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Default Gamasutra - Linearity: A Necessary RPG Element?

January 13th, 2010, 11:23
Gamasutra has a piece called Non-Linearity: A Necessary RPG Element?, which takes a fairly shallow look at linearity vs non-linearity in RPGs:
I have often noticed that game reviews mention that the game X is non-linear as if it deserved kudos for that alone, or that the game is linear as if it were a bad thing. Is it really?

In the end, it boils down to the kind of game the game designer is trying to make. If the designer wants to take the player on an intense emotional roller coaser ride - well then the game has to be linear. You can't control what the player feels until you keep tight control on which places the player visits and in what order, which persons player meets and in what order etc. Even then it won't work for all the players.
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January 13th, 2010, 11:24
You have to define the type of linearity. Of the plot (Oblivion linear, Gothic 3 non-linear), of the levels (Dragon Age linear, Deus Ex non-linear), of the way you visit locations (Deus Ex linear, Oblivion non-linear)? Of those three types of linearity, linearity of levels annoys me the most. For me, roleplaying is a lot about different solutions to the same problem. If a game railroads me through a level up to the point where it overscripts situations and thus reduces tactical choices, the game stops feeling like a good RPG.
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January 13th, 2010, 12:00
It's also possible for a game with much non-linearity to hide or shroud the core motive or subliminal quest progression -> where an unknown quest conclusion takes time to reason or amass a collection of triggers to solve or progress the storyline. For example, getting entrance legaly into Ishtar in G3 - To kill the king yet not kill the servants of the gods (the watermages) can be somewhat of a moral dilema for some, yet only a non-linear free roaming open world exploration to the full (even replaying) can lead to the solution.
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January 13th, 2010, 12:23
Originally Posted by Grandor Dragon View Post
You have to define the type of linearity. Of the plot (Oblivion linear, Gothic 3 non-linear), of the levels (Dragon Age linear, Deus Ex non-linear), of the way you visit locations (Deus Ex linear, Oblivion non-linear)? Of those three types of linearity, linearity of levels annoys me the most. For me, roleplaying is a lot about different solutions to the same problem. If a game railroads me through a level up to the point where it overscripts situations and thus reduces tactical choices, the game stops feeling like a good RPG.
Very well stated - as we've seen, some here really prefer the 'sandbox' non-linearity, while others prefer different ways to give the player apparent choice in a story-based RPG.

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January 13th, 2010, 14:11
In a singleplayer CRPG - I doubt anyone would want 100% sandbox non-linearity - because that would mean no story to speak of.

Until we get to a stage where meaningful dialogue and quest structure can exist without help from a designer or writer, I think a measure of linearity is essential.

It's an incredibly simplistic view at the concept, to speak about it as if only two extremes existed.

My own preference leans heavily towards as much freedom as possible, but like anyone I must have motivation. Freedom in itself does not provide motivation, so meaningful goals need to exist and I can't really create them in a limited environment such as is the case with even modern sandbox games. No, I need a solid storyline and I need interesting NPCs to keep me hooked.

There's never really been the perfect example of such a game, but if I had to point towards who does it best, it would have to be PB with the Gothic series. With the exception of Gothic 3 - I think they're responsible for the only truly succesful mixture of sandbox gameplay and solid story elements.

Ironically, I think Gothic 3 would have been the number one example - if only it was launched in a better state and had a better combat system.

Beyond that, I can't really think of any game that does it "well enough" to justify non-linearity above a solid linear experience.

If Oblivion and Fallout 3 weren't plagued by shallow/childish writing, highly flawed mechanics, and an awful scaling system - maybe those would be even better than the Gothics.

It actually makes me more excited about the future, because one day, some developer or other is bound to "get it" and take that leap. That would make for one hell of a game, and I can't wait for it to happen.
Last edited by DArtagnan; January 13th, 2010 at 15:33.
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January 13th, 2010, 15:04
I agree 100% with the article. Linearity is not 'bad', just like having no multiplayer is not 'bad' either, or a game being turn-based is not 'bad'. It's all about the design of the game. I prefer 'linear' games, it's a personal taste. I enjoy a game like Dragon Age much more than, say, Fallout 3 or the Gothics, but I know other people differ on this.
That's why I pay little attention to a review's "score" and just read the text to see what the author considered as bad (which could be good or indifferent to me) and good (which could be bad or indifferent to me), and decide on that.
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January 13th, 2010, 15:18
I generally prefer linear with good story over sandboxy.

