a fairly linear narrative -- as long as I have that illusion of control I'm okay.


As for the next generation, I think it's fair to say that we're seeing, and will continue to see, a lot of games in different genres copying elements of the GTA3 formula.


I don't have a problem with that, except to the extent that I think GTA3 has its feel is because it is internally-consistent and does a great job at offering the player the illusion of control. Rather, I think elements like the ability to carjack anyone you want is the a major contributing factor to creating the illusion of control.



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Well, it's interesting, because we were talking about a similar thing, yet not exactly the same thing.


Maybe the phrasing just makes me think of it differently.


Linearity does not bother me, provided I have options within that. If I am going from Point A to Point B, but doing it my way, then technically that's an extremely linear game that has my input into it. Thief is again my stalwart example of such a title. It's very linear, but I'm free to find my own path.


Now, too free and the game becomes annoying. You have to be careful to not swallow your game up in sidequests. I adore Baldur's Gate II and Planescape, but both games can literally bombard you with sidequests if you're not prepared. Thankfully both titles have excellent note systems. But you always have your goal in both games, and are free to pursue it to the exclusion of all else at your discretion, so that's good non-linearity.


But linearity is not a bad thing, neither system is inherently evil provided the designers do their job. Final Fantasy IV is linear beyond belief, with minimal side-questing, but I love it. Why? No, not mind-altering medications ;). The linearity and forced party selection allows the game to be tailored so much better. The designers always know who'll be in your party, so they know what you are capable of and can design a challenge based around that. The linearity is also used to tell a fast-paced story that reminds me of the RPG equivalent of a summer blockbuster.


Survival horror is largely dependent on linearity in order to tell a coherent story, ditto most adventure games. One solution, one path forward. Nothing wrong with it, if you ask me, as long as the game makes you feel involved and that you're contributing to the resolution.


My personal ideal is something akin to Wind Waker, actually. You have the main quest and always know where you're going. But, if you so choose, you can divert from the path for hours on end sorting the mail and delivering packages, finding hidden secrets, mini-games, and so on.


I'd get into free-form sandboxers like SimCity, but I'm eating the bandwidth up as it is ;).

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You don't know why and so you have no power.


This is a great idea for a discussion btw :)


KOTOR is an example of variable story choices. Resident Evil is an example of meager story choices. Deux Ex is a good example of excessive path choices. Panzer Dragoon is an example meager path choices. Simcity is obviously a simulation and so is GTA (though it had an excellent set of mission paths on top).


I think it is important to identify what TYPE of choices you like to make as a gamer. I myself like diverse gameplay choices, more so than story or path choices. GTA and Metroid Prime are two games that made me think constantly "I wonder if I'm the only one who did it THAT way."


That is my favorite type of non-linear element - gameplay. I guess Halo brought on many moments like that as well. Very open ended gameplay. So forget the multiple linear paths... give me open-ended gameplay.


Of course, as was already said, there has to be balance. There is nothing I hate more being lost in a game.

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I spent around 70 hours on Morrowind, and just recently picked up the GOTY Edition on Xbox and will start playing the game again eventually.


I will also be the first to admit that this game has its detractors and those that label it as being "aimless" and difficult to get into BECAUSE it's so open ended.


It took me some time to get into it. I liked the game right off the bat, but it took me a while to understand that I didn't have to rush anything, that I could talk to anyone, and do anything.


Once I determined that my character would be a bit of a jerk, it got much more fun. I wanted to level him up so I could start killing guards. I wanted to level up so I could steal rare items from the jail in Vivec. I wanted to be able to go into a NPCs house and become the new owner by sheer brute force.


It was more of a personal experience with the game. Instead of playing a predetermined role I was able to make my own rules and have to deal with whatever consequences would come from the decisions I made.


It seems that this type of game really does require a time commitment, but if made can be very rewarding.


That being said, I still love playing linear games. I just finished I-Ninja and had a blast playing a fun platformer. Some games, like the old 8 and 16 bit games, were fun because I was getting my ass kicked (like in Ninja Gaiden on the Nes) and I new what I had to do to get past the level, and it would take timing to pull it off.


It's why I'm sure if Fable turns out to be great, I'll spend a lot of time with it and have a blast. (Here's to hoping it lives up to the hype.)


But, on the other hand I'm also pretty sure Metal Slug 3 could be pretty damn fun as well.

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It definitely depends on the type of game and, the mood I'm currently in, as to whether I want endless horizons or, running on rails...so to speak.


