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Game Linearity

[I had this sitting around as a draft, collecting dust. May as well publish.]

The gaming industry has been struggling for a few years with the concept of “linearity” in games, ever since the hardware limitations involved have started to relax, allowing far more content to be generated and shipped. With some recent announcements over Crysis 2, folks have been discussing how its predecessor, Crysis, was-or-was-not “too linear”.

I think linear/non-linear is a bit of a distraction from the important thing: Offering the player interesting choices.

Interesting choices

Depending on your audience/genre the kinds of choices you want to provide are different. In some first-person shooters, “what weapon should I use and where do I aim” is sufficient. (In some light-gun arcade shooters, it’s even easier.) In stealth-games,  players want to outwit their enemy in addition to fighting them. Some RPG varieties are heavy on plot-based choices while others provide tactical/equipment ones. And some games try to mix them all up, with varying levels of success.

Deus Ex

Deus Ex seems to be designed around “play style” choices. On each level, you could choose a way to approach the situation, and gradually build up your ability to excel in each of these tactics. You could broadly categorize these as “big explosions”, “sneaky fighting”,  and “explore your way around”.

Best of all, many of the major tactics remained feasible throughout the entire game, such that you could finish the game with virtually no loss of human (or cyborg) life. Choosing to focus on providing these types of choices meant that the plot of the game could be unified, compelling, and incredibly detailed. Optional activities didn’t branch the plot as much as provide rewarding details and backstory for the clever player.

Mass Effect

We won’t be at the place where a computer can function as an improvisational Dungeon Master for a mutable story for some time yet… probably sometime after you get it to understand human language. In a story with more choices, variation in the story has to be branched out (and eventually terminated or smoothed over) by human writers in advance.

This approach can be seen in games like Mass Effect, where the plot has a lot more branching going on. These plot-related choices are part of what the game offers to players. While Mass Effect also included aspects like equipment and equipment modifiers, these were mostly axed (probably due to interface issues) in the sequel.


What made Crysis’ first half good was that each level was wide enough that–despite a linear set of objectives–you could attempt to attack enemies from various sides, try to power through, or stealthily wipe out key enemies to advance unseen. Like Deus Ex, there was generally a patient or exploratory route through each level, in addition to the obvious one.

However, there was minimal character advancement beyond hoarding certain weapons, and some sequences (especially those involving helicopters) tended to negate the stealthy approach, while others (infinite random out-of-sight enemy spawning) conflicted with being able to explore.

It’s also worth noting that Crysis was in many ways a game-engine showcase, so it seems more effort was put into the lush graphics at the expense of the fairly formulaic storyline.

Posted in Games.