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Non Linearity: A Necessary RPG Element?
by Pallav Nawani on 01/12/10 07:05:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.


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.

Games which revolve tightly around a storyline have to follow the story and are therefore linear. You can have the story branch - typically near the end - but the game itself tends to be linear. Eg Deus Ex, Baldur's Gate 2, Bioshock, Mass Effect etc.

Baldur's Gate 2 and Mass Effect are interesting because they provide the player with some amount of non-linearity. There are many quests/places which can be taken/visited in any order, and yet the game follows a strong story line. But the game itself is linear, no matter in which order you do the quests, you end up going down the same path.

Then there are the games which are purportly non-linear. Examples being Morrowind and Two Worlds. In these games you may visit any place in any order, this gives you a feeling of freedom, at least initially.

So if the designer is aiming to give the player a feeling of freedom, then it makes sense to design a game like this. But this also means that the designer needs to design interesting places for the player to visit, tough monsters to conquer, and worthwhile loot. If all you get is yet another cave with skeletons as monsters and skeleton knuckles as a reward, then the exploration gets boring soon. And, unfortunately, if the player can go anywhere and meet any one in any order, then it becomes impossible to design an emotional experience.

Alas, in the end, these games too are linear. In Morrowind, you will end up facing Dagoth Ur eventually. Maybe there is a choice near the end of the game, but it is the same kind we see in  the so-called linear games! Maybe we should say that these are 'free exploration' games instead?

There is also the matter of technology. Creating a truly changing, evolving, non-linear world, in which the player's action or inaction impacts the world is too hard, especially in an RPG. What happens when the player ignores the evil threat for too long? Does the evil become too powerful for the player to beat? Or does someone else rise to take the threat head on? What happens when the player goes hard after the evil? Does evil sit up and take notice? Does it send its most powerful general to deal with the player?

The Matrix anyone?

In conclusion, whether a game is linear or 'free exploration' depends upon the kind of experience the games designers want to provide. An important variable in game design, and maybe a fad, but not a holy grail at all.

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Jas Purewal
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Great post.

I love the idea of a game in which, if the player ignores the bad guy/object/malevolent force for too long, it comes after HIM/HER. Or, perhaps more realistically, your allied NPCs go charging off to battle instead, or perhaps game areas become closed off to you as a result of enemy action. That would be truly non-linear in terms of consequences, although as a matter of game design I suppose the game could still be physically linear.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Interesting article.

What about a hybrid approach that is the opposite of the one used in BG2 and Mass Effect: Giving the player the freedom to roam in a massive consistent space (as in Morrowind) but having a very specific set of waypoints to pass through and objectives to complete to progress the story (as opposed to multiple quest lines).


- Gives the player a choice and a greater feeling of being a free agent in a believable world.

- Provides a sense of freedom as opposed to the constricting feeling of a narrow corridor with many visible but out of reach areas.

- Retains some sort of specific experience crafted for emotional impact, to the extent that the player wishes to follow it.


- Difficulty balancing: The player level-grind in the open world and then breeze through the plot. This could be solved by requiring plot elements for main aspects of ability progression. i.e. to get significantly stronger you'll need to follow the storyline.

- The player with too much freedom could travel to future plot locations breaking the flow of the story. This could be helped by blocking access to certain areas until the story is ready (slightly frustrating and contradicting the sense of freedom). One way of doing this could be to scatter powerful enemies that the player does not stand a chance at fighting or sneaking past, while clearly communicating "You are not ready for this area yet".

- Less control over pacing: may reduce emotional impact or create plot inconsistency.

- May not be clear where to go next. This can be solved by providing good navigational aids. The player wishing only to follow the plot should easily be able to find where to go next.

- If time and effort is spent on polishing the areas used for the story then the other areas will be boring. This might be alleviated by scattering some goodies that are fairly easy to stumble upon, while creating incentive to stay near the story path and disincentives to stray too far.

- Creating large spaces takes a lot of work. But could the content be generated procedurally? It does not need to be of high quality. It just needs to exist. Could it be reused in different games?

One might ask, why bother creating a vast world that exists for no gameplay purpose? The aim is to create a sense of freedom. It is highly satisfying to be travelling in a certain direction because I *choose* to rather than because it is the only possible way to go. The type of game that I propose would offer two options: a) go where the story is going, b) go a completely different way that is probably much less interesting. Even if you choose to follow the story, you know it was a real choice giving a much greater sense of freedom and immersion than some rubble blocking your path.

