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TriggerOfHel avatar 1:06 PM on 01.17.2011
Walking the Line: Open-ended vs. Linear

We are in the age of open-ended gaming.

This is the era where games like Final Fantasy XIII and Mafia II just aren't 'open-ended' enough, and games like Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption sit at the top of the charts until the next big thing comes around. It's understandable that people enjoy the freedom and sense of choice that comes with games like that, and the industry is definitely moving in that direction. Even racing games added RPG elements in order to facilitate the modern gamer's need for customization and choice.


(Final Fantasy XIII got a terrible reputation largely because of the flood of reviews early in the game's release when no one had actually gotten to the larger areas of the game. The game is unapologetically linear for the majority, but the end features incredibly large areas with plenty of side-missions.)

The problem is, there really is no such thing as a linear game to begin with.

Roger Ebert once wrote on how video games can never be art. Whether or not I agree with him or not isn't the point (I don't); the point is that he made the observation of games having predefined objectives that players strive to achieve. Now, I'm not sure how this concept undermines the other elements of a video game to the point that it cannot be considered art, but I do see a glint of something more in what Mr. Ebert said.

You see, all games have a definable beginning and end. Anything other than that isn't really a game, because games inherently require a point to start from and a final goal. Sometimes it augments what the ending is, but the ending is there regardless. Anything that claims to be some abstract art game and lacks any definable ending is really more of an 'interactive media' than a game, but I digress:

The concept of 'open-ended' and 'linear' are constructs of the human mind. You can turn to any gamer in the room and ask what their favorite open-ended game is, and they'll be able to cite one that has been labeled as such by the gaming community. Games like Just Cause 2 allow you all sorts of choices and ways to go about causing mayhem and chaos, but the game has an ending. When you see it, you load up your save file and do whatever you hadn't done before you beat the game before, and then you beat it again. Or not. Either way, the actual game has ended, and now you're just obsessing over a collect-a-thon, not that there's any shame in that.


(All games are linear, some lines are just straighter than others.)

Imagine the game Super Mario Bros. as a line with two points: A and B. As Mario runs through the levels, the line advances. It might go up and down or double back a few times, but the goal is to get from A to B. In games like Call of Duty: Black Ops, your goal is to simultaneously avoid and shoot B (at least in deathmatch games), and in games like Elder Scrolls IV, your goal is to get from A to B, with optional quests C1-through-Z532.

In other words, these 'open-ended' games are just as linear as any other, it just depends how you play it. Similarly, Super Mario Bros. can be considered open-ended if you play it that way. Even ultimately-linear games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney -- which is more of a visual novel anyway -- have the secondary option of failure.

I suppose the best way to visualize it is to look at video games like you look at books. Some books are Choose Your Own Adventure, and some are Choose Your Own Adventure, and While You're at it, Collect the Missing Red Pages, 8 Red Coins, and Free the Slaves by Destroying the Ridiculously-Powerful Secret Boss.


(I wonder if Roger Ebert considers books to be art. Pictures taken from Something Awful.)

 
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