Friday, October 5, 2012

Linearity versus Freedom in RPGs

The balance between control and freedom between the players and game developpers has teetered since the beginning. Developers have tried to find the right balance of leading players into their story and levels while giving them enough freedom that they aren't suffocated and can have their own unique experiences.

But its not just about freedom. it's about the type of game is being represented. Some games benefit more from a linear experience while others are better suited to give more freedom. Every game is different and requires the right balance to fit with the games mechanics. In this post we will take a look at how some games have gone linear or given freedom and how they faired.

Three layers of Freedom

Before we begin let's take a look at the three types of linearity/non linearity we can have.


Pretty much controlling the entire experience, forcing you onto a single path to one objective, no alternate paths or methods of completing that objective. Players learn new things in the appropriate order and developers can make sure everything goes right.

The path is very guided in Linear. The gray lines represent missions/obstacles that must be completed in order to proceed.


Players are sent to complete their objective but they can use alternate methods of completing it. Players are given some amount of freedom but they are still being led slowly towards the final goal (Main storyline). Developers will have less control as players can do certain actions out of order that can make the experience not the intended one designed by the developers.

There are many more choices, alternate paths but to proceed any farther you must reach the end of the current level. From there you will get more paths.

The concept of an open world means you can do almost anything at any time in the most extreme circumstances. Most open world games are a balance between open world and semi linear, so that players still guide but provide a massive amount of choices to pursue. Of course developers need to guide players still and it's difficult to make sure the experience remains consistent for doing one particular mission early and another later and still make the missions relevant.

Here you can roam and do whatever you wish, you do not have to follow the main storyline to do a lot of other things in the game. You can do whatever other sidequests as you please and go to the main story anytime you wish. Or there is no main storyline at all.

Final Fantasy XIII
Coming from a franchise known for huge worlds, Final Fantasy XIII was a step back in terms of freedom. Many consider a huge step back so much that many fans have raged at Square Enix and (boycotted) the game. This game's first half of the game is the very definition of a linear experience, however it's very focused and story driven and focuses on story development as it's core.

The basic premise of it's linearity is that you walk down a corridor, going on X location to Y location, with little to no detours for alternate paths for items or alternate ways to get to your goal. Linearity is depending on guiding a player to a location and having a very large area with multiple paths but in the end would like you to end up somewhere else is considered non-linear, or at least semi-linear. For Final Fantasy XIII though, paths were generally very straight forward and if there was a larger area to explore, there would be no secrets to be found and usually only one extra (usually useless) item to be discovered.

The game only opened up in freedom once the later half of the game hit where you were presented to the area of Gran Pulse. Here though you were lead by story eventually out of the area, it was absolutely huge and presented itself with other sidequests to be done now and many areas to go. This portion of the game was non-linear, that's for sure. In fact the premise of sidequests are considered a non-linear affair because they offer you a chance to do something else besides the main quest, a detour that gives you the freedom to choose what to do. Sidequests were lacking in FF-13, only appearing once you reached Gran Pulse.

The good thing is that, in doing the linear levels early game, the story was presented to the player all the time and drove the experience. The team was able to show up the story upfront and place such importance on it and it's characters. The game also became more accessible to other players as well who were daunted by the prospects of giant areas and getting lost. However it lost a lot of freedom for players used to many sidequests and large areas of previous Final Fantasy games. The game didn't offer enough chance ofr players to do their own things, only till the later half where if players were disappointed by being guided too much, they might have stopped before then.

This issue was however rectified in the release of it's sequel Final Fantasy XIII-2 which use semi-linear level design. It guided players and told them where they needed to be and also providing plenty of sidequests, larger levels and multiple hidden areas to go to from the start, all the while advancing the story.

Dragon's Dogma

This was a very interesting game and is a good balance between semi linear and open world though aiming more towards semi linear. This game is a 3rd person action fantasy  RPG, similar to Demon Souls but faster paced and with a team of allies. The entire world itself is accessible right after the prologue, you can head to anywhere in the map of the game and not be stopped from going there. This presents itself to a lot of freedom and you are still told where you need to be if you so choose.