Nicer when they can do a discrete linear (particularly if you can go anywhere but are going to be too wussy to complete much except in a conventional order) than an outright lack of choice.

Then again some of my favourite games of all time are the M&M games and of late Kings Bounty, where the central story arc is minor.

I suppose I'm still put off the very idea of sandboxy non linearity by Bethesda's last couple of outings.
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January 13th, 2010, 15:19
For me a non-linear game is this where you are making your own story without having to follow lines or quest chains and everything is set there for you to visit explore and interact without requirements; i don't like cRPGs where 100% lock picking skill doesn't open all doors in the game , i don't like trainers or "you have to be level 25 to do this" also having to kill the bad guy at the end (without the ability to join his cause) is a really fun breaking factor.
A good non linear cRPG IMHO doesn't have any MQ , there can be paths or groups you can join / betray but you can also stay neutral ,also you never see the end titles .

*Freeing a village from the plague or the Orcs does feel like an intense emotional roller coaster ride to me.
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January 13th, 2010, 17:48
Originally Posted by DArtagnan View Post
It actually makes me more excited about the future, because one day, some developer or other is bound to "get it" and take that leap. That would make for one hell of a game, and I can't wait for it to happen.
I for one am tired of being "excited about the future" of role-playing games. I've only got 30 or 40 years left for this future to arrive and it doesn't exactly seem to be rocketing towards us.

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January 14th, 2010, 01:21
Originally Posted by Tragos View Post
For me a non-linear game is this where you are making your own story without having to follow lines or quest chains and everything is set there for you to visit explore and interact without requirements; i don't like cRPGs where 100% lock picking skill doesn't open all doors in the game , i don't like trainers or "you have to be level 25 to do this" also having to kill the bad guy at the end (without the ability to join his cause) is a really fun breaking factor.
A good non linear cRPG IMHO doesn't have any MQ , there can be paths or groups you can join / betray but you can also stay neutral ,also you never see the end titles .

*Freeing a village from the plague or the Orcs does feel like an intense emotional roller coaster ride to me.
So what game meets that requirement?

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January 14th, 2010, 05:29
Fallout comes pretty close except there are a few doors you can't open…..

Favourite RPGs of all time: Wizardry 6, Ultima 7/7.2, Fallout2, Planescape Torment, Baldurs Gate 2+TOB, Jagged Alliance 2, Ravenloft: The stone prophet, Gothic 2, Realms of Arkania:Blade of destiny (not the HD version!!) and Secret of the Silver Blades.
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January 14th, 2010, 09:28
Originally Posted by txa1265 View Post
So what game meets that requirement?
I can only think of Mount & Blade from the "typical" RPGs and this is why i am mostly role playing in space sims , MW was okay in the spirit that you could totally ignore the MQ for as long as you like .
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January 14th, 2010, 10:46
Mount and Blade is the perfect example of why such freedom in itself isn't enough, if you ask me. The game needs an overarching goal to be truly great - but I guess since it's so popular for a semi-indie game, that I'm in a minority for thinking that.
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January 14th, 2010, 11:00
I think it would be interesting to have a sandbox style game (like Morrowind or Mount & Blade) that allows you to choose (or randomly assigns) you goals, similar to the "Risk" tabletop game.

