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Thread: Linearity

  1. #1
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus gundato's Avatar
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    Linearity

    The roaring flamefest in one of the other threads got me thinking about something that has been bugging me the past few nights of playing Uncharted 3. Does the flow of a game at all affect whether it is "non-linear"? Could a game like Metro 2033, which was linear in terms of layout and progression, count as non-linear if it gives the impression of having freedom of choice and finding your own path? Uncharted is almost the definition of an interactive movie. But, when done correctly, it truly feels like you are exploring an ancient ruin and finding your own way. All the hallmarks of a "non-linear" experience.

    For the first example, let's consider the concept of hidden secrets and side rooms full of equipment. There is still one main route to the end, but there are a lot of branches that lead to dead-ends or more gear. This allows the gamer to have a sense of exploration while, with proper cues, not interfering with the flow of the level. On the one hand, this still involves funneling and there is only one real route, but it provides a sense of options and choice.

    For the second example, let's consider The Bioware Formula of Video Games. Also commonly referred to as the fork-join model of parallelism :p. On the one hand, you have plenty of choice on what to do first and in what order. On the other hand, you still need to do everything and you need to complete everything to proceed past certain checkpoints. Is this a linear game?

    For the third, let's consider "multiple paths". You have a single warehouse you want to get into. You have three ways in: Shoot the guard at the front door, talk to the guard at the front door, or use the vent out back. All that changes is how you get into the warehouse, nothing else. Is that non-linearity? What about the same example, but with a bit of dialogue that changes during the debrief?

    And finally, something I have been thinking about the more tightly knit open-world games. In particular, the old Fallouts. Yes, those were open worlds that you could do in (almost) any order you wanted to. But the story and progression definitely do their best to railroad you into a specific path with a specific order. Generally, these only "feel" non-linear if they have particularly weak stories that you don't care about (or really good sidequests).
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    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Jesus_Phish's Avatar
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    It's an interesting topic. The majority of games can very much be boiled down to a series of linear events, but such is the nature of the majority of stories being told. What makes a game non-linear to me is the amount of options available to you in terms of finishing the game, how you go about doing it, what path you take, what type of ending you want.

    Your first suggest, I believe is linear. You have to go from A to B, there might be a present for you if you go down corridor C, but you'll end up back on the path to B, either backtracking or through what was previously a blocked door which you can now unblock. It certainly might provide a better sense of being non-linear than something else that doesn't have these side rooms, but that's just a trick or illusion for want of a better term. Something like the Half Life. It's got plenty of side rooms full of health and ammo, but you always come back to the tracks. So while the Black Mesa facility seems huge and winding, it's really not.

    The Bioware games are linear. The "fork" idea that came about with Dragon Age pretty much showed on a second playthrough that while your 40 minute intro game might be different, the rest is the rest is the rest and you've got to tick off all the boxes and you'll end up completing the game the same way almost all the time. Oh sure, you might be a mage one game and a knight the other, but you're still fighting your way through the same scenes over and over.

    The third example is the closest I think we have to non-linear game play. Something like Deus Ex. I'm reminded of trying to get into the police station in Human Revolution. Myself and three other friends all used completely different methods to enter that place and get around it, some of us never thought or even saw the other options.

    Possibly some of the least linear games are obviously the open world ones. They'll usually have branching paths that will change with you and they almost always give you the option to just "forget" about the main story and go off and do your own thing. Why bother with the main quest of Skyrim when you can become a master thief or a heroic adventurer of ruins.

    Overall I think what makes a game non-linear is having choices and choices and choices. It's not enough to just have choices in the map, if you want to be that simple about it then you could argue that maps in CoD are non-linear because I can go to the left or right of a building. You need choices of how to get from A to B, both in means of travel and style. Do I sneak/shoot/converse my way over and do I go through that route, this route, or that route intersected with this route. How do I go about dealing with enemies and npcs? How do I go about changing the ending of the game to what I want it to (or as close to as possible).

  3. #3
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Nalano's Avatar
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    This is my opinion. X* stands for a range (A or B or C) and Y* stands for a range of ranges (X* or X** or X***).

