Drawing the Line: The Linear RPG

By Kieron Gillen on March 6th, 2009 at 4:11 pm.

Michael Norskov suggested we play this. I did and then Walker revealed he gave it a crack a couple of days ago and didn’t think it interesting enough to post about. Which lead to a little RPS-chat-room debate about why he didn’t, and why I thought Sophie Houlden had nailed it, admittedly in a pretty mean-spirited way. And the fact we were having the debate at all probably meant it was worth posting about. In other words, it’s one of those videogame deconstruction things which wind some of you up right rotten.

It’s the Linear RPG. You can move along a line in both directions. As you do so you suffer damage. You move to the right, you gain experience points. Get enough XP and you go up a level, increasing the size of your health bar. When you reach a node, you restore your health and save your progress. Any time you die, you go back. And as you travel to the right, a story scrolls in the background. In other words, to read the story, you have to carry on walking. Eventually you get to a bit where you can’t reach the next node, forcing you to wander back the way you came and go back and forth until you’ve leveled-up enough to make it. Eventually, you’ll get to the end of the story. Oh – and the story is a openly scornful stomp through RPG tropes. Oh noes! Iz the bad guy! And Etc.

Like most of the deconstructions, the point is “This is all there is to these games”. And in an reductio ad absurdum – and man, I hope I’m that firing that particular round the wanky latin-o-gun correctly – way, show their underlying pointlessness.

Walker’s reason for not posting it? Well, he’s never played an RPG where he’s had to backtrack to gain levels so he can make progress. Therefore, its analysis of mechanics was bullshit. It was saying nowt.

This made me think two things:

1) Walker’s had a lot of luck playing RPGs.
2) Sophie hasn’t been clear about what she’s talking about.

What she’s really talking about is a jRPG rather than a western-model one. The clues are there in terms of the specifics of the story she choose to tell, and how she’s reduced it. jRPGs have traditionally been totally linear stories. The only obstacle to your progress tends to be fights. Whether you win them or not depends on your character rather than… well, there you go into the question of how much skill there is in a fight versus you just having to be harder. Sure, some RPGs slow your progress by misjudging how much power you’ll have a specific point so you can go back and grind up so you can deal with the problem… but saying all do is a bit of a stretch.

In other words, I suspect, her reductio ad absurdum is flawed – it just describes a bad example of the genre. And reducing the genre to a bad example of the genre is the thing which makes The Linear RPG seem so mean-hearted. It doesn’t exist to examine it. It exists to mock it. And that’s just a trifle cruel.

Beautiful executed, with great visual flair, though.

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112 Comments »

  1. Jim Rossignol says:

    I totally didn’t post about it either.

  2. Red says:

    “I totally didn’t post about it either.”

    Neither did Kieron, apparently.

  3. matt says:

    i’m the sort of rpg person who will spend 4 hours between each and every dungeon grinding exp/loots…apparently even in a game this simple.

  4. Tei says:

    Great!

    Really artistic presentation, nice style. A great nonsensical reduction ab absurdum of linear RPG games.

    Could we have something like this for Civi games? for some reason Sid Meier civis are this linear. You are like forced to invent piramids and the zen, … And why? not all cultures invent the zen, so why all cultures have this stuff on his tecnological tree. Most RPG are the same, you are doomed to save the pricess. But what If the player is a women, and think the evil wizard is kind of sexy and the princess a idiot?

  5. Janto says:

    It’s not that absurd – I’m amazed John’s never been in a situation where he’s hit a wall and had to go off and do sidequests of the – deliver my cheese before you save the world – variety. Not because sidequests are fun, and entertaining, but because that 200 xp will push you over into the next level.

  6. P.T. says:

    It actually reminded me of Dungeon Siege in terms of the seam-less level load times. The left-right mechanic seems a reasonable distillation of the click-click-click mechanic of DS. One thing really nice about this one was that it was *just* the right length. It’d be nice in some (real) RPG game if entering one’s 4th dungeon to get the 4th key to unlock the low gate the game just popped up a dialog “Yeah, pretty much like the last one, you kill the monsters and get the key.”