I have a liking for both kinds of games. Linear games can provide a well built story, much like a book or a movie, using all the tricks of the trade to provide pace, suspension, foreshadowing, cinematic moments, etc.. Open worlds, or games with highly branching quest designs however, give a sense of empowerment, of "living another life" that linear games can simplycannot provide. So I like both, but I see the greater potential in non-linear designs, emergent gameplay, and in general a more "simulation-based" approach. My ideal RPG is a fully interactive virtual fantasy world, with many ways to find a "role" and a "quest" in it.
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January 14th, 2010, 11:04
But Morrowind did have an overarching story. To my knowledge, Mount and Blade is one of the VERY few current games to have none.
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January 14th, 2010, 11:28
Originally Posted by DArtagnan View Post
But Morrowind did have an overarching story. To my knowledge, Mount and Blade is one of the VERY few current games to have none.
Yes I know, but I mean if a game much like it didn't, or if that story had just been one of many different options to play the game? Many people did that anyway in MW, setting their own goals: playing just the faction quests, collecting complete sets of Daedric (or all) armor, getting rich from pearl diving, uncovering all of the landscape, etc. I just think it could be a nice intermediate between a set storyline and comple freedom (or in the negative: lack of direction) as in M&B, if the game would spell out possible goals (and of course supported these by tracking progress, providing related quests, etc.)
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January 14th, 2010, 12:45
Originally Posted by GhanBuriGhan View Post
Yes I know, but I mean if a game much like it didn't, or if that story had just been one of many different options to play the game? Many people did that anyway in MW, setting their own goals: playing just the faction quests, collecting complete sets of Daedric (or all) armor, getting rich from pearl diving, uncovering all of the landscape, etc. I just think it could be a nice intermediate between a set storyline and comple freedom (or in the negative: lack of direction) as in M&B, if the game would spell out possible goals (and of course supported these by tracking progress, providing related quests, etc.)
Yeah, I get what you're saying. Maybe I'm wrong, but I actually think most players who did that with Morrowind, only found it enjoyable because they knew there was an end to the game - when they were good and ready. Like, they were building towards something.

Maybe that's just me, because a game without an end would create an environment that ultimately would be too superficial in terms of creating a strong setting and experience. Because you can never really have enough content to support infinity. As such, it would be too much like an MMO - which also happens to be a genre I don't really see the point in - even if I've played them for years. But an MMO has an implicit development evolution, so that content can be created throughout its lifetime. Singleplayer games generally don't have that, and mods vary wildly in terms of quality.

Nah, I think it will be years and years before we see dynamic content on the same level as hand-made content.

However, it's all subjective and some people don't seem to demand hand-made stuff as much as I do.
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January 14th, 2010, 13:12
I think that the main difference between linear and non linear games are that linear ask you to deliver, be competent , take the challenge , get to the next level while in non linear you ask from the game to trick you into doing things because you don't have to take directions , stand and fight or be the good helpful guy.
Think of DAO made mount & blade style , you go to the forest and the shaman there tells you that he can not provide any men , in DAO you have to do all this hunting of trees, do all the dialogues with the insane guy etc ; M&B style you would slit shaman's throat and had all his tribe in chains till they decide to follow you or help him out , this is a choice not who to support after submitting to his request.
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January 14th, 2010, 13:20
To be frank, I don't think there's any confusion about what the concepts mean, at least not here.

I think it's more about preferences based on our experiences with linear vs non-linear approaches.

The scenario you describe in DA:O would take an impossible amount of work to prepare for from the developer's point of view. Because dialogue needs to be written for it, and voice acting needs to be ready for any eventuality. That's largely what I'm saying, and that without a strong story and dialogue (preferably with voice acting) - the game becomes much less interesting for many people, including myself.

Simulating actions and consequences can be done, but meaningful dialogue and "human" sequences are nearly impossible to accomplish in a truly dynamic environment.

Basically, we'd need "true" AI and perfect simulation of voice to get there.
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January 27th, 2010, 13:59
Arcanum is a sandbox RPG which has an interesting story (at times). I think the difference between Elder Scrolls RPGs and Dragon Age RPGs is really not that big. It's definitely possible to make The Ultimate RPG which would combine the best of both worlds by allowing the player to walk freely around the world map in Dragon Age (like you could in Arcanum, just not that random). Basically, what I'm saying is: Risen when you're walking around the world map; Dragon Age when you're not. It would be totally awesome, only, of course, it would require a lot more work from the developer.
Originally Posted by DArtagnan View Post
But an MMO has an implicit development evolution, so that content can be created throughout its lifetime. Singleplayer games generally don't have that, and mods vary wildly in terms of quality.
DLCs prove you wrong.
Originally Posted by DArtagnan View Post
If Oblivion and Fallout 3 weren't plagued by shallow/childish writing, highly flawed mechanics, and an awful scaling system - maybe those would be even better than the Gothics.
And Gothics aren't plagued by bad writing…?

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