Far Cry was like this in some respects. I have not played Far Cry 2 but I understand the story was much less linear. Are there other examples of a open-world but linear games?

Jason Cheng
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I do think that the term non-linear has been misused when describing RPG. As you've stated in many games these days the story will have a definite beginning and an ending, it is only the middle parts that is opened up to players in terms of where they can go and what order to tackle each mission/chapter/section. For example, in Dragon Age, regardless which origin story you choose, you will always start your journey being initiated as a Grey Warden and end it by fighting the archdemon. So is it truly non-linear that no matter which permutation you use to recruit the different races, the conclusion is always the same (this is unrelated to the variation in ending)?

To me, non-linear should mean that the ending is not set in stone, but rather is shaped according to the choices a player makes throughout the journey. As far as I know no RPG has yet to implement that. One will always end up saving the world/country/princess. The only thing I've played that came close would be visual novels, which could arguably be considered as games.

Anyway, to get back to the original topic, sometimes I just want to experience a good story. I don't care to replay a game multiple times to see the different ways I can to reach the end. So to me, non-linearity (as it is being used now) is not a necessary RPG element.

Luis Guimaraes
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To me, "non-linear story" could only mean what is seen in Star Wars, when you watch the end, and than you watch the beggining. Where you play different characters (preferably in both sides) and go back and forth in the timeline (time is linear). It's where a story becomes a plot. I usualy try to avoid too much praises about "non-linearity" and "the future of game stories..." discussions, simply because it's not a measure of quality, even do I mostly, when I plan on stories for games, can't not to want non-linear progression as well as non-linearity and incrementing moral and social messages, I don't see anything wrong in video games not having any of these.

For starters, in the first time you play any story, it IS linear, LIFE IS LINEAR, we we can change it and choose almost everything, but life is linear cause time is linear. No matter what of the 50+ plot paths you choose, you're going throwgh a linear story, the facts happen one after another. It may look non-linear in a flow-chart, but when you're just playing, it's a linear story.

Exploration and character customization are different things, which are undoubtly only qualities for almost any game. But the use of the word "linear" to make a game be understood as bad is poorly concepted. Not taking into account that reviewrs don't play the whole game...

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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Luis, good point that any play-through of a game is linear. I think what people are really referring to when they say a game is "non-linear" after playing it once is they often felt they *could* have taken a different path. The more I think about it, the more I think that this sense of freedom is by far the most important aspect of the popular concept of "non-linearity". For the single play-through, the illusion of choice is just as good as actual choice.

There are certain things that break the illusion of choice. For example, when a player reaches a pivotal plot point and sees a cut-scene he realises that it was always inevitable that he would reach this point. Ironically, even if you created 100 different paths with unique cut-scenes, the existence of cut-scenes would still suggest "linearity" to the player who plays the game once (the vast majority?). It's the high quality of content that breaks the spell, since the player knows enough about the game making industry to know that what just happened could not have been truly emergent. On the other hand, when action events lead to crude micro-stories that are acted out by AI who express themselves in the most primitive of ways, it can be more affecting and "real" because you know it genuinely could have gone either way.

Bart Stewart
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I would say that being non-linear is not inherently good and being linear is not inherently bad for avatar/character-based games... but it *is* bad not to have a reasonable amount of choice among these different kinds of games. And I believe that's the situation we have today -- most avatar-based games aren't just sort of linear; they're *highly* linear.

As noted, linearity is not necessarily a bad thing in some particular game. In the same way that the form of a book or a movie allows it to be experienced in a sequenced way in order to communicate a particular story, designing an interactive game so that the player must experience the content in a specific sequence helps tell the story the author/developer wants to tell.

There's nothing wrong with games like that. My concern is larger than an individual game, however -- it's that computer games are capable of presenting entertainment experiences that, because of their unique quality of interactivity, are distinctly different from books and movies. To maximize the potential of the medium, then, character-based computer games should not all be designed to follow the same linear form as books and movies.

If the interactivity of computer games uniquely allows players to "tell their own stories" (to some degree), aren't game developers missing out on a crucial commercial and artistic opportunity by not making plenty of good computer games that highlight this wonderful capability?