  7. teo says:

    Great concept, I love it!

    Is it just me or are things like this becoming more and more common? Gravity bone, Passage and certainly many more, I don’t think we would’ve seen them a few years ago

  8. Jaxtrasi says:

    That seems like correct usage to me.

  9. subedii says:

    And Doom is just a game about shooting things. Abstracted even further, the entire genre of FPS’s is nothing more than lining up pixels with the centre of the screen, then selecting them. All in the meantime the story scrolls in the background.

    Pretty much anything can be reduced to utter fundamentals and then mocked as unimpressive. Doesn’t change the fact that you’re still missing the point whenever you do.

    I’ve never been all that impressed with these kinds of “analysis’ ” of genres. Reducing to things to their base bullet-points is the sad purview of those seeking to look art and intellectual by attempting to prove how pointless any one popular activity is because “look, this is all you ever get up to”.

  10. LionsPhil says:

    Next up: the deconstructed RTS and thinly-veiled commentary on the futility of war, in which both you an opponent continually generate piles of little stickmen who annihilate eachother on a 1:1 basis to the sounds of orphans weeping.

    No, wait, that’s Multiwinia.

  11. solipsistnation says:

    Um, I can name a lot more bad JRPGs than I can good ones. In my experience, people who play and enjoy JRPGs have really low standards. I’ve had people whose opinions I otherwise trust come up and tell me with great enthusiasm how awesome some JPRG or other is, only to find that it’s yet another linear slog through nonsensical cutscenes. I guess that’s okay if you like that kind of thing, and cultural differences and bad translations explain some of it, but still. I think it’s not so much that this reduction is describing a BAD example of the genre as much as it’s describing a TYPICAL example of the genre.

  12. Tei says:

    “the deconstructed RTS and thinly-veiled commentary on the futility of war, ”

    I think this has ben done, and is Sims Ants.

  13. marilena says:

    I think the RPS guys undersell this. The actually interesting thing is to observe your behavior while playing this. How you start spotting places where grinding is easy. How you start grinding just to be sure, even though your current level may be enough. How you start to sort of enjoy leveling up for the sake of leveling up, how you start to look for more varied ways to grind. How the end comes as a surprise and doesn’t feel different from the rest of the game.

    It’s interesting as a study of the player’s psychology and how it is exploited by games more than as a study of JRPGs.

  14. schizoslayer says:

    I actually think it’s very clever.

    This is why RPG’s layer on other mechanics that require you to use skill (granted normally all tactical skill rather than mechanical) in order to keep the act of progressing through the story interesting.

    What this game has removed is the increasing challenge that keeps the game bit from getting boring. You very swiftly master the skills required to overcome the challenges faced. This reduces the Gameplay to an act of going through the motions until you can progress again. Each time requiring less attention from you until it becomes boring. AKA Grindy.

    Fortunately the writing was awesome and it was very short. 9/10.

  15. Q says:

    I reached level 57 and all I got was this lousy t-shirt…

  16. Kieron Gillen says:

    As I wrote somewhere else…

    Gaming’s dark secret: occasionally watching a number slowly increase is enough.

    KG

  17. Ben says:

    I liked it. Not necessarily because I agree with the absurd reduction of the gameplay, but more because I have naught but disdain for the JRPG plot tropes that are openly mocked here.

  18. undead dolphin hacker says:

    We RPG fans are like the woman who always ends up with the mean, uncaring guy who’s only interested in sex. The woman who just wishes she would meet a “nice guy” who’d finally love her. The woman who makes her dissatisfaction known to anyone who will listen.

    We say we want a mature, middle-aged Average Joe protagonist, but when we get one we lament it’s all too generic and tacitly lust for the amnesiac Byronic young-adult hero. Such a boring protagonist is Unfair and Bad Design.

    We say we want open-ended, non-linear gameplay, but when we get it the characters aren’t believable enough, or the “main” story is too short, or not fleshed out enough, or the game is pointless and empty without clear goals. The messiah non-linear game is a disappointment, that’s Unfair and Bad Design.