    A then B: Linear. (AKA: Your "rollercoaster sightseeing" cinematic experience)

    A then C then D then E then B: Linear. (AKA: Your "keycard hunt" mode, where the linearity just results in a lot of backtracking) Running back and forth in a set order doesn't mean the game is non-linear. It does, however, mean that the developers are really good at efficient use of space.

    A then X* then B: Linear. (AKA: Your "beat door, bluff guard, sneak in window" choice where everything results in the same end anyway) Mass Effect would be a fine example of just how big all those branches that ultimately result in the same ending can be.

    A then X* then Y*: Non-linear.
    Last edited by Nalano; 28-11-2012 at 07:35 PM.
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    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Sparkasaurusmex's Avatar
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    I tend to think of linearity having to do with when​ you enter that cave, not how many paths there are inside it.

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    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Nalano's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sparkasaurusmex View Post
    I tend to think of linearity having to do with when​ you enter that cave, not how many paths there are inside it.
    I tend to think of the mere fact that you have to enter that cave at some point as proof of some degree of linearity.
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    Secondary Hivemind Nexus b0rsuk's Avatar
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    I'm not going to bite. I enjoy playing games more than arguing about them.
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    Technically, there needs to be branching for non-linearity. The quantity of branching determines the degree of non-linearity...

    The semantics aren't the important thing though - what matters is player perception.

    imagine two choices: A and B

    game logic: player must complete A before doing B

    if the player tries doing B before doing A, he will run into a wall and perceive that the game is linear
    if the player tries doing A before doing B, he will get a different perception

    Obviously the game works better if the player is tricked into doing things in the right order.

    I've played linear games that presented choices where I never ran into any walls the first playthrough simply because my inclination aligned with the developer's expectation of what a player would do. Only after replaying the game and running into the walls did I realize that the game was linear.

    Note that it doesn't make my first playthrough any less enjoyable... But other players who made different choices the first time around probably thought differently of the game.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Nalano View Post
    I tend to think of the mere fact that you have to enter that cave at some point as proof of some degree of linearity.
    It depends if the cave is A thing to d, or THE thing to do.

  9. #9
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus soldant's Avatar
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    I'd classify something like Deus Ex as non-linear, because there are multiple paths to the one objective that are all viable and possible right from the outset. You can take the vent or the front door, you don't have to take the vent then the front door.

    By comparison, I'd classify pretty much every other FPS game as linear, including things like Doom. Yes, you can visit the red key door before you have the red key, but the progression is still locked in: you must find the red key before you enter the red door to get to the rest of the map. You must hit that switch to open up the other area.

    Backtracking (which is common in older FPS levels) is not non-linear design - you're still on a specific path penned in by keys, switches, and whatever else they're throwing in your path. The fact that you can go either forward or backward without the game going "RETURN TO THE COMBAT AREA! YOU HAVE 5 SECONDS TO COMPLY" does not make it non-linear. Secrets do not make a game non-linear. They're just little extras that largely do not impact on the flow of the level.

    I'd pretty much agree with Nalano's assessment, except for things like Mass Effect or GTA IV. While these games do have set story progressions which take an overall linear path (for the most part) they do offer the player a choice in when and in what order to complete those objectives. I'd argue that introduces at least an element of non-linearity - it's a lot more freeform than Doom (since it seems to be the popular "non-linear" argument) because you're not following a mandatory level progression.

    That does create a bit of an issue because of the secret levels in Doom/DN3D/whatever, but by and large they're still linear games with a specific progression, a small anomaly like that doesn't really change much.

    I'd also agree with Jesus_Phish that the open world games are the most non-linear around, and that real choice is what defines non-linearity. "Oh you can backtrack over there but unless you have the key you can't actually do anything" isn't presenting the player with a choice, it's just the illusion of it because they're still at a dead end. They still have to go to location X to get key Y to open door Z, they can't bypass door Z. The majority of classic 90s/early 2000s FPS games subscribe very heavily to that method, maybe because massive levels weren't really possible on hardware of the time, so backtracking was a way to extend playtime in a map (well, it was getting there by the early 2000s but maps were still relatively small-ish initially).

