I’m probably going to regret this but today I want to talk about something very dry and potentially very boring. Now before you switch off completely I’m talking about this because I think it’s important. It’s an issue that cuts to the heart of many arguments about videogames. I’m going to try and keep this short and to the point but it may all turn into an elaborate wank. You have been warned.
Right, so non-linear gameplay eh?
What the hell do we mean by that? Is it just meaningless hypespeak or the defining characteristic of the medium? Shit let’s see what uncle Google has to say on the subject.
A game with nonlinear gameplay presents players with challenges that can be completed in a number of different sequences. Whereas a more linear game will confront a player with a fixed sequence of challenges, a less linear game will allow greater player freedom.
Alright that’s a good start. There’s just one problem, this describes nearly every videogame ever. To demonstrate my point watch this video about Space Invaders.
Each of those aliens can be seen as a separate obstacle. Clearly you have a choice of the order and sequence of how you defeat those aliens. You can kill a row first or defeat a column first, shoot through your barrier shield or keep it whole. Heck if you want there’s even the totally optional obstacle of the flying saucer up the top to deal with.
So is Space Invaders non-linear? For Anthony Burch probably not.
To paraphrase his argument (and probably get it wrong) non-linear gameplay is not about the sequence in which obstacles are defeated but about the amount of tools and emergent strategies the player has at their disposal. So for example in Far Cry 2 when I come across a guard post I have a number of options, I can play it stealthily and eliminate them one by one up close with a silenced pistol or at long range with a sniper rifle or guns blazing or by saying fuck it and running away. I have not only options but those options lead to different play styles as well, guns blazing is agressive, sniping defensive, stealth Machiavellian. The result being that the many rinse and repeat gun fights in Far Cry 2 are a lot more interesting than they have any right to be.
This is all great but I don’t think this is what most people mean when they say non-linear. Quick question which is more non-linear Super Mario Bros or The Secret of Monkey Island?
If we follow Anthony Burch’s argument it’s Super Mario Bros.
In Mario I have a selection of different methods to overcome my obstacles. Watch ten people play the first few seconds of Mario and you’ll see multiple valid solutions. Monkey Island is different, each puzzle, each obstacle only has one solution. And yet to me it’s the more non-linear game. Because when I think non-linear I think of being able to to travel through a game world in a way that is free form and encourages exploration.
So in Mario I’m forced to progress through the stages from left to right in sequential order. Conversely in Monkey Island from the very beginning I have a huge range of options. Yes I can go straight to the Very Important Looking Pirates and begin the quest or I can just wander the island. Even when I begin the main quest I can choose which order to complete the three tasks. So while each obstacle requires a single solution the world and by extension the game feels more open and less linear.
And yet I’m sure that many people would claim that the story structure of Monkey Island is linear. You do the three trials, you travel to Monkey Island, you enter the giant monkey head, you discover the means to defeat the ghost pirates, you travel back to Melee Island and stop the wedding. Compared to say Masq which has a ridiculous amount of branching plot lines and endings (but doesn’t allow much exploration) Monkey Island could be described as linear. In fact there are very few games that provide any real large scale non-linearity, if you can think of some please mention them.
So who is right in all this?
I think everyone and that is why non-linear is such an overused buzz word. Because without some serious caveats it’s totally meaningless. In essence when we talk about non-linear we could be talking about wildly different things.
Micro - The freedom that the player has when deciding how to deal with individual obstacles.
Macro - The freedom to explore the game world.
Structural – The freedom the player has over the overall structure of the game.
Meta - The degree to which the game encourages meta-gaming, of the Blue Casket variety, not the Pen and Paper flavour.
What do I think we should we do about this? Search me, clearly we need new language, I suggest.
Ractive (a contraction of interactive coined by William Gibson) to be used for micro non-linear gameplay because it’s short and abrasive, perfect for what we’re describing. Dude the combat in Far Cry 2 is ractive as shit.
Open For the free form exploration based play. Dude Morrowind is open as shit.
Non-Linear for structurally non-linear games because that is closer to the term’s original literary meaning. Dude Masq is non-linear as shit.
I’m not arrogant enough to believe these terms will catch on but I might start to use them just for shits and giggles. But perhaps the next time you hear someone mention that X title is linear or non-linear, before jumping down their throat ask yourself “What kind of linear are they actually talking about”.
So with all that out of the way we can ask the real question. Are story heavy games automatically more linear?