    We say we want choices that actually matter, but when we get it we Quicksave before every conversation, or print out a FAQ and follow the optimal path, or come on forums and bitch when a choice made ten hours ago affects the game in a way we didn’t think it would, and it’s Unfair and Bad Design.

    We say we loathe “grinding,” and anything that can be done to reduce grinding is next to godliness, but when we get a game with vastly reduced grind it’s too easy or just boring and soulless. We spent our $50 on a carebear product, that’s Unfair and Bad Design.

    We want a massively multiplayer living, breathing, dynamic world, but then we bitch when other players don’t act the way we wanted them to act, or cry when the bosses in the non-instanced dungeon are already dead, because it’s Unfair and Bad Design.

    We piss and moan about how bad AI is, but when we get our asses kicked, it’s Unfair and Bad Design.

    But in the end, like the woman above, we keep ending up buying, playing, and enjoying the same exact RPGs. They might have superficial differences — blond hair this time, Planescape setting another — but it’s all essentially the same. And out of shame for our preference or the simple desire to be a victim, we bitch about it.

  19. Kieron Gillen says:

    I’m impressed by you lot today.

    KG

  20. LionsPhil says:

    Keiron’s been playing Progress Quest again.

    Tei: Nah, Sim Ant also had resource gathering. Also, a feature where you could vomit food into the queen’s mouth. Because computer games are all about escapism, or something.

  21. RC-1290'Dreadnought' says:

    Gonna see a doctor now, I sort off enjoyed playing this ‘game’.

  22. James G says:

    At work at the moment, so can’t play the game, but it got me thinking about how many non-gamers seem to view games in a similar manner. They reduce everything down to the most base mechanics, and will look on the results as the sole rewards. I don’t know if this is a case of inexperience, or if it is more a case of different outlooks, and that it is this outlook which precludes people from enjoying games (or in some cases ‘a game.’)

    It also makes me think of something like Peggle, which could so easily be seen as a reductionist approach to a computer game. It involved only the most rudimentary skill, being largely down to chance, and presents some of the most simple rewards imaginable. (Whoo! Flashy lights!) It barely even gives a nod to progression of gaming mechanics for example.

  23. Chris R says:

    Man, someone needs to save undead dolphin hacker’s post and get more people to read it… that was a thing of beauty.

    This paragraph struck a chord with me, because it explains how Far Cry 2 came across to many people, although I loved it to death.

    We say we want open-ended, non-linear gameplay, but when we get it the characters aren’t believable enough, or the “main” story is too short, or not fleshed out enough, or the game is pointless and empty without clear goals. The messiah non-linear game is a disappointment, that’s Unfair and Bad Design.”

  24. Howard says:

    @undead dolphin hacker: I have never seen the nail hit quite so perfectly on the head, sir. Kudos.

  25. Pags says:

    I think honestly what was most interesting about this was that the game obscured the story; it says a lot about how narratives can be broken by arbitrary requirements to hit a certain number before any progress can be made. Try and focus on the scrolling story in the background and you’ll inevitably find yourself dead very soon. But trying to play the game effectively means you spend more time looking at numbers than concentrating on the story that’s being told.

    I interpreted that as being a deconstruction of the MMO grind myself. Not sure how others would feel.

  26. Dave says:

    Level 52, bitches.

  27. schizoslayer says:

    The story given however is much more a description of the events happening to you and in a “Real” game things like you chasing the bad guy would be actual gameplay and not story.

    The fact that you can’t read the story while walking around is purely due to the fact that reading uses alot of your available attention so your brain cannot process the words and monitor your stats at the same time. In a well-designed game this information is presented in ways that do not use up all of your available attention.

    That just represents bad game design.

    However if the author wants to specifically use those techniques to highlight the problems of trying to do two things at once then so be it. It isn’t exactly scientific proof that you cannot process a story while playing a game. You just can’t process that much text while doing something else.

  28. apnea says:

    undead dolphin hacker said it best. But still, can’t someone lust for a bit of romance, or covering up, of the old grindy, samey, numbery act?

