The Advantages of Linear over Open Worlds

I’m sorry I’ve been off the grid lately. An update is long overdue, but, you know, life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the broad appeal of open world games lately. Coming off E3, it looks like the latest raft of AAA games are mostly open world. I have a feeling – with the exception of a few announced titles – many of these open world games are going to be disappointing. I won’t be vague here – Anthem, the next Assassin’s Creed, Fallout 76 – I’ll be surprised if any of these games attempt to push the envelope in a meaningful way.

It’s not to say that I don’t like open world games. Some are among the best games I’ve ever played! But there’s been a growing resentment towards linear stories in the community that I don’t agree with. When people refer to a game as linear, it’s almost a pejorative now.

There are a few reasons why players might think that. A linear story line gives the player less control over events. A linear story line doesn’t let the player shape the playable characters. A linear story line doesn’t give players the opportunity to explore in their own way.

I’d say all of that is partially true, but if a linear story is designed properly, it can address all those problems, and can even offer an experience that’s different to open world games, but not inferior.

Does a linear story line give players less control over events?

The short answer: yes. It’s true the player has less control over the order of events in linear games, but unlike open world games, the story’s pace can be set by level designers and narrative designers, which is not a bad thing! Players are taken through a series of events that are nicely paced and always challenging. In open world games, you’ll often be tempted by the many fun (and tedious) side quests, unless you decide to actively attack the main story line and nothing else. In open world games, you can easily end up with the Hinterlands problem (an article about that is here), where you’re running around collecting wolf hides instead of saving the world. And when you finally to get around to saving the world, you’re so over-powered the main story line is a cake walk. By making a game linear, you do sacrifice options and side quests, but you give players a well crafted, well paced story that is difficult from beginning to end.

Do linear story lines prevent players from defining the playable characters?

This one’s unfair to open world games. Not all open world games suffer from this, but many do. The Witcher did not, but Fallout does. I’ll come out and say it right now: players choosing their own character personality type is fucking stupid. I see what devs are doing. They think that if players are able to choose their character’s personality, they’ll be able to play the character their way, resulting in a variety of gameplay experiences.

But that doesn’t really happen, does it? Let’s say, for example, I want my main character to be a complete asshole. I’ll choose the most sarcastic dialogue options and extract the most money from my NPCs as possible. I may follow that character arc for the first 5 hours of gameplay, but after 20-30+ hours of gameplay, am I going to stick to that formula? No way. Being sarcastic and opting for the evil option may result in some fun dialogue choices or interesting results sometimes, but it gets tiresome. It doesn’t always suit the situation to be the dickhead, so instead players choose the meta-narrative option: the choice that results in the best (most beneficial) outcome or the worst (biggest challenge) outcome. That makes for a pretty inconsistent character when the player shapes it himself.

I’d even go further to say that a defined character shouldn’t even have a Yes/No option. That may sound extreme, but if a personality is likely to say Yes to a dialogue choice, why would the player have the complete opposite answer as an option? I think there are ways around this, and Blackwater will address that problem

Does a linear story line deny players the opportunity to explore in their own way?

I think most would agree this is one of the biggest appeals of open world games, and I’ll admit linear stories can’t do it as well. Linear stories need to guide players along a specific path, which doesn’t allow for completely open exploration. That said, good level design can help simulate this experience in linear games. By adding fingers to the main path (fingers are side routes that players don’t necessarily need to explore, but offers a variety of benefits), this gives players the ability to choose when they stray from the main story line. Adding in difficult fingers – paths that are blocked by tough puzzles or enemies – the player will need to have amazing ability, or they’ll need to remember the fingers’ locations to come back at a later date. This approach satisfies the completionist player, but doesn’t affect a player that’s only concerned with the main story line. It also prevents players from becoming over-powered when they get back to the main story path.

Blackwater will be a linear story, but it’s worth understanding the appeal of open world games, so we can pull out the best from them. Open world games are popular for a reason, but they’re not without their flaws.

We shouldn’t be using the word linear as a pejorative.