Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Joys and Curses of Linearity

by Jak Marshall

In an earlier post I vowed to broaden my horizons and try out games that were furthest from my comfort zone. I've quite been brave enough to pick up Gran Turismo yet but I did get myself a hold of Halo 3 and played through the Campaign mode last week. Quite some time ago I asked two writers to argue the merits of the popular FPS and RPG of that year and one of the key arguments against the FPS genre was that there was a very limiting and constrained linear experience. The single player was one straight line from start to finish and the multiplayer was all based on a finite collection of unchanging maps. While all those statements are true, it can hardly be said that these points in of themselves form a solid case against the FPS genre at all. More analysis is needed to determine whether linearity is necessarily a bad thing.

Absolutely no side roads. Could you handle this?

My personal bugbear of linearity in gaming is the idea of a 'Skill Gate'. If you're playing a game where the stages/content are organised in such a way that you need to complete level one in order to attempt level two and so on, you'll either blast through the entire game if it is easy, or come unstuck at a particularly difficult part of the game for a long time, with no other choice but to keep trying to beat that one part of the game before you can see any more of it. Now the 'challenge' part of this isn't actually the problem for me. I love the tension that is associated with beating a really tough level but only if I feel like the completion of said level feels like an accomplishment instead of a tiresome chore.

One of these will get in your way.

Halo 3 let me down with some its notorious vehicle sections. I really wanted to be the shooter as opposed to the driver but I simply couldn't trust the AI to drive in any kind of tactical fashion (I found this out the hard way) so I had to opt for the driving role so I could actually make progress. I felt like I had to compromise how much fun I was having because of this one and only one obstacle that I had to drive my way past instead of shooting past. What's worse is that part of the reason the Halo series is so widely enjoyed is because it has made some serious efforts to place your shooting antics within a half decent narrative. This narrative immersion is completely lost when my AI driver keeps on driving into walls an idiot and getting us all blown to pieces. How can I really get into the role of the Master Chief when I'm getting blown up because of a game design flaw that I am forced to endure because of linearity.

If you want to shoot in Halo 3, you'll have to see this 50 times before you give up and take the wheel...

But for the same reason that narratives can be broken this way, they can also be enhanced. Linearity means that events tend to happen in a very precise sequential order. Using linearity, a game designer can most easily control the precise order of events and in a story much like a movie or a book. This means that the sequence of levels unfolds like chapters of story with no aspect of the game wasted on events which aren't dramatic, which can lead to a potentially huge payoff. If you are willing to push past the parts of the Halo trilogy which aren't so fun, the climax is a very simple one, but it still has all the thrills and spills of a grandiose blockbuster, complete with explosions, romance and all the rest.

Linear games are designed to make you feel like this at the very end.

What's better is that as a gamer (as opposed to a movie goer) you aren't merely watching the hero do the cool thing, you are the hero doing the cool thing. Halo 3 puts you up against a terrifying parasitic species called The Flood at many points. In a horror movie called 'The Flood', the terror would come from an empathy based reaction. In Halo 3, the terror comes from knowing that you have to fight your way past a dread army of reanimated corpses with limited ammo and minimal support. This terror can be quashed in open world games. In Fallout 3, there was a certain section which I knew to be full of Mirelurks. I did not fancy confronting Mirelurks at the time because I am rather terrified of Mirelurks. I did not confront the Mirelurks because I did not have to confront the Mirelurks. In Halo 3, if they had Mirelurks, I would have to be forced into a situation where Mirelurks would be my enemy and I wouldn't have the option of wussing out. This is the power of linearity. It's a train you get on and have to ride all the way to the end, brick walls, scary moments, warts and all.