I'm right up there with you, Romier, in the sick amount of time donated to Morrowind. Probably over 200 hours. Finished the main game, saw damn near every inch of the main island, bought the GOTY edition, leveled up to about 71 and....burrrrrrrrnnnned out. Got about 3/4 of the way (guessing) in Mournhold. Other than a VERY quick, "get off the boat and look around", I spent almost zero time up there in the northern wastelands of Soltsheim.


The amount of time and dedication NEEDED to get a decent amount of enjoyment out of a massive monster, like Morrowind, isn't something that quick, casual gamers, are probably going to want to invest.


I think some gamers, perhaps the more casual gamers, ie the ones that thought Enter the Matrix was, "awesome dude", probably wouldn't do as well in a completely opened ended game due to the fact that it's kind of like, videogaming without the training wheels. If you have to have everything pointed out to you and, you need your hand held to make every decision, a Morrowind-like game is going to just be confusing and ultimately, disappointing.


After years of gaming, from Pong 'till now; hours of adventures, from text only, Scott Adams' Pirate Adventure to Morrowind, I...and probably many here, are at a point where you sort of just know what to do. I really can't explain it well. I'll be playing just any sort of puzzle solving, adventure, whether 3d or not, fps or not, and just kind of see things like, "oh wait! I get it, this goes here and this probaby goes back to where that door was and...yeah I'll bet that will make that machine turn on! Yeah...not too hard".


My girlfriend will be watching and just wonder how the hell I figure that out. Well...it just makes sense....it's the way the games flowing...I dunno. I've done this sort of thing a million times. It's just a different spin on it.


I'm DEFINITELY NOT knocking linear games, however. If so, that would mean that I thought Splinter Cell sucked.


NOPE!!!! Great game! And, as absolutely linear as they come. Yeah sure, you could try to sneak past this guy or, maybe knock him out or, whack him but, there was one way to get through the level. Period. Not much choice to the player.


I'm almost done with Breakdown and, I have to say, the totally linear games DOES have a decent story and I've been enjoying myself with it.


Since I like both types, I would have to say that the linear games are better at telling a story and getting a more concise idea across. The entire experience is geared one way with one purpose. It's much easier to be absorbed into what the developers are trying to convey since everything about the game is set one way.


With the totally opened ended game, I think that they are better at delivering the impression that the game is actually a vast world instead of just merely an interactive story.


I'm looking forward to the latest and greatest of both kinds. Fable is VERY high on my list as well as Halo 2.


One is supposedly going to be a living, breathing world where you can go anywhere and be anyone, and the other the latest installment on fantastic sci-fi interactive story.

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I'm right up there with you, Romier, in the sick amount of time donated to Morrowind. Probably over 200 hours. Finished the main game, saw damn near every inch of the main island, bought the GOTY edition, leveled up to about 71 and....burrrrrrrrnnnned out.


You know and thats exactly what I'm trying to hit on with this thread because it does take a serious time committment when you are trying to tackle a game like Morrowind. Consequently though does that mean that an open ended game needs to be laboriously lengthy? We hear so many complaints about games being so short these days and you could generalize and say that the linear titles on the market make up a majority of those games that are considered short. My preferennce really changes depending on my mood because sometimes I want to be completely lost in a huge open ended game like GTA or Morrowind but you know I also enjoy ripping through a nice 7 hour game linear game that gives me a great story or a great gameplay experience for a limited amount of time.


At the same time you look at number of lengthy games that go beyond and evej provide more content (such as collecting certain items for bonuses or even bonus levels) that the general public ignores. It comes back to the "When I beat the game I'm finished" syndrome that I've harped on before (especially in the case of shooters which in most cases ARE NOT OVER AFTER YOU BEAT THEM!)....

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I agree with most of what is said here, and could probably re-write much of it in my own words if I wanted too.. but I don't see the point.


For me, I usually need at least some direction, and I always enjoy a well told story, and being able to solve a puzzle or objective in more than one way (like in GTA) is always welcome.


For me, I simply feel bored, and somewhat insulted, when I feel like I'm just being herded along like cattle. The recent Painkiller demo gave me that feeling more than any game I've played in a long time, and I also got that feeling from Max Payne 1.


I like to explore, to try and look at every nook and cranny (for awhile anyway), to have to do a little thinking once in awhile as to how I have to get through to the next area. If the game doesn't offer that, then that's when I would consider it too linear.

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Originally posted by DrunkOM

For me, I simply feel bored, and somewhat insulted, when I feel like I'm just being herded along like cattle.


I'm not sure I would phrase it like that. Yes, some games are pretty much about getting from point A to point B in as direct a fashion as possible. However, there's nothing wrong with that, and there's most definitely nothing insulting about it to one's intelligence. Frankly, not every game is meant to be about exploring and going wherever you please whenever you please.


