Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Case for Linear Gameplay

These days, video games are all about two things: open world, and open ended. In the old days, almost every game ever made was played on a straight line. While I think we can all agree that more open games are a great thing, they shouldn’t be the only thing on the table. We shouldn’t abandon linear games altogether.

Open world games used to be a novelty. Things like Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls were rare and imitators were few and far between and never as successful. But something (Skyrim) in the past decade changed the industry and now it seems like open world games are all over the place.

And that’s fine. I like exploring and ditching main quests to see what hidden treasures await players who pick a random direction to run in. But the negative effect here is that players now expect open world by default. Any game that isn’t an open world with lots of sidequests and a bazillion things to discover is considered inferior. The sheer idea of a game that plays out in one direction is laughed at as old school.

Don’t get me wrong, I like open world games. However, I don’t want every game to be an open ended adventure in a massive universe. Sometimes it’s good to play through a game that’s telling a tight story on a predetermined path. The result is a more compelling narrative that feels like a complete story and not a hodgepodge of a writer’s ideas and player decisions.

I also see the pressure to create open worlds infecting indie developers who not only fear a linear game will be a harder sell but are also inspired by current trends in AAA games to create their own open worlds. And that’s hardly an easy task for an indie dev. The result is dozens of unfinished, ambitious projects. Or worse: unpolished and broken attempts at being the next Breath of the Wild hastily rushed to market.

My two favorite games of all time are Digimon World and Final Fantasy X. The former is something of an open world game, while the latter is unabashedly as linear as it gets. And I love them both, yet I feel as though linear games are a dying breed. Final Fantasy XV is a more open than ever, and even Digimon’s traditional RPG series, literally titled Digimon Story, gets more open with each new release.

How many other long-running franchises have made a shift from linear to open? Metal Gear? Tomb Raider? God of War? Even the last Mario game was set in an open world. Mario! How on Earth did that happen? At least the first Zelda games were very open, so Breath of the Wild felt more like a return to its roots than anything. But Mario?!

Maybe I’m a the outlier here and maybe open world is the future of gaming. I’ll always have my favorite linear games to go back to if the concept ever goes away altogether. But I think we can live in a world where story-driven, linear games make their comeback.