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by b0rsuk View Post
    I'm not going to bite. I enjoy playing games more than arguing about them.
    Pffft, noob.

  11. #11
    Non-linear = non-linear
    Illusion of choice kinda seems like nonlinear (and can be the better for it)
    Linear = linear.

    ---

    However there is an important distinction to make: non-linear narratives vs non-linear approach to problems

    ----

    Non-linear approach to problems - Deus Ex falls in here. You have set of levels which you solve in a variety of different ways - but you can't go 'off the rails' per-se. Less obviously perhaps games like Knights of the Old Republic. You can go to the planets in any order but certain events will trigger regardless of where you are at a certain 'character level'. Also you will have to go to each planet in the end. Ultimately the story ends up in the same place - with only limited variation based on key parameters.

    These games are probably 'better' in some ways than linear games - they give an element of choice and an illusion of freedom - though linear games can be good too.

    -----

    Non-linear-no-narrative - Most multiplayer games really, especially competitive ones. There is a background story to League of Legends but the game doesn't really tell a story - though that doesn't mean there is no drama - or that you could not tell a story of the events that transpired.

    Another example is Minecraft. There is no narrative in Minecraft. You may make a story but but you make a story, you are not told a story.

    Ultimately Terraria could have done with a overall goal - even one as simple as Mario's 'save the princess'. Goals give your actions a purpose. Whether this is necessary or not is debatable but I like purpose. :)

    I find these single player games like this ultimately don't keep me playing as there is no 'finish' to aim for - on the other hand I have played more competitive online games for the sake of playing them more than anything else really.

    Non-linear-selfmade-narrative - Similar to the above but with a certain little something extra.

    I am thinking Crusader Kings 2 here - but not Europa Universalis or Hearts of Iron. CK2 has enough personality in its characters that you really do make a narrative here - normal wargames lack this "I took Paris, then liberated Belgium" is not the same as "and then my son murdered me and plunged the Kingdom into civil war from which my brother emerged victorious but had to spend the next 20 years reunifying the former territories".

    Minecraft lacks interaction with others to make a meaningful story. CK2 manages to make a story with key events and choices.

    Ultimately Minecraft gives total freedom to do a very limited number of actions - if you discount building which is of course completely open. But if I wanted to paint a picture I would do that - its not something I enjoy for that long.

    Other games are more constrained in what you can do but offer more meaningful choices - and are stronger for it.

    ----

    Non-linear narrative - pretty rare because its hard to have many branches. Most games that profess to do this are really just linear with multiple endings.

  12. #12
    Lesser Hivemind Node fiddlesticks's Avatar
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    Soldant's arguments seem pretty solid to me. Though I'm not sure how one would classify a game like Super Metroid. Technically it's linear, you're following a straightforward path of progression, obtaining items which are needed to unlock further areas. However, if you master the gameplay mechanics it's possible to get items a lot earlier than you are normally supposed to and you can even bypass some areas entirely. It's non-linear since there are multiple paths open to you, but at the same time one of them is clearly intended to be the "correct" one.

  13. #13
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus LTK's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by gundato View Post
    The roaring flamefest in one of the other threads got me thinking about something that has been bugging me the past few nights of playing Uncharted 3. Does the flow of a game at all affect whether it is "non-linear"? Could a game like Metro 2033, which was linear in terms of layout and progression, count as non-linear if it gives the impression of having freedom of choice and finding your own path? Uncharted is almost the definition of an interactive movie. But, when done correctly, it truly feels like you are exploring an ancient ruin and finding your own way. All the hallmarks of a "non-linear" experience.
    I think the answer to those is 'no'. The competence with which a developer executes a directed experience that feels like you progress because of your own agency is irrelevant to whether or not the game is actually linear.

    For the record, Metro 2033 did not give me the impression at all that I was finding my own path. And how could it, when it is set in a series of metro tunnels? At the start of the game, you are given a goal, and at no point do you have the option to choose not to pursue this goal. (Except for the very end, but that's, you know, the end.)

