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Linearity is Okay in Games
by John Bell on 01/29/13 06:23:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It seems almost dogmatic; don't limit the players choices, present him with a wealth of options at his disposal to give him a richer experience. The issue with non-linearity is that if a little is good, then more is better... right?

Non-linearity and choices are damaging to a game not because they're inherently bad, but we simply have too much of it. Players are bombarded with games offering them choices. Choices on alignment, fighting style, difficulty,  primary weapon, secondary weapon, the type of car, the type of sword, all before level 1.

Designers might present choices early because they think that if the player spends 10 minutes selecting the type of sneakers the player will be wearing before playing, that he's going to be more invested in the game once he starts. There are two sides to this coin however; if the player is invested in the game and he likes what he's playing, it's a slam dunk. If the player grows weary of the game for whatever reason, he may continue to play since he feels so invested, which will ultimately result in much scorn instead of just quietly exiting the game without incident. He may not know exactly why he hates your game, but seducing him with choice is what got them there. Choices can get players into trouble if not handled properly.

Imagine 8 levels where the player can choose the order in which they're played.  The designer is pitted with quite a task; make each level accessible to new players (players that just started the game), while still being engaging for advanced players (players that have completed the other 7 levels). A creative designer can give the levels different themes, different gameplay aspects, and different priorities, but he can't do much in regards to skill building or difficulty, he must keep changing things to keep it fresh for both types of players. He's unable to focus on a particular skill set, not in an in-depth way at least.

So the designer makes 8 non-linear levels, waiting for that bottle neck to occur, for that Wily castle, so that he can dig deeper into the gameplay that he wants to explore. Unfortunately the designer has a player that has only scratched the surface on a variety of things, not a player that has specialized a particular skill set. So it's unfair to ask the player to specialize, its contrary to everything else in the game. This is why the 8 Robot Masters are fun, but the Wily Castle will always be more forgettable. The Wily Castle isn't bad, it just isn't as good as the non-linear section of the game because there isn't enough to build on, there's no way there could be.

The reason the classic Megaman formula works is because there's 8 Robot Masters, sure the end is always going to be tricky to design, but the point is that it wouldn't work with 80 Robot Masters. There's a limit, a threshold, for Megaman its 8. For other games there surely must be a limit; one that designers have to be mindful of to avoid putting themselves into a position where they can't build skills within the player. Going into a game with a mindset of "how many options, features, and choices can I stuff into this game?" brings out the worst in non-linear design.

So what's so great about linear games? The linear game offers the designer a far more intimate relationship with the player; he knows what the player knows. He can present ideas in level 1, and can sculpt level 2 to reinforce  those ideas and build on them even further. He's doesn't have to consider a spreadsheet of possibilities and outcomes every time he wants to try something new. He is also in a far better position to take risks, experiment, and explore.

You and the player can specialize. If the focus of the game is say, managing an inventory and combining items, you will know (for the most part) what the player has in that inventory. If level 3 is about espionage, you can give him a silencer at the beginning of the level and he'll immediately understand its purpose, combine it with the gun, and advance with success. If you give him nothing, that will make him think about his existing inventory and what he can do with it. As a designer you have a fair idea of what's going through the player's head, and can speak more directly to him without using a large set of rules or conditions as a medium.

Of course linearity has its pitfalls, the main one being the "brick wall". If the player isn't experiencing success, and there's no other choices, he's backed up a against the wall and so is the designer. Frustration sets in, the player curses the game and quits. Every designers nightmare. If the designer can brave that risk however, and understand that there will always be those few players that quit, and of course do what he can to minimize frustration, then the rewards can be great. Nothing feels better for players than failing a number of times, honing their skill, and then emerging victorious. Since they're aware that there aren't any other choices, they can focus on the task that vexes them, not just work around it by traveling to some other section and leaving it for later. When the player always has the prospect of doing something else in the back of his mind, then on some level he's distracted from the task at hand, undermining all that great design work that's been poured into the game.

Linearity is simply more high-stakes; it's risky, it can frustrate the player, things can go wrong, but as we all know big risks is where the big payoffs are.  Designing linear games makes you better at... designing linear games, if a designer always fear the brick wall, that designer will never develop any skills to deal linearity in any capacity. The non-linear designer can fall into the trap of just creating a path around a problem instead of addressing the issue, because linear design is not in his repertoire. It's dangerously easy to bury problems with non-linearity, particularly when the player can travel back later with some huge advantage.

I by no means intend to bash non-linear design, but to advance the notion that purely linear games are a viable pursuit in their own right, and that linear design should be utilized within a non-linear space. Also that non-linearity needs to be limited in some way, there needs to be a very deliberate effort to keep it meaningful to leverage it properly.

I'll leave you with a paradox; by giving the player less choices you're actually giving him more choices. When every game has a ton of choices "a game with less choices" is actually a new choice.