I can enjoy a linear game as long as the experience is highly polished as in the Half-Life games, just as I can enjoy a good book or movie. But it's important to have "multiple-solution" games like Deus Ex and System Shock, and "open-world" games like Far Cry 2 and Two Worlds and Fallout 3 that, if they're not entirely non-linear, at least take better advantage of interactivity (i.e., player choice) to enable a kind of entertainment experience that books and movies cannot.

Terrence Morris
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While your insight may be interesting, I fail to see the point. Where is the evidence supporting linearity as bad for RPGs? Did you attempt to find evidence that supports it being good?

You state that "you notice" people mentioning it as a negative, then you provide linear examples of universally accepted "good" games. Followed by examples of non-linear games. Again, I fail to see the point you are trying to make.

Your concluding point.....

"In conclusion, whether a game is linear or 'free exploration' depends upon the kind of experience the games designers want to provide."

Are there people out there designing experiences that are contrary to what they want to provide? I guess all I get out of this article is the fact that I should design what I want to design....which hardly seems like new information.

Joshua Sterns
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I like the term "free-exploration." It's a tad bit more accurate then non-linear. A truly non-linear game world would probably bore me. I imagine a giant open world scattered with quests that are not necessarily related to each other. Sorta of like going to an empty arcade with a sack full of quarters. Some of the games may be related to each other, but your going to be hard press to weave a connective plot from Street Fighter II and Cruisine USA.

I'm also glad to see the neutral comments in regards to free-exploration v. linear gameplay. :)

Matt Riley
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Maybe it sounds ridiculous, but are truly non-linear games worth making simply because they are "different", and games can do different? Obviously it's not the same thing, but books can do non-linear to a degree, with choose your own adventure novels -- and I don't think most people pay a lot of attention to those.

Pallav seems to be making the same statement ("If the designer wants to take the player on an intense emotional roller coaser ride - well then the game has to be linear") that Ebert made a while back ("If you can go through "every emotional journey available," doesn't that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices."). Until we can dispute those statements, I don't really see a place for non-linearity except for the hybrid solutions mentioned above.

I feel like good linear games offer enough opportunities for "decisions" that the user walks away with a more personal experience than that provided by reading a book or watching a movie. It's not full-fledged freedom, but it's enough for me.

Maurício Gomes
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I think that also this depends on your definition of RPG.

A RPG must be non-linear? Yes.

A Square style adventure game with lots of spreadsheet playing can be linear? Yes, and may even benifit from it.

A Square style adventure game with lots of spreadsheet playing is a RPG? Certainly not.

Bart Stewart
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Not ridiculous at all, Matt. It's a reasonable response to an admittedly unusual assertion.

You're not wrong at all that books and even movies (e.g., Memento) can be pushed into doing forms of non-linear narrative. But in fairness I'd suggest that those cases are pretty rare and even unnatural for media whose formats encourage a sequential experience.

Avatar/character-based computer games don't have any such natural restriction. Developers often impose the restriction of linearity (either because it's useful in telling a story or simply out of habit from how stories are told in other media), but it's not required by computer games in the way it normally is in written or filmed stories.

Interactivity permits choice. And from both a commercial and artistic point of view, I think it makes sense to exploit and explore that distinctive quality of computer games. Otherwise computer games are just another way to read a book or watch a movie, and where's the fun in that?

So maybe linearity really is the wrong word to describe the opposite of player choice. We know what's meant by "linear": it means games where there's just one path, just one solution to each problem -- a straight line from beginning to middle to end. And because that's how stories work, we find it easy to simply map the gameplay onto the story. Linear story, linear game world.

But maybe it's only the beginnings and endings that need to be fixed. When the interactive quality of computer games allows -- even requires -- interesting choices, why does the middle always have to be constrained? When players can make choices, why not let them? Isn't that a valid form of fun, and one that computer games can uniquely satisfy?

This obviously begs the practical question of how to insure that when you let players create their own story, it's a *good* story. But I'm just addressing the "why" here, not the "how."

Joshua McDonald
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As with most conversations on this subject, everybody's way too focused on the story. The game experience of a good non-linear game is not found in the dramatic cutscene but in the use of the game mechanics.

Linear games are careful to keep you from getting grand items until specific parts. They make sure that you can't craft a character or party that's exceptionally powerful, and they rarely give you the opportunity to take on tasks that are designed for higher level characters, or if they do, you're supposed to lose as part of the story.