    It's pretty useless to categorise games into linear and non-linear. Every game that has an ending (or a 'win' state) can be considered linear, because every player has the same starting point, and will eventually arrive at the same conclusion. Shepard will always fight the Reaper fleet. Geralt will always fight the dragon. Adam Jensen will always fight that ridiculous bondage-fetish final boss. The fact that you get a pick of your ending cutscene is just a formality. No matter how convoluted, your path remains a single line, connected at the same start point and the same end point.

    I'm deliberately making this a sweeping generalisation to illustrate that just saying 'non-linear' doesn't tell you anything. It's much more useful to ask if a game is a procedural sandbox, open-world, or a hub-plus-missions open approach.

  14. #14
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Nalano's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LTK View Post
    I think the answer to those is 'no'. The competence with which a developer executes a directed experience that feels like you progress because of your own agency is irrelevant to whether or not the game is actually linear.

    For the record, Metro 2033 did not give me the impression at all that I was finding my own path. And how could it, when it is set in a series of metro tunnels? At the start of the game, you are given a goal, and at no point do you have the option to choose not to pursue this goal. (Except for the very end, but that's, you know, the end.)

    It's pretty useless to categorise games into linear and non-linear. Every game that has an ending (or a 'win' state) can be considered linear, because every player has the same starting point, and will eventually arrive at the same conclusion. Shepard will always fight the Reaper fleet. Geralt will always fight the dragon. Adam Jensen will always fight that ridiculous bondage-fetish final boss. The fact that you get a pick of your ending cutscene is just a formality. No matter how convoluted, your path remains a single line, connected at the same start point and the same end point.

    I'm deliberately making this a sweeping generalisation to illustrate that just saying 'non-linear' doesn't tell you anything. It's much more useful to ask if a game is a procedural sandbox, open-world, or a hub-plus-missions open approach.
    A much more succinct way of saying that - and this is why I didn't mind defining Mass Effect as technically linear - is that "linear" is not synonymous with "worse."
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    Secondary Hivemind Nexus LTK's Avatar
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    Well, that's what I was saying in the first paragraph. To summarise the other three: the meaning of 'non-linear' depends on the genre.

  16. #16
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Nalano's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LTK View Post
    Well, that's what I was saying in the first paragraph. To summarise the other three: the meaning of 'non-linear' depends on the genre.
    In other words, there's no particular reason to divide everything between 'linear' and 'non-linear' unless you were attempting to make a value judgement on one or both.
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  17. #17
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Hypernetic's Avatar
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    Almost every game is linear to a degree in that it has a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. A true "non-linear" game would perhaps be something like minecraft.

    I think more important terms than linear are things like "on rails", "guided", and "scripted". Let's use Fallout 3 and COD:w/e as examples. Both are "linear" in that they are story guided games with a clear beginning, middle, and end. CoD however is an on rails, guided experience whereas Fallout 3 gives you a large degree of freedom in how you complete the game.

    TL;DR: The term "linear" is an enemy of gaming.

  18. #18
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus b0rsuk's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LTK View Post
    It's pretty useless to categorise games into linear and non-linear. Every game that has an ending (or a 'win' state) can be considered linear, because every player has the same starting point, and will eventually arrive at the same conclusion. Shepard will always fight the Reaper fleet. Geralt will always fight the dragon. Adam Jensen will always fight that ridiculous bondage-fetish final boss. The fact that you get a pick of your ending cutscene is just a formality. No matter how convoluted, your path remains a single line, connected at the same start point and the same end point.
    .
    Then what about Notrium, which not only has several endings, but each of them has different pre-requisites and you achieve them in different ways ? Yes, this includes end bosses.
    pass

  19. #19
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus LTK's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by b0rsuk View Post
    Then what about Notrium, which not only has several endings, but each of them has different pre-requisites and you achieve them in different ways ? Yes, this includes end bosses.
    Try reading my entire post.

  20. #20
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus gundato's Avatar
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    A friend got me thinking on something similar:

    As all of us SHOULD know, The Witcher 2 has two major paths for Act 2 and Act 3. But my friend only played it once and thus only knew of one path. And video game conventions make us assume that both choices would lead to the same path.

    So that gets us into a "tree falling in the woods" kind of situation: If a gamer is only ever going to play something once, does the other path even "exist"?
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