The Ups and Downs of Linearity

There’s an ongoing trend in video games, a desire to make them more like movies. Several franchises like Uncharted and Call of Duty make boasts of being “cinematic.” Games like these are trying to be like movies with each passing installment. Video games are not movies however and games that are “cinematic” are really games that tend to play themselves. It’s the absolute extreme of linearity in video games. A linear game goes from Point A to Point B on a fixed, unchanging path; this design choice has its pros and cons. Not every game can be “open-world”, a game in which player can walk in any direction and find something to do. The entire selling point of the medium, as entertainment and as an art form is that the experience is different for each person who picks up a controller. This extreme form of linearity goes against the interactivity of video games, which is what makes them so great. It’s even worse that these kinds of games are very successful both commercially and financially. Linearity isn’t killing the industry by any means, but it’s certainly weakening it.

Meet Nathan Drake: archaeologist, tomb raider, adventurer, mass murderer, and now a skyjacker.

Linearity isn’t a bad thing, in fact outside of this console generation linearity was seldom frowned upon. The Metal Gear Solid series for example, is very linear by design. The enemy guards are always in the same spot every time, making the same patrol over and over. On top of all of this, the Metal Gear Solid games are known for having lengthy cutscenes. What makes Metal Gear Solid such a great franchise is that it never tells the player how to clear an area. The player can if they want, sneak through undetected, stealthily eliminate each enemy or simply go on an all-out-assault. This is a perfect use of linearity in video games. Even though certain aspects of the game are fixed, the player is the variable and their own actions dictate their experience. Great games like Bioshock and Hitman run with the notion of giving the player options. These are the kind of the games that players talk about years after release.

Unfortunately, linearity can be a bad thing in the wrong hands. There are plenty of moments in the Uncharted and Call of Duty games where the player experiences what I would call a “controllable cutscene.” This is a moment in the game where everything occurs the exact same every time, but unless the player acts in a very specific way they get a game over and are forced to replay the scene until they get it right. For example there’s a moment in Uncharted 2 where the player is running from a collapsing bridge. Unless the player runs in a very specific path they will fall to their death. It’s as if the player is an inconvenience because they aren’t in the right spot at the right time. This is a design flaw that is repeated throughout the Uncharted games. There are plenty of moments in all three games where I felt like I failed not because I lacked skill or precision but because the game “rejected” my solutions to the obstacles it threw at me. It bothers me the Uncharted games took home several game-of-the-year awards because these games often made me feel like an actor on a movie set not doing what I was told rather than an adventurer finding some ancient lost city.

There’s nothing wrong with a game that wants to be more cinematic. Linearity can be a great way to achieve this. Resident Evil 4 for example is both linear and cinematic, and it happens to be one the best-designed games that I’ve ever played. Games like Uncharted and Call of Duty are ambitious, and that’s nothing to frown at but a game should never be made without at least keeping the player in mind. The Uncharted and Call of Duty franchises while enjoyable, aren’t always designed this way. The best video games are not the ones that are have the best graphics, best stories or the most content, it’s the games that best remember to keep the player in mind that should be celebrated. Linearity, with all its ups and downs needs to managed, not exploited.

About Sam Hale

Autistic, young adult and lots on my mind.

Posted on April 18, 2013, in Editorials and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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