Non-linear games (at least my favorites) go with the philosophy that "If you can pull it off, you'll get the reward." and in the meantime, they usually have a much more open system of mechanics and character development to really give you the opportunity to do something wild or interesting.

The satisfaction of non-linearity doesn't come from choosing to rescue the princess instead of saving the village. It comes from crafting and building up unique characters or parties and constantly pushing the boundaries of what should be possible.

In fact, one of the main problems with many games that claim to be "open world" is that they curtail creative gameplay. WoW, for example, lets you wander anywhere and fight anything, but your level is such a critical number in combat calculations that you're forced to play in environments that are reasonably close to your level. Other games like Oblivion level the enemies with you, creating a static gameplay experience regardless of your choices.

In my opinion, the games that did the non-linear thing best (even though they often suffer from other flaws) tend to be much older RPG's. Might and Magic VII, Darksun: Shattered Lands, Bard's Tale 2, and to a lesser degree, Fallout 2 are a few examples.

Luis Guimaraes
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Yes. Assuring that the player created story is a good story (which won't bore the own player from not knowing how to experience the best out of the game, and ending with the player left with a bad experience, and his word of mouth about it) is the core challenge. Of course, the only way to overcome a challenge is by facing it. And sometimes, facing the challenge is considered risky, or at least ambitious enough to not be taken in big budget projects.

In parallel to that, there's a need for widely solid, balanced and variated gameplay features, to accomodate enough crativity and player styles, aswell as a huge amount of content. Game based on exploration *must* be able to handle the offer for the amount of demand it creates. It a vicious cicle that start and ends by itself, feeding at the same time that it summons hunger in the player's apetite for new content and possibilities.

As soon as you show that the player have two choices, you're better be ready to give him ten. And the willing to take risks and get into a further and deeper inovation step isn't in the same place where the budget and marketing for the amound of high quality content and gameplay that the same push demands.


All agreed, I forgot saying all I mean in this specif post is far more about gameplay. Also, the fact the older games have such deeper and better -exploration could be analised based on the difference in costs and shifts in development since they come out.

dana mcdonald
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I may be somewhat unique in this, but in the non linear games I play, I couldn't care less about the overarching story. The two things I care about are the setting and customization of my character or party, and then I make my own story such as. "I spent 4 hours trying to kill that dragon that is 10 levels above me and I finaly did it and got the Epic Uber Sword of the Apocalypse way before it's time."

That is the story I remember and tell my friends. Not how I leveled up doing story driven quests to save the princess from that same dragon at the exact time that the developers planned. And if you are going for emotion, at least for me, it is a way more emotional experience to pull off a grand plan that you came up with, than it is to go through any story that I have ever seen in a game.

I know not everybody is like me, but I don't think I am alone.

Matt Riley
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Isn't that a very restrictive emotional palette? How many emotions can you draw from the story you create yourself? I would doubt most people have it in themselves to create sadness, helplessness, horror, etc -- how would you go about creating those in nonlinear play?

It's not on-topic, but I think perhaps the reason you don't tell your friends about the storyline quests is because the storyline quests are hackneyed and boring?

dana mcdonald
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I use books and movies for my broader emotional palette. I have yet to see or play a game that came anywhere near what a good book can do. By their nature games do a really good job of certain emotions, but really struggle with emotions like sadness. That is not to say that we can't do better, and that non linear games can't tell a good story, but I don't think most people who play non linear games are looking mainly for a story. I think they are looking for ways to challenge their creativity and make their own experiences that aren't tailored by a writer.

And yes storyline quests are often hackneyed and boring, but the pacing of gameplay and the pacing of a good story usually don't mix well, and is why I think the setting of non linear games is more important thatn the story.

Luis Guimaraes
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I think there are a lot of people that do like this. I'm exactly the same, I don't bother doing the same everyone would do, and just "stick to the rules" in almost any game. Find new and unique ways to play and do things is the best thing I can see in games and in real life. Any game I approach first time I come into it trying to figure a way to be creative, and if I feel the games being too restrictive, or trying to trick me into giving me false creativity choices, my enjoyment goes straight to the floor.

Of course a game shall have different layers and it's hard to balance, by overlooking, the different possiblities either offered by the core gameplay or found/created by players. The mix of game style choices and seek for optimal strategies can either put the player to get bored of becoming overpowered, or feeling unfair that his prefered gaming style is unfairly useless, and, to this point, the wide range of choices start to become pointless, since the feeling that only one choice is right.

