One of the things I am looking forward to in the gaming industry is the end of linearity. No, I don't mean the end of the linear video game, I mean the end of discussions on linearity.
Linearity is something that's been discussed in the gaming world for a long time. It basically refers to the flow of a game being comparable to a straight line rather than branching out into multiple directions. For example, Call of Duty campaigns are completely linear. No matter how many various ways you push through a CoD campaign, your actions shoehorn you into the exact same story with the exact same consequences. Most open world games, on the other hand, give players choices that have at least some impact on the details of the story.
The completely non-linear video game is extremely difficult to pull off. Very few games have ever succeeded at providing both an engaging story and a completely non-linear progression. In fact, the only series that I think has truly mastered both at the same time is Mass Effect. Sure, Red Dead Redemption had a great story and even a revolutionary "post-game" epilogue, but it was fairly linear. There were various things you could do to distract yourself from the main story, like hunting, capturing outlaws, and breaking in wild horses, but these had no impact on the overall storyline. In fact, you could play John Marston as a hardened criminal or a straight-and-narrow do-gooder, and while your decisions would have an impact on the ways NPCs would treat you, none had any bearing on any of the plot points.
I've read several game reviews that spoke highly of a game, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, threw in this awkward caveat: "Unfortunately, the game suffers for its linearity." In a review of a phenomenal game, this just feels disingenuous. It's almost as if game journalists feel obligated to comment on "linearity" even when it has absolutely no impact on the enjoyability of a game. Without even stopping to think, I could easily name a dozen of the best games ever made that are completely linear.
Believe it or not, if you dig up old reviews of Final Fantasy VII, you'll find among the common complaints about that game that it was "linear." I suppose to some extent it's true, since even the dozens of hours of side-quests, optional characters, and subplots don't ultimately affect the ending of the game. But Final Fantasy VII felt so open. When you compare it to the more recent Final Fantasy XIII, calling FFVII linear just seems weird.
In fact, Final Fantasy XIII is the only game I can think of off the top of my head that actually legitimately deserved to be criticized for its linearity. It forced players to walk on narrow paths the likes of which we haven't seen since the days of Crash Bandicoot. Even though the Gran Pulse section felt more open, the only real distractions from the main plot were the Cie'th Stone side missions, all of which required players to hunt down a specific monster and kill it. Final Fantasy XIII felt constraining, and the linearity had a direct impact on the entertainment value of the game.
Linearity should only be held against a game if it actually detracts from the play value of that game. Otherwise, it's just silly to even bring it up.
It's perfectly fine that the Assassin's Creeds and Grand Theft Autos of the world are providing massive open world experiences. But, when you look at the big picture, even these games are pretty linear, only with a bunch of extra things to do to distract you in the meantime. Who cares? The games are fun, and that's all that matters.
Portal 2 was completely linear. There was one ending and pretty much only one way to get there. Only a few of the puzzles even had alternate solutions for the extremely experimental gamers to find. There were quite a few secret areas to hunt for, but these were mostly Easter eggs. Yet Portal 2 was one of the finest games to come out this year. It was incredibly well-written, well-performed, and built off the diabolically satisfying portal puzzle mechanic. Who cares if it was linear? Had Valve tried to fit it to a less linear structure, the game would have completely collapsed in on itself. Not to mention that the story wouldn't have worked at all.
My prediction: The very term "Linearity" is someday going to be used a lot more sparingly. I dream of a Golden era in which video game journalists will be able to judge a game for what it is without feeling obligated to throw in any mention of linearity. Unless, of course, it has a drastic impact on the game.
It's great that some video games are pushing the envelope and delivering open-ended experiences, but sometimes it's best to just let a story lead you
CCC Editor/Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*