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Bart Stewart
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This does a good job of highlighting that there really are two competing philosophies of computer game design: either it's the designer's game, or it's the player's game.

A linear game is the designer's game. There is a right way to play, which the designer knows, and you're going to play it that way or not at all.

That isn't necessarily bad. Valve's games, for example, tend to be pretty great. Tight developer control is valuable if you have a specific story to tell. Exerting maximum control over the player experience is necessary to make sure your story is received as you intended it. That's how books and movies achieve their effects.

Non-linearity is about the player. As hard as a good linear, constrained game is to make, a game that aims to allow players to enjoy the game in a way that's fun for them is harder to do well. As noted, every new thing you let the player do creates multiple potential ways the game can break. That's harder to code and test.

But the result is a game that frees players to enjoy the kind of fun that suits them. In a highly non-linear game like Skyrim, for example, you can spend hundreds of hours choosing to fight or craft or chat or just sightsee, depending on what's fun for you. That level of responsiveness to different entertainment preferences is not conceivable as anything but a computer-mediated game.

This interactive freedom is what makes computer games different from passive entertainments like books and movies. Linearity and a determined effort to restrict player verbs -- which I see as the real dogma in the game industry today -- work against computer games becoming their own fully distinct form of entertainment, and being understood as such both artistically and commercially, because they make games more passive.

Of course this isn't completely black and white. You have to have some limits on what players can do. And you have to allow some amount of player choice.

The question is which direction is better for the game industry: more developer control, or more player freedom?

Chris Hendricks
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"The question is which direction is better for the game industry: more developer control, or more player freedom?"

That's the question? It surprises me that one would be any better for the game industry than the other.

Bart Stewart
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As I've said, I think there's plenty of room for both kinds of games.

But I also think games that emphasize player choice are more important, artistically and commercially, because they do more with the strong interactivity that computers offer than games that restrict player choice to emphasize what the developer likes. I see games moving in the latter direction -- of less choice for players and more control by the developer, usually (though not always) to try to minimize financial risk -- and I wonder if that does enough to help make computer games a distinct choice in entertainment than games that are designed to promote interactive freedom.

Robert Lee
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Why does this have to be an either or situation? Why not have linear quests/objectives with non-linear ways of achieving those goals? Just because Joe Designer gave the player character a silencer at the start of the level does not mean the level should 'feature' a fail state which kicks players back to the start of the level for 'going loud'. I can forgive linear objectives so long as my toolkit, level design, and gameplay give me multiple emergent ways to complete the objectives.


John Bell
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Good points Bart! I think you struck on something that I was driving at; the perception that non-linearity is for the player, and that linear design isn't. There's only one way to play DDR, the "designers way" but players don't perceive it that way. Players are able to specialize, if they where given more choices (such a selecting different sections of the song at different times) then the rhythm of the game would literally be broken. Players love DDR because they are given very few choices.

Phenomenon like the "Blue Bomber Run" (where a player will play a Megaman game while declining to use special weapons) is an example of gamers setting their own rules where the designer didn't place any. In a sense, a sprawling game with many branching paths actually becomes more of a "designers game" since the player is always looking outwardly to the game for solutions. I've watched a DDR player jump over the rail behind him, do a spin, and then jump back onto the pads just in time without missing a beat. He was presented with something extremely linear, and took upon himself think outside the box.

I designed a very linear game where the player used WASD and the mouse. Two players figured out that one person can use WASD and one can control the mouse and turned it into a co-op game, something I never considered. The player left a comment about it because he was proud (and rightfully so) that he found a creative way to play a linear game differently. Had a co-op mode been considered on my part and offered in the game, it wouldn't of had the same impact on those players.

Offering players less choices doesn't conflict with the interactive nature of games, it can often help them to embrace it. When a player is offered a lot of choices from the designer, the odds of him thinking for himself decline. "Teabagging" might never of existed if the designer put in 3 types of taunts. Players created it because they weren't distracted with other choices, they took authorship over the game on their own.

Bart Stewart
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I appreciate what you're suggesting here. You're seeing the situation where a certain kind of player will, when presented with a bunch of options, experience a kind of "paralysis by freedom": when you can do anything, how do you choose what to do? Absolutely there are some gamers like that. The effect you're describing does happen.

For example, I've argued before that part of World of Warcraft's success is that it's very strongly designed to cater to these gamers, who by now are (I think) a majority of gamers. They're not comfortable with a lot of options; games are more fun for them when they're told clearly what they are expected to do. I think your observation about some players preferring linearity and simplicity of choice is dead on.

But these aren't the only gamers in the world! There are also gamers who are comfortable with having options, who most certainly can and do think for themselves, who actually prefer being free to decide how to play a game. Rather than letting themselves be carried along in an exciting roller-coaster ride (as a movie or book does), the highly interactive games that these gamers like reward high levels of engagement with the gameworld.