RM French
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I also love the term "free-exploration"! Anyway, I think the "non-linear" marketing gimmick (after all, that's what it has become) is less meaningful to the savvy gamer than when it was first introduced. Don't you remember getting all excited imagining the endless adventures and outcomes that one single non-linear RPG game could provide? But the reality is that the games had several quest plot points scattered throughout the landscape. At the most, you could stumble upon two paths (generally evil and good) that led to a different, though similar, climax.

Basically, this sleight of hand is called "magician's choice" which means whatever choice the mark makes will lead to the outcome the magician needs for the trick to work. Pick a card! If you pick card A, then you've chosen to keep card A (so discard card B). If you pick card B, then you've chosen to discard card B (so keep card A). If it's done well, it's a pretty neat--the first play through. However, upon multiple replays, the luster begins to fade and the trick shows itself for what it is.

Luis Guimaraes
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This discussion made me remember a game I've get to from a post from Adam Saltsman here at Gamasutra, so I searched for it back in the archives. Here is the post with the link for the game, followed by the link itself:

Luckily, also found other good interesting blog entrie in the theme:

Adam Bishop
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I think Helder hit the nail on the head. If we're only using the D&D based Western model of RPGs, then yes, of course they have to be non-linear, since being able to choose your role is the main draw of such games. If they're linear, defined experiences, then they aren't "role"-playing games, they're just games with hit points and magic. On the other hand, if we broaden the notion of the RPG to include games like Final Fantasy or Suikoden (which I've argued in other places are actually strategy games), then linearity is perfectly acceptable (and often quite successful).

For my own personal tastes, I think something like Suikoden V or Chrono Cross strikes a great balance. Both games have clearly defined stories with clearly defined characters, but also tend to leave open a lot of options about what you can do in the world and in terms of party construction without ever becoming unfocussed.

Huck Terrister
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There is a grue here.

>befriend grue

I don't understand "befriend"

>shine lantern into grue's eyes

You can't do that with lantern!

>sneak past grue

I don't understand "sneak"

>How about you tell me what you understand and I'll do that

I can't help you with "about"


There is a grue here. To use your sword type "Use Sword on Grue".

>befriend grue

Look. Just use the sword on the grue.

>shine lantern in grue's eyes

You know what? We've focus tested this like a million times. All of our marketing research shows that the average player wants to use the sword on the grue and nothing more. Why not you? It's more CINEMATIC to use your sword on the grue. It cost us more money to put this together than you see in a year. How DARE you.

>use sword on grue

The grue is dead! Achievement Unlocked.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Wesley Baker

Oh, yes. In the last years the feeling that the publishers think I'm stupid, or that the game is training me for the army (where there are manuals teaching you how to eat, sleep and make sh*t). Or that players (as developers) are just machines in a mountage line to their eyes...

Christopher Wragg
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Ug, we have an issue here with a definition of linear, If a story has multiple paths from a pre-determined beginning to an inevitable outcome, then it is in no way "linear".

If this was a case then traditional pen and paper DnD is often linear, as the DM starts the story from a predetermined location and eventually takes each adventure to an often inevitable outcome. There are a high number of branching paths the story (as created by both players and DM) can take though.

If we want a truly overboiled view of things, then even the most dynamically crafted experience ends up being linear by virtue of beginning and ending somewhere, which is a stupidly vague view. So it is that games like Dragon Age, and Mass Effect are NOT inherently linear, the choices in between shape a total story that can be largely different from start to finish. A better way to look at it is that it differs from a game like Modern Warfare, that pulls the player through a set of missions, with no form of choice, and a set order, which is linear (disregarding the non-linearity of actual gameplay), as it mimics the same structure that a novel or movie (recognized as primarily linear mediums) uses to display their stories.

Ultimately we're talking RPGs though, and in truth if we disregard character creation and development as pure mechanics, then linearity would be a predefined story with events that must be followed in order, and the degree to which this is done would define how linear an RPG is. There is no reason that one experience can be better than the other, careful crafting can allow a player to chose from something meaningful (yet to see this done well really), or it could force them down a meaningful path, or they can visit places each with thier own set of predefined paths. Either concept can be targeted by a designer and planned for.

The big limitation on "open world" scenario's though is the same problem many a DM faces. Content. A DM is lucky in that the generation of content can be done on the fly with little to no cost, a video game on the other hand requires large quantities of both time and money to produce that additional content.