Take for instance, Viewtiful Joe, a side-scrolling fighting game with no exploration elements whatsoever. You start a level, fight your way through it, fight a boss and move onto the next level. Now, I'm not going to criticize it for being structured that way because in the context of that genre, that formula works best. The focus here is on the combat, and Capcom crams of much of it into their title as humanly possible. At the same time, I wouldn't accuse it of holding my hand or herding me along like a cattle to the slaughterhouse because its so linear. Those who have played this game on Adults difficulty and up will attest to its difficulty. It's is damn hard for just about any gamer. The challenge does not lie in where do I go next; it's how the hell do I beat this freakin' boss? It's a different type of gameplay and one that I fear is becoming more and more scarce among developers today.

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Consequently though does that mean that an open ended game needs to be laboriously lengthy?


You know, I think the simple answer may be; yes.


Using Morrowind again as the barometer, I tried to think up ways to have made it similar but not as time consuming to the gamer.


I couldn't do it. I thought..."okay, what if they made Vvardenfell island alot smaller"? Well, that would definitely help you get to some of the far away places quicker but, it would diminish the overall scale that the developers were trying to convey by giving us such a large game world. And, there would've been fan backlash, slamming BethSoft for "rushing it to market and cutting corners" for greatly reducing the gameworld size.


So, I though..."what about taking away some of the bullshit go-here-go-there, errand type of crap in the game and making the main story more streamlined"? That would ruin the "epic" feel to it by making the main story less involving. Fans again, would shit a brick.


Those 2 main things in the open ended, massive games: the world size and the quest size, seem...to me...to be the heart and soul of Morrowind-like games. If you shave away at them, you diminish the overall end product. A product which gamers already know is "supposed" to be long and massive.


Kind of like, you know what you're getting into.


You want a quick, alien-smashing fix...fire up Halo.


You want to spend an afternoon exploring the northern wastes of an unmapped island...bust out Morrowind.


I even tried to "fix" Grand Theft Auto. Another open ended, massive game. Again...I can't really do it.


You'd have to make Miami-esque smaller so that you could get from point A to point B quicker, whereby reducing the amount of time needed to finish the game. But who would want that? A SMALLER city??? Most people that bought it loved the fact that it really felt like a large, real city.


Okay, again...whack out some of the quests. Shave some off to make the main game/story quicker to get through. But, again...I think it would ruin the overall "flavor" of the story because you'd be cutting out chunks of it. If the quests are interesting...who would want less of them?


All the side quests just made the whole damn thing more fun...imho. Tired of trying to be the boss of Miami? No prob...just a car, get a hooker and get laid, go back to my apartment, grab my bike and turn on the radio and just cruuuuuuuise listening to the 80's while the sun sets and the city turns on the night.


I think open ended, large world games with epic quests and stories require a committment of time/patience/dedication from the player, to really wring out what the game has to offer.


That's just the way they are and, that's the way it is. My opinion, of course! Those type of games exists for those gamers that want that sort of gaming experience.


In the end, the market will bear out whether or not they exist. If gamers slowly abandon any sort of games that require a real committment, sales plummet, then the developers will move onto something else, or die off.


I hope not. Those major sized games are nice from time to time.

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I realized not too long ago that I'm far too "Old Skool" to embrace this trend of "open endedness". In the beginning it seemed like it would be a wonderful thing. Be anyone, do anything, go anywhere, follow your own path, etc. as Morrowind hyped and promised. I was absolutely DYING to get my paws on this game and then... was let down completely. It bored me. I had no idea where to go or what to do and frankly am not geeky enough to "become" the character and all that. I just wanted some direction as to what to do, anything. I like being pointed in a direction and not have to beat my brains out trying to get there. There are too many games out there (and I buy too many of them) and I find that these days i just want to "experience" a good game and then there's that "feeling" where you start to get fidgety after the 15 hour mark. I get that "its time to move on" feeling...


Then again games that really have no particular goals at all such as Animal Crossing, DOA: Beach Volleyball, and The Sims - I can play for hours and in this generation of consoles, it is these three games that I have sacrificed the most hours into. Which totally contradicts my previous statements...


GTA3 is probably the perfect example of a more "open ended" game that gets everything right. You can just go from point A to point B in a linear manner, doing all the story elements as they pop up, or you can just drive around, ramp your car off stuff, do little side missions or go on shooting sprees just for the heck of it while cranking some tunes. I spent far more time in the game doing that than actually trying to complete missions, although in Vice City, there is this one mission that goes down in my personal gaming history as one of the greatest moments in gaming. After doing that and achieving a gaming "high" unlike any other, I had to just stop... nothing was going to top that and therefore I left myself with warm fuzzy feelings and haven't gone back to it since.

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