I'm not suggesting there shouldn't be linear games. What I am suggesting is that they're not as effective as option-rich games at showcasing computer games as a distinctive form of entertainment. A game where the player is mostly along for the ride (as designed by someone else) doesn't make as much use of what computers can do. A game designed to detect lots of different kinds of player choices and alter the world in plausible and fun ways in response is a unique form of entertainment, offering something that non-computer-supported entertainment forms can't.

Some gamers will find that kind of freedom uncomfortable and prefer more directed entertainment. That's OK, and it's good that there are designer-controlled games that they can enjoy.

But there are also gamers who *want* as much agency as they can get to tell their own stories within the world of a game. And it's important that designers aren't discouraged from making games that these gamers can enjoy, too.

Loren H
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Great article and great discussion. I think you both have good points and I actually agree to some degree with both of you.

Personally, I think there's room for both methods of design. As Bart pointed out, there is more than one type of gamer out there and that means that both methods have value. I think one of the great things about the game industry is the variety of games available. Some people like casual games. Great, but not everyone does. Some people like hardcore games. Great, but again, not everyone does... But as designers, should we stop developing certain games because it doesn't offer certain folks the kind of experience they're after? No, I don't think so.

I'll end by saying that the point about our industry being different from other industries by having a more non-linear and interactive kind of entertainment is very valid, however by the same token what you are saying is important too. For those of us who have that "paralysis of freedom" (to re-use what Bart said), the linear game is just what we need. Also, linearity is definitely better in my opinion in telling a story. Games seem to suffer in the story department when you have these large, sprawling sandboxes or these non-linear types of games.

I think this is why both methods hold value and should continue to be used, because not one over the other satisfies every gamer. There's that saying, "variety is the spice of life." I can't argue against that. ;)

Lewis Wakeford
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@Bart I believe that as long as the player is the one driving the action then the game is taking advantage of the medium. I'll give you two contrasting examples:

Half Life 2 and Max Payne 3. Both are highly linear, however Half Life never leaves first person perspective or takes control of your avatar beyond what is reasonable (I think you get knocked unconscious at one point or something) so you still feel like you are the Hero of the story. Max Payne, however, interrupts you with cut-scenes every few minutes and you are forced to watch Max carry on without you.

Half Life 2 takes advantage of the fact that it is a video game. Whereas Max Payne 3 (actually, all Rockstar games recently) wants to be a movie.

Loren H
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@ Lewis: You make an interesting point there. I did enjoy Half-life 2's method of storytelling where you could walk around during "cut scenes," and I did find Max Payne 3's cut scenes a tad annoying.

However, I do appreciate story and Max Payne 3 was very story-based and for that reason I don't have a problem with the cutscenes themselves. Then again, the story could have probably been explained in the same vain as HL2, although I don't know what Max (Or rather, the player controlling Max) would be doing at these points.

Bart Stewart
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I appreciate all the very thoughtful replies.

Let me add one last comment. In one of those funny coincidences, Jason Rohrer, in discussing his latest game (The Castle Doctrine) with Rock Paper Shotgun, mentioned Doug Church's presentation on "Abdicating Authorship" at GDC 2000. (That's how long this debate has been going on. :)

Bernd Kreimeier did a superlative write-up of this presentation on page one of his article, published here on Gamasutra:
peek_into_.php .

It's worth reading. Doug Church does a much better job than I of explaining why games that are tightly controlled by their creators favor old-media passivity, while games that abandon developer control in favor of enabling player self-expression make much better use of the world-interactivity that only computer games can offer.

Roger Tober
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Story suffers at the hands of non-linearity. How many times will we be the hero who is empowered to defeat the bad guy? As long as non-linearity is held as the most important aspect of a game. Grind up those stats.

Aaron Fowler
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Interesting article. "Non-Linear" seems to be the magic word in marketing games now. One thing I have noticed about players, non-linear or not, is they will try and test and break the game's limits to see just how far they can push it.

I feel like if a game is really trying to be Non-Linear that means that the design needs to be more tight and not an excuse to make it more loose, or skimp on parts that really need addressing.

Nick Axmaker
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I'm the kind of person who will get "paralyzed by freedom" like Bart mentioned above. It gets bad enough for me that I get stuck staring at a gaming backlog on Steam and end up going and reading a book because I can't even decide what game to play (of course, this is indicative of a larger game collecting issue, but that's neither here nor there).

I definitely enjoy linearity more than I do games that are "open world" and decision heavy. I don't want to have to make choices, because I like playing the game with the best choices (perfectionism, min-maxing, not sure what you want to call it) so I want the game to tell me what that choice is.

