Linear and Open-World Games: It Doesn’t Have to be One or the Other

I’m not a game designer, but I spend an awful lot of time thinking about the decisions made by those who are. It’s not a job I can say I would want. Designing a video game is hard work; something I’ve come to realize over the last year I’ve been writing as a game critic. I admire the process of making a game from a distance, and critique the end result. My job is to make judgments, to plunge my hands into the messy business of making games and pull them back out with something to show for it, preferably copy of some kind. The end of a console generation requires us to go back and look for patterns, trends and milestones. It’s easy to spot the watershed moments. However, there are some things that are whispers among roars; not any less important than the roars, but quieter and more nuanced. Now, as game critics and forum posters are taking stock of this console generation, one such whisper should be audible to those listening: People are talking about linear and open-world games.

And they should be. This console generation developers advanced the use of these different approaches to game design in ways that created hybrids between the two. Gamers seem to be shedding the tired and worn “linear vs. open-world” context which frames the conversation as a debate in which one design philosophy triumphs over the other. After scouring Internet forums on the topic, it’s clear to me that there is a growing number of gamers who have noticed this generation’s development studios’ attempts to blur the line separating the linear and open-world approaches. Many seem excited at the new design possibilities the next generation of consoles will allow development studios to pursue. There are, however, still plenty of gamers who view the two approaches as diametrically opposed. But they aren’t.

Those who posit the two approaches as polar opposites reflect the mindset of someone who grew up in a culture of extremes, where choices are a means to an end and carry with them a certain finality. America is, in many ways, an extremist culture; you see it everywhere. Here we have Democrat vs. Republican, hot dog vs. hamburger, Chevrolet vs. Ford and iTunes vs. Spotify. We’re utterly inundated with so many choices that we are almost forced to posit them as either-or affairs, just so we can make sense of the world around us. This carries over to our video game culture as well. There’s Battlefield vs. Call of Duty, gun vs. bow and arrow, sequel vs. original and linear vs. open-world. But, this is the wrong way to contextualize our most beloved interactive medium.

Linear and open-world are answers to the question of how when designing a video game. How do I want to tell this story to the player? How do I want the player to interact with the game world I’m creating? How much agency will the player have in my game? If you want to tell the player a story, odds are you will opt for a linear approach. A linear approach lays the foundation for a strong story with interesting characters that the player is actually invested in. A linear story is constructed in an unshared gamespace in the sense that the player is interacting with a story and characters in a way or ways that are, on some level, predetermined. The player either doesn’t affect the gameworld at all, or is given the illusion that they do through the implementation of a choice-consequence system, similar to what is in the Mass Effect series. Player agency and player choice aren’t organic in a game that has linear design. You’re selecting from a set of predetermined choices that each have their own set of predetermined outcomes and consequences. The gameworld isn’t reacting naturally, but the illusion of choice afforded the player in some linear games gives the appearance that the player influences or affects the gameworld more than he or she actually does. Far Cry 3 is a good example of this.

Far Cry 3 is an open-world game to the extent that the player can go and do whatever they want, any time they want. However, the developer chose to answer the question of how much agency to give the player with both a linear and open-world approach. The open-world aspects are rather apparent: a large island that the player can explore at any time, NPCs running around here and there, and a decidedly open-ended approached to combat. The linear aspects of the game are experienced mostly through the story. The story of Far Cry 3 gives the player a sense of progression and direction in a game that is otherwise directionless. Your attention is funneled toward specific geographic locations in the game, where an open-world approach then takes over.

Open-world games—in this instance, think of Skyrim—offer players an illusion as well. They are often presented as living, breathing worlds where the player can go and do anything they want, any time they want. While the freedom to go and do as you please is often delivered, there is little about these gameworlds that is living or breathing, and even then so much of what the player does within the open-world is of little consequence to the story or characters. You’re forced to have conversations in awkward locations, with a fixed camera that robs you of any sense of immersion, listening to an NPC rattle off dialogue faster than its poorly-formed mouth animations can handle. These open-worlds don’t react to player choice in organic ways either, much like the gameworlds presented in linear games; but, linear games at least do a better job of offering the illusion that the gameworld reacts to the player’s choices. At the end of the day, many of the open-world games of this console generation are very wide but very shallow oceans.

But, as I noted previously, gamers and developers are starting to realize the development possibilities that a new console generation provides. The next generation of consoles and PC titles will likely further blur the lines that separate the linear and open-world approaches to the how of game design, and this will allow developers to focus more on answering the question of what. As it is now, a player’s experience with a game is derived from the player engaging elements of the game’s design. In other words, player experience is crafted by decisions made by the development studio, and in that sense player experience is subservient to design. The next generation of consoles contain technology that will allow development studios to change how a player experiences a game. The ability to have many real, actual people all inhabiting the same gameworld will dramatically transform how players experience a game.

I imagine games similar to Planetside 2 in design principle, games where players’ experiences aren’t derived from a game’s design elements, but where player experience is derived from a gameworld that has no limitations set on its interactive qualities because the player is the center around which the experience revolves. Essentially, the player creates the gameworld and the experience they have. They chose their level of engagement and the gameworld continues to live and change even when the player isn’t logged on and playing. Again, Planetside 2 is a good example. MMO design principles will undergo a major transformation this next console generation and will become mainstream within the development community much in the same way RPG design elements have worked their way into other genres over the years. Games like The Crew, Destiny, and The Division will be early next-generation examples of what I’m talking about, I think.

So, we need to do away with this way of viewing games and their design as an either-or propositions. There was a time when that way contextualizing video games was appropriate and useful, but that time is passing before our very eyes. It’s time to do away with the versus mentality that our extremist culture promotes, and that is very prominent among gamers themselves. Of course, I’m not calling for an all-out abandonment of our need to differentiate between two things, and I hope people like Ken Levine and Jonathan Blow continue to make very specific choices that give players very specific experiences. However, gamers cannot afford to be so entrenched in a way of thinking that posits the choice between two different things as an adversarial proposition. These are creative tools that answer design questions and all decisions involving whether to go linear, open-world, or a combination of both deserve equal merit and attention.




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  • I’m really tired of the overly-reductive attitude towards games as being either ‘open-world’ or ‘linear’, with the latter term increasingly being used pejoratively. These terms are useful, for sure, but they’re overused. I think you raise some really interesting points about next-gen development and how they’re looking to bridge the gap between ‘linear’ and ‘open-world’ storytelling. Exciting times!