The thing is, that though you can access a lot of those areas, not everything will be there. To have all the monsters appearing, you need to activate them by talking to be people to activate quests. A lot of these quests also need to be activated in a linear fashion, meaning you need to progress the story to access some of them. You can access any of the locales in the world but you can't get the full benefit of all of them until you do some requirements. Not to mention if you went to those areas too early it might also be too difficult for your character at the time until they can get stronger.

However despite that, there are plenty of sidequests still accesible during any parts of the game, which is what gives the player a lot of freedom. You can usually get several sidequests at certain portions of the game and get more once you reach farther into the story. This makes it so that you are given freedom to do other sidequests before the main quest but still guide you to do the main quest so you can unlock more to do.

These two aspects of the game, the freedom of exploring the world and the sidequests is what makes this game both semi-linear and open world. It restricts you from doing anything and everything at once, but still provides you a lot of freedom and content from the get go and guides you towards the story still.

The Elder Scrolls V - Skyrim

This is one of the most open world games I have ever played. A first person/third person action RPG with massive amounts of content, the world is open to you right from the ending of the prologue. Comparing it's level structure to Dragon's Dogma, it allows you to explore anywhere you want in the world anytime you want. Any locale on the map is available to you no matter what level you are, and no matter what your progression is in the main story.

Want to just run through the main quest and beat it right away as a level 1? Go right ahead, enemies will scale in strength with you. Do you want to completely ignore the main quest and just do whatever other side quests? That's perfectly fine. The game does not force you to do it's main quest line in the slightest and you can branch off to any other quest at pretty much any point in time. More quests don't unlock later, you can just do any of them right away. Despite so much freedom in quest choice, the main storyline isn't dumbed down by lack of direction either, it is epic indeed.

That's what makes this game more open world then Dragon's Dogma. This game is Open World because there are pretty much no restrictions. You can begin the Dark Brotherhood questline or Mage's guild questline even if you aren't an assassin or a mage. It doesn't matter your profession, what skills you are good at, you are allowed to do anything and everything. As a result this means some questlines aren't quite as tailored towards a specific type of character as you'd hope but it means its whole world and its massive amounts of contents are open to players of any kind.

This is opposite of a lot of MMOs which still guide you, forcing you to only go to certain areas after doing some quests, or getting to a certain level. This is kind of ironic since MMOs are generally considered to be the most open ended world games but the Elder Scrolls series. The downside for Skyrim however is that there might not be as much challenge due to how the game scales, or too much challenge if you leveled up your character wrong. But in terms of linearity and open world, this game takes the cake as one of the most open ended games. (Also Oblivion, Fallout 3, etc)


So we've seen the most linear, and most open ended versions of RPGs. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Skyrim is a good example that a lot of emphasis can still be placed on story even if it's non linear. Most of the sidequests have good storylines in the game too. However all sorts of terrible glitches that ruin sidequests or even main quests do plague the game due to it's massive scope and freedom. This can lead to all sorts of troubles that can be game breaking. This may or may not be related to how open world it is, it likely is due to the amount of crazy variables going on as well as lack of focus in one specific area.

Skyrim is an extremely open world game and follows this structure very well

Meanwhile Final Fantasy XIII placed so much emphasis on story that it lacked the freedom for many basic necessities like sidequests or even having towns as hubs to buy weapons. It made the game feel a lot more disjointed and far away then previous Final Fantasy games where you had a home to stay safe. However that worked perfectly into the story, because it was all about alienation and being seperated from civilization. It helped keep the themes and tone of the story by doing this. However it doesn't excuse how linear some areas of the game where, and could have at least been more prone to more exploration for hidden items.

Final Fantasy XIII followed a very linear structure during the first half of the game

Dragon's Dogma had some great exploration and really felt like an adventure when you were roaming the lands with your party. It had very few game breaking glitches unlike Skyrim even if it wasn't as fully open world as it was. Unfortunately the story wasn't quite as strong and was a bit more disjointed, though it could be due to the writing. It's hard to say if the game's story structure was flawed due to it's open world form or just the actual story. That's not to say the main quest was terrible, but had its ups and downs.

Dragon's Dogma follows along a mix of semi-linear and Open World

So really, it all depends on the execution by the team. Linear and Open world can work well as long as the team is able to control and layout the level and story in a way that will draw in players and keep them entertained. Either one is perfectly viable but it depends on the type of game and the type of quests and storyline it wants to follow.

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