However, I could see enjoying having choices that are clearly labelled as 'harder' to make the game worth replaying on some sort of challenge level. I'm thinking something along the lines of Ironman runs in Diablo 2. You could play Diablo 2 normally, using town merchants and services to provide the most optimal run, but you could go to Ironman mode to make it harder, similar to a Hardcore mode (which Diablo 2 also has).

I suppose what I'm saying is that some sort of 'challenge' non-linearity for replay-ability would be nice to have, but I like my game telling me what the best way to play is.

(Disclaimer: I like multiple available solutions in my puzzle games, but that's an entirely different animal.)

Mary Williams
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Story -can- exist in a game that isn't strictly linear, although it does so at the expense of both the player and the story.

When reading about Nintendo's plans to create a new, non-linear Legend of Zelda game, I was immediately reminded of the non-linear nature of the original Crystal Chronicles, which was similar in many ways but non-linear. It was -very- invested in story, but knowing that story wasn't needed or even guaranteed in order to play and finish the game.

In it, there were pre-recorded cut-scenes that told snippets of story between its levels-you-could-take-on-in-any-order -and- play-as-many-times-as-you-wanted, but those scenes were largely meaningless unless you quite literally spoke to everyone you saw and, in addition, opened up certain new areas at certain times to trigger specific additional events. Even the -real- backstory required this. Some of these events could only occur during a specific in-game year, and then would only take place after certain other events were triggered. In essence, the player is required to ferret out the details of the story himself, through much detective-work, and then is required to put the details of the story together on his own.

One event in particular, about a crazy old man who gets himself killed while you're on the road going from one place to another, may seem merely amusing and a little sad at first. But, it is particularly heartbreaking once you know the story behind it. Ferreting out those details requires a lot of hard work and you won't even know the full details of -that- subplot until you finish the final dungeon.

Enjoying the story fully on a second play-through isn't guaranteed, either. You may not need to talk to everyone you see, now, but you still need to trip certain triggers in order to get the extra cut-scenes. It made story-driven gameplay of the non-linear RPG possible, but annoyingly cumbersome since the player had to voluntarily enforce a certain measure of linear development. In the end, the burden of memorability fell on the gameplay and visuals.

I'm still looking for an actual -plus- for making story-heavy games non-linear. I mean, if you want non-linear gameplay that doesn't impede story development, isn't that what a multitude of side-quests/achievements/easter-eggs are for?

Scott Sheppard
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This isn't a direct reply to your points, but it made me think of something that I'd like to share.

It seems like a game like Magic: The Gathering is a completely non-linear game with a heavy story. Or the tabletop World of Darkness games. This could be a way to present non-linear stories in a videogame if done well.

There's a backstory, and then events that live within that backstory.

Jonathan Adams
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I'm not sure that alignment choices (or weapon choices, or fighting style) and linearity are really part of the same discussion, and they are far from mutually exclusive. The player's options in how to tackle a challenge don't usually affect the linearity or non-linearity of the game. Many story campaigns, particularly for shooters, are incredibly linear experiences, but still present the player with a wealth of options in how to handle things between railroaded cut scenes - aside from the obligatory and usually-loathed mandatory stealth level.

That all said, choice comes down to giving the player the best amount of choices for the experience you want to offer them. Halo doesn't need Skyrim's number of possible conflict resolution methods, and Skyrim doesn't need Halo's railroad. The trick is to stop clinging to trends and buzzwords and to focus on creating a satisfying and stimulating experience for the particular potential audience. You don't just go cramming inventories into things because RPG elements are the latest buzzword, and you don't go cramming carefully-woven narratives into things because Crafted Story is the latest buzzword.

John Bell
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Things like choosing different fighting styles and choosing branching paths are both non-linear in the sense that two different players can have two different experiences based on their choices. I didn't really draw that parallel in the article, I admit it was pretty vague how the two where connected.

I think you hit the nail on the head with buzzwords. Its just so easy to say "this game has 20 different paths" because so quantifiable and readily understood. This is why you'll see a bag a chips with "now with 20% more chips" and never see "now with 20% higher quality chips". The payoff is quantifiable with the first, the other is totally meaningless until you actually eat the chips.

Joshua Darlington
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Sometimes when narrative designers mix top down and bottom up they end up with sub par results.
Top down narrative with too much freedom can create narratives that are not compelling. "I must save the world but there's always time to make some soup, play blackjack and deliver this package." Playing a bottom up narrative in a mixed world design where the resources are locked up in quest lines rather than simulation is also less than ideal.

If a map can be story structure, why not acknowledge that a board game can be story structure. "Go ahead three spaces and draw a card from the deck - you won a haircut!" Has entertained people for years.

Adam Miller
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Excessive customization does seem to be bogging some games down. I recently started playing Might and Magic Heroes 6, which is not bad, but presents you with a Diablo's worth of hero customization choices with each level up. Making these choices completely bogs down the pace of the game and distracts from the truly interesting choices, namely the larger scale strategic ones (deploying armies etc.).