    RPG fans are like any other game enthusiasts, that is, they enjoy a particular brand of reward-failure algorithms ; where they sometimes differ from other gamers is in their expectation of a measure of narrative (JRPG) or non-linear (WRPG) underscoring of that algorithm. Nothing more, nothing less.

    There. Is that absurdly reduced enough for you guys? Cynical Fridays…

  29. Pags says:

    I’m not sure I meant it in the way that gamers cannot multitask; rather I meant the game shows how a narrative can be broken because the numbers above your character aren’t high enough.

    Of course it is possible it’s just bad game design, but in an uncomplicated, specifically-intentioned deconstruction it’s not exactly likely that it was just a poor design choice that slipped through the cracks but was intentionally done that way to highlight something about the way stories are told in linear RPGs.

  30. apnea says:

    And for the record, FC2 was the barest excuse of a so-called sandbox game : it should have been called The Non-Linear Shooter.

    Meaning, to enjoy it is to enjoy shooting the same peeps in the same wide corridors, again and again, with some arbitrary binary mission possibilities at some points. It was pretty abstract and experimental in only that reductionist respect.

  31. Jaxtrasi says:

    I remember doing a literature review of a paper from the Interactive Institute titled “The Gameplay Gestalt, Narrative and Interactive Storytelling”. It suggested, broadly, that we could never have truly interactive narrative while controls were difficult (because the “gameplay gestalt” – understanding the controls – interfered with the “narrative gestalt” – understanding the story).

    They proposed to fix this with their “Purgatory Engine” whose primary feature was that it wasn’t going to include any treasure or weaponry.

    They also claimed they were going to have a game with no gameplay gestalt, which as far as I could tell from the paper literally means you don’t have to learn the controls. They didn’t explain how they were going to perform this impossible task.

  32. Dizet Sma says:

    Hmm, becomes easier once you hit lvl 60 and get the flying unicorn.

  33. Jaxtrasi says:

    Nerf unicorns IMO.

  34. teo says:

    the deconstructed RTS and thinly-veiled commentary on the futility of war, ”

    I think this has been done, and is Sims Ants.

    lol, excellent =D I love Sim Ant though

    And Doom is just a game about shooting things. Abstracted even further, the entire genre of FPS’s is nothing more than lining up pixels with the centre of the screen, then selecting them. All in the meantime the story scrolls in the background.

    Pretty much anything can be reduced to utter fundamentals and then mocked as unimpressive. Doesn’t change the fact that you’re still missing the point whenever you do.

    I’ve never been all that impressed with these kinds of “analysis’ ” of genres. Reducing to things to their base bullet-points is the sad purview of those seeking to look art and intellectual by attempting to prove how pointless any one popular activity is because “look, this is all you ever get up to”.

    I disagree
    Shooters are about interaction with the game, about playing the game. Yes, you can reduce that and complain about its pointlessness, but this is not that, because JRPGs aren’t about the interaction. They’re about telling their stories, and for some reason they choose to do it in a game while abandoning everything that’s interesting about games. That’s the absurdity

  35. JonFitt says:

    My experience of JRPGs is limited to a few Final Fantasy/Chrono games, so I can’t speak for all JRPGs, however FF is heralded as one of the best series.

    So speaking of FF and it’s ilk, I’m of the pretty firm opinion that it is not an RPG. There is no role playing. You merely work your way through a fixed story with fixed characters.
    It’s an action adventure game pure and simple. Diablo with (tedious emo) cutscenes.
    There’s not even the oft derided Bioware good|evil|arsehole dialog choices, your spiky haired lady-boy just says what he wants.

    So I’m not sure how making a reduced take on JRPGs affects my opinion of RPGs at all.

  36. KafkaTamura says:

    Did anyone actually read the story?

    IT WAS AWESOME.

    (Sorry, I appear to have lost control of the capslock key for a moment there).

  37. KafkaTamura says:

    @ marilena

    I found myself grinding across ‘nodes’, to be sure.

    Man do I feel used.

  38. Nimic says:

    I’ve always been a big fan of RPG games, but not JRPG games. Granted, for some reason I find FF8 very pleasing, but I detest almost every other FF and almost all JRPG’s.

