Recently, I spent time playing a few big name games: Bayonetta, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. All of these games received massive amounts of praise from the industry, with aggregated review scores ranging from 87 to 96.
A strange connection exists for all these games in their single player experience; they are all linear.
My reflection about linearity is something different from the discussion of whether it is good or bad for game design because that discussion has been done and you can read it elsewhere. What I want to know is what is linear?
In one regard, linearity can define how the player interacts with the physical space of a game. In the games I previously mentioned, the player walks down a path, sometimes even a fairly straight path, to get to a goal ad nauseam. Final Fantasy XIII received fire for this gameplay choice recently. I think this is the wrong way to view linearity as a problem though.
Almost all single player experiences are told in this way, whether it is a side quest or the main cannon story. For the latter, uncontroversial great games, like the first Super Mario Bros. to Half Life 2, use this format. In this style, the player simply treks a path, and the story unfolds. For the former, games like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion even fit into this category. Treat every side quest as its own story, and typically you move from point A to B with the subplot being told. Sure, in the grand scheme of things the player chooses what plots to play, but every path unfolds in a specific way no different than the latter. In this regard, linearity is acceptable–many games that fall into this format are even praised.
Linear gameplay, meaning the player performs the same task many times, creates another view point. This position could lead to trivializing many games. “In Super Mario Bros., you just jump over gaps and on top of enemies.” “In Halo: Combat Evolved, you just shoot hordes of enemies.” “In Dragon Age: Origins, you just kill wave after wave of enemies.”
I think the real complaint about linearity derives from non-emergent gameplay. Take Uncharted 2 for example. The mechanics of the game are fairly simple. You can run, shoot, climb, throw grenades, look at your notebook, etc. Many games contain similar mechanics. Their uniqueness really evolves from how developers use them; in Uncharted for example, the ice temple challenges the player’s ability to perform these tasks under a time limit, or on the train ride, the player must shoot down the helicopter as well as shooting missiles or else they’ll be killed. Whereas Uncharted 2 appears linear from a glance, its emergent experience makes gamers love it, coupled with a solid linear story.
In closing, the next time you think about linearity as a problem for a game, try to take the experience as a whole. I would say linearity is bad if the whole experience is linear. If a whole game solely consists of a character running from left to right with no enemies or obstacles, then it’s a bad linear game. You could expand this outward to more contemporary games as well; if the player runs down a bland, lacking-in-detail hallway, presses the same two to three buttons over and over, and then defeats conflict with little thought, strategy, and/or change, then it’s a bad game. What developers should strive for is something graspable, but very deep as the game progresses. Ultimately, this standard produces fun, long-lasting games.