Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Linearity Plague

If you've read some posts on my blog, you know that I'm a huge supporter of non-linear game design and that I despise it, when they make the Zelda games more and more linear. However, this is not a problem with the Zelda games alone, a lot of other genres suffer from that as well. For example First Person Shooters, take a look at the graphic, which I took from here:

This couldn't be more true. Modern First Person Shooter games are more like movies, where you occasionally get to shoot something. It's linear, it's scripted, it's full of cutscenes, it's boring. But games used to be different. When we talked about video games in my childhood, one regular question would be "did you see that?" - we were talking about all the cool stuff, which we've discovered by ourselves. That's not a question you ask about a modern video game. Of course you've seen it, since the game guided you there. A more appropriate question about a singleplayer game would be "how many hours are you in the game?" - just answer that and you know everything you need to know about what the player has experienced so far. Games became more and more like a movie. A movie is a passive form of entertainment, you just lean back and enjoy the show. Games used to be the opposite, you take on the action. You steer, you explore, you fight, you think, you do. But in a lot of modern games this is not the case, they want you to watch cutscenes and to follow a linear path. And if you're lucky, you get to shoot something in the mean time, but that's mostly a no brainer. Duke Nukem Forever would be a current example, from what I've heard.

The problem lies in the developers. They spent most of their life making all these cool things for their next video game and they're going to make sure, that you'll see it! Bit by bit. They forgot that it was much more fun, when you discover things by your own. They also forgot, that non-linear level design full of secrets adds immensively to the replay value. A linear game might be fun the first time, but the replay value is usually very low, because you've experienced everything already and there aren't any interesting choices to make. Another problem is, that it's much easier to make a linear and scripted game. To wrap the player in cotton wool and guide him through every part of the game, so nothing can go wrong. You don't have to double check for what happens, when a player finds the Level 8 dungeon early. Just make sure, he does everything in order and takes always the same route. Making linear games is easy. And video game developers can be lazy.

But facing the success of games like Minecraft, where the gamer is placed in an open world ready to be explored and where he follows his own goals, this attitude might change in the future. It already might be changing for Zelda. Some of the later Zelda games including The Minish Cap, Spirit Tracks and above all Twilight Princess became much more linear completely defying what defined the classic Zelda game: freedom and exploration, non-linear gameplay. But in a recent interview with Miyamoto he stated:

What I’ll say about Skyward Sword is that there’s a tremendous amount of places you can go and things you can do in that game. It’s very open world, and I would encourage everyone to go and explore every nook and cranny of that game as well.

This sounds great! This sounds exactly like what I want from Zelda! They promised at some point that they would focus on what made the classic Zelda games so fun and I'm glad that they discovered, that freedom and non-linearity played an important role. All demo material of Skyward Sword also supports this fact, so I'm really looking forward to this aspect of the game.

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