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Ryoma90 avatar 9:56 AM on 07.05.2011  (server time)
Take away my Freedom! Or, why I think Linear Gameplay is Superior

Wow, I haven't updated this blog in a long time. Like, over a year. Maybe two. I point the blame squarely at college and real life sucking up all of my non-video game time, and even having the gall to cut into said video game time.

I know. How dare I let something so petty as college cut into precious video game time? But, that's another tale full of sighs, sorrow, and things that are best left unsaid in a public blog. We are here today to talk about Freedom in video games! And talk about it we shall!

Let me first say that I'm quickly finding myself to be an old-school gamer more and more. I'm finding much of today's gaming world to be a frustrating affair full of dark greys and grizzled men shouting unfunny one-liners. I know that this isn't wholly accurate to say, but I sometimes feel that we are more or less stuck in these bland areas, and I feel that gaming can be so much more than that.

But I digress. Again. Freedom. Yes! Let's talk about Freedom!

Or rather, how I don't want it in my games. I realize that this is a somewhat backwards way of thinking, but I don't like when games more or less plop me in a sandbox and expect me to go whilly nilly. I'm not exactly the most creative person when it comes to these things, and I often find myself running out of silly things to do. Sure, it's fun to run around with a bazooka and shoot people for a while, but it only lasts about one play session or so before I move onto the story mode, rarely going back to the sandboxy stuff at all.

I'm speaking primarily about Grand Theft Auto IV when I say this. The game literally has a button you can push to activate sandbox mode, and while that's all well and good for a while, I eventually just stopped pushing it, and just went through the story missions. And I had a great time doing it. The story missions were great fun, well varied, and the story of the game itself was strong enough to carry me through them all. And yet, despite one or two sessions, I was essentially playing what boiled down to be a linear experience. Sure, I could choose the order of the missions I went on, but because the city was so big I often just chose the one that was closest to where I ended the last mission. Traveling from mission to mission added an unnecessary hurdle (and time) between missions.

That might be a bit unfair to say. The open-world aspect is what makes a game like GTA work, and just because I chose to play it linearly does not mean that everyone wants to, nor should they have to. GTA is practically its own genre, and everyone plays each genre differently. And that's fine, and doesn't bug me. What does bug me is when non-linearity affects the game as a whole.

Some game reviewers tend to cycle linearity as a negative aspect. Personally, I don't think it is. Some people may disagree with me, but I like to play a game and be led down a story path. Let the game lead me through situations, meet characters, get involved with them, and come to a conclusion. Essentially an interactive movie in a lot of ways. And that's fine by me. In fact, I tend to prefer it.

People that know me will immediately raise a red flag here. But since I haven't been on here in ages, let me walk you through their reaction.

Ryoma: I like linear games.

Everyone else: BAWHAT? But you hates teh Final Fantasy XIII. And that game is the King, Queen, and PRINCE of linear! YOU ARE A LIARSX!@#!$!@

That is true. I hate Final Fantasy XIII. With a passion. But not because of its linearity. Honestly, I think in the right hands, an RPG where the party members are assigned in each battle can be kind of interesting. It would force some interesting battle situations on the player, and in turn get the player to experience each character in full. I don't think this would appeal to everyone, but this kind of "work with what you have" motif might turn into a challenging experience. Imagine going up against a boss designed to be strong against the characters you currently have in your party, so you are forced to think in new ways to defeat the foe, and new ways for the characters to work together.

It's a thought.

In brief, my hatred of Final Fantasy XIII comes from its stupid battle system that is neither challenging nor interest (and barely counts as playing), from it's terrible cast (Snow needs to be lit on fire) and from the poorly way it's told (datalog isn't a nice feature, it's required reading). That topic can be explored in a later blog if I choose to, but not now.

Also, sometimes I think forced non-linearity can hurt an experience. For this example, I turn to 2008's remake/reboot/re-whatever, Prince of Persia. In this game, which actually has a lot going for it, you play as the titular Prince, save a girl, and travel with her to stop a bad-guy. The game is split into four worlds, and lets you choose the order in which to go through them. This sounds delightful on paper, but it actually (in my opinion) mars the experience. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation pretty much hit the nail on the head here when he reviewed the game, and I agree with him 100%.

But, for those of you who don't watch Zero Punctuation (What is wrong with you?), here is basically what Yahtzee said. Because the game lets you play in the worlds in any order, the game's difficulty never increases. It doesn't build on itself. Each level can be played first and therefore has to be of roughly the same difficulty for newcomers. So, that means the level you played first will be as difficult as the level you played third. While the game does try to make it more difficult with (I forget the actual name) black stuff on levels that can kill you, it does little to shake the feeling that the game really is not gaining any difficulty or momentum.

The game has you learn powers, and each level is designed around a new power. That's all good, but they never cross over and get used in tandem until the game's final act. Only then, since the game knows you've completed all the other levels, does the difficulty increase and you get to use all the powers together.

It not only affects gameplay, but the storytelling as well. Once again, because each area can be viewed in any order, the characters make little to no progress. The whole game centers around the dialogue between Prince and Girl (Elika, I think), and to the game's credit, the dialogue is fairly witty and well done. You'll go through an area, Prince and Girl seem to make some progress, only to have all of that development be dropped in the next area. Girl seems to get nicer, only to grow cold again in the next area. Once again, only in the final act do you get to see these characters grow to trust each other. What should have been a slow, gradual change becomes stark and sudden. And it just doesn't work.

I'm a bit of writer in my spare time (What a concept) and I know what it's like to try and craft a tale. And I can't imagine trying to do so when a reader can read any chapter in any order. It's certainly non-linear, but it will also feel like it's spinning its wheels a bit.

I do think of video games as interactive stories, and I realize that that tag might not be entirely accurate to every game. I think that, with that thought in mind, most games should have some linearity to them. Being led along isn't always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes, it can be a very good thing.

Thank you for reading if you managed to get through the wall of text I just typed. I might keep this updated more regularly in the future. We'll see.

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