  39. Markoff Chaney says:

    Commentary

  40. Heliocentric says:

    The difference between jrpg’s and mmo’s(not planetside)? When you get to the end of an jrpg it and the grinding ends. Also, more teen angst in the plot in jrpg, mmo instead has teen angst in the players.

  41. Switchbreak says:

    I think if you only associate JRPGs with SquareEnix ultra-linearity, you need to look deeper into RPGs that have come out in Japan. Look up, for example, the Lunatic Dawn series. There are many, many interesting and experimental RPGs coming out in Japan that push the limits of the genre, it’s just that we only tend get the ones with “Final Fantasy” in the name over here.

  42. drewski says:

    What amused me was that you could never “finish” the final node.

    I tended to go halfway to the next node and turn back if I didn’t think I could make it. Died a lot, because the replay of gameplay (for me the real penalty for death in an RPG) was effectively nil – you did exactly the same gameplay no matter how many times you died.

    Finished on about level 37, I think.

  43. CdrJameson says:

    CRPGs need grinding because they follow the HIDEOUSLY FLAWED Dungeons & Dragons model of epic fantasy, where player character levels range from peasants to demi-gods. This makes such a ludicrous spread of abilities that decent (level-appropriate, interesting, could go either way) encounters are very few. Usually you’re either hideously over- or under- powered.

    A decent RPG would be more like Warhammer (WFRP) or Traveller. Here you start off Average and after some extensive effort, end up Competent. You get your real ‘levelling’ through increased knowledge, not major stat boosts, and the narrow spread of stats makes most encounters vaguely appropriate.

    You could also make a decent The Linear RPG style criticism of some western RPG features though. For example such ugly, hacky fixes to the inherent HIDEOUS FLAWS of the D&D approach as Oblivion’s dynamic difficulty adjustment. Just make each line out of a node exactly long enough that you always get there with 2 health to spare.

  44. Legionary says:

    The funny thing is, even though it’s literally just two increasing numbers in response to you pressing right or left, it does tickle your gaming node. It makes its point well.

  45. clovis says:

    The fact that you can’t read the story while walking around is purely due to the fact that reading uses alot of your available attention so your brain cannot process the words and monitor your stats at the same time.

    That’s true, but I personally have this problem during RPGs. I always say to myself that I’m playing for the story, but then I rush through the story parts and almost NEVER read all the flavor texts/books/etc. I always collect the books, planning to read them, but pretty much never do. I like how the Witcher provides a tl;dr in the glossary after you read them, BTW.

    Why don’t I read them? It is not because I don’t like reading, or that I’m not interested. I just want to get back to “playing” the game. I did this with Linear RPG. For example, I found it hard to read the text while moving, so I would stop. But then my gamerbrain kept yelling at me that I’m wasting time that I could be grinding. Then I’d try to do both at the same time, and ended up skimming most of the text.

    So, I found this interesting…

  46. Pijama says:

    LONG LIVE PLANESCAPE TORMENT AND

    oh, wait a minute.

  47. Jaxtrasi says:

    clovis:

    Books in games are a rubbish way to communicate story. You’re not in any way to blame for thinking that it doesn’t sound like fun. Morrowind is the worst offender I know of personally for this.

    It doesn’t help, of course, that you know the books are going to be hackneyed flavour-text quality drivel in a style completely inappropriate to the setting they were supposedly written in.

    Show, don’t tell. Of course, exactly what constitues “show” depends entirely on the context. In Interactive Fiction, show would still involve a whole lot of reading.

  48. Somedude says:

    It’s not just JRPGs, any game that requires skill or familiarity will go through the same pattern. Leveling up just isn’t explicit.

  49. CdrJameson says:

    Show, don’t tell is films.
    Do, don’t tell is games.

  50. Sam C says:

    @CdrJameson:
    You get your real ‘leveling’ through increased knowledge, not major stat boosts, and the narrow spread of stats makes most encounters vaguely appropriate.

    Isn’t the whole point of the stats boosts to simulate increased world knowledge? Or are you talking about some other form of knowledge besides knowing how to crush your enemies more efficiently?