Linear Structures Betray Open Worlds

Linear Structures Betray Open Worlds

​There is always room for all types of games. Variety is the spice of life, so no one should ever say there’s only one correct way to design a game. When executed well, a short, linear, focused experience can be incredibly engaging and memorable. Also, making your own way in a wide-open game with minimal guidance or narrative can also be extremely rewarding. But the types of experiences these two approaches facilitate are pretty much polar opposites. They can both result in excellent games, but for different reasons. Some notable games in recent years have really demonstrated the strengths and limits of each design philosophy, and some others have shown why trying to blend them together can be like shoving a square peg in a round hole.

Tight Linearity

Linear games are, more or less, like a theme park ride. The ride moves along a carefully-designed path in one direction, and you cannot step off of it. All the main events are going to play out pretty much the same way each time, following their set routine. There’s fun to be had here, but in a very prescriptive, planned way.

Two recent games have demonstrated how tight control of a narrative allows writers and designers to tell a compelling tale: action/narrative game Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2021) and sci-fi cat adventure Stray (2022).

Both of these games also have areas that open up for a little bit of exploration. In Guardians, there are multiple areas that let you move off the beaten path and participate in optional interactions with NPCs and environmental objects. Stray has multiple chapters that involve exploring several blocks of a city at a time, interacting with the robotic citizens and solving the area's puzzles to progress. Both games also have a few scattered collectables, but finding the majority of them is optional. In both games, once you finish the main objectives in the area, you move on to the next and do not have the option to backtrack freely.

Another thing these games have in common is a pretty low replay value. Guardians has a series of choices and interactions that can affect later events to some degree, but they are often too inconsequential to warrant another full playthrough. Stray has even less, as the story will play out exactly the same way each time. And that’s not a knock on either of them. Both development teams knew exactly what experience they wanted to present, and they both executed it well. The story that the designers wanted to tell is arguably the main part of the experience. The presentation, scope, and pricing of these games is very different. But in regards to the worlds, story, and characters, they have a very specific story they want to tell. They don’t want much excessive player choice or side activity fluff to get in the way of it. That specificity comes at the cost of player freedom and having a big, re-playable space, but the experience of playing through those stories, even if it’s only for one playthrough, justifies the price tag for many players.

Open Freedom

Unlike a theme park, open world games that embrace non-linearity are more akin to an open playground. There are a bunch of landmarks and fun things to find and interact with, but there isn’t a strict order in which you need to engage with things. You’re free to roam around and make your own fun with the things in place.

While the previous two games built worlds that help tell their story, for this next batch the world IS the game. The world IS the story.

One of the biggest high-profile titles to take advantage of this philosophy is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017). Breaking tradition from previous Zelda series entries, BoTW embraces a wide-open formula. Once you leave the game’s introductory Great Plateau, you’re free to pursue whatever objectives you choose in the massive land of Hyrule. There’s a starting quest to reach a village that can give you a bit of guidance and structure, but there is only one overarching objective you need to complete in order to finish the game: Destroy Ganon.  Narrative bits from this point on are completely optional. You can immediately rush ahead to take him out the moment you set foot on the ground armed with nothing but your underwear and a mop, should you so choose. But you can justify pretty much every other activity in the game as preparation for the final confrontation. You Almost everything you do - from completing Shrines, to freeing the Divine Beasts, to gathering ingredients and cooking meals - makes you more powerful and prepared for that final battle ahead. No areas of the map have hard locks on them. If you really want to go there, you can find a way to go there, even if you might have a hard time dealing with the environmental hazards or stronger enemies until you gain more equipment and experience. You can seek out spots to restore Link’s memories, letting you view some cutscenes that explain more of the story, but these are completely optional. The game Elden Ring (2022) also embraces a similar formula, which has garnered it much critical acclaim.

Way back in 2011, Minecraft used a similar formula to an even more extreme degree. Everything in one of the game’s non-preset worlds is the result of procedural generation. Playing Survival mode, you will never have the exact same experience that anyone else had. That world is yours and yours alone, and the player-driven nature of progression means that the path you took to conquer it is 100% the result of your own choices. When you die, there’s no game over screen that prompts you to replay a preset scenario that will lead you to the next chapter. The only thing pushing the events forward is your drive to gather, build, and fight whatever you need to progress to The End, if that’s even your goal in the first place.

However, neither of these games are designed to tell extremely involved, dramatic narratives.
They focus on a more modular form of narrative, with story elements distributed in a largely independent way that can be taken in regardless of which order you find them. It’s more about having a world that tells its story through the environment and subtext than it is about presenting a direct and specific narrative. In the case of Minecraft, the world is just framing. it leaves the stories entirely up to the adventures the player has within that world.

The Hybrid of Both Designs

Now what if you built a theme park ride in the middle of the playground? You can stop the ride at set points, step out of the vehicle, and play with some of the surrounding attractions, even going back to some of the previous sections. But in order to progress to the rest of the playground, you have to get back on the ride and let it take you through the course it’s set to follow. You can only reach the big finale at the end by riding this very specific track and series of events. Engaging with the other elements scattered about the playground will not bring you any closer to the goal. They may be worthwhile in their own right, but the time you spend doing them is ultimately time taken away from pursuing the main goal. Only after the ride finishes its specific journey and reaches the end of the track does it truly open up the whole playground and give you everything you need to find the parts that you skipped over or missed. Overall, it might seem like a poorly-considered design to some people.

Some examples of this sometimes-frustrating structure are found in the Horizon games (Zero Dawn and Forbidden West) and many of UbiSoft’s Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series. 

Many players would probably say that one of the best parts of the Horizon games are their stories. The unique setting and world are highly unique and appealing, and unraveling the mysteries of its past are engaging. But telling these tightly-crafted narratives often run counter to the open worlds they are set in. For example, you might wander around a newly discovered area and find the rusted corpse of a mysterious, gigantic robot with massive metal tentacles wedged into the side of a mountain. There’s clearly a door up there to get into some kind of bunker, but the game will absolutely not allow you to enter it until you’ve reached a specific part of the story. You have to get back on the ride and wait for it to take you to this part of the playground before you can see what’s inside.

Games like Marvel’s Spider-Man seem to get away with this formula more than others, given the relatively small size of its world and the fact that it’s set in a bustling city that the main character is familiar with instead of a mysterious, largely unexplored wild space. It makes sense that Spider-Man would have to swing to a relevant part of the city that he’s passed through before when new information gives him a lead there. It makes less sense that an arbitrary invisible wall prevents Aloy from opening a bunker door that could be hiding answers to the very pressing questions on her mind.

Both sides of these game’s design philosophies are fun in their own way, but they are pulling in opposite directions. There might be some kind of near-perfect design, technology, or structure out there that no one’s thought of yet that would allow these two types of experiences to coexist cleanly in one game. But as it is now, there doesn’t really seem to be an example of a game that marries a specific and linear plot with an open world. They will always seem to run counter to one another and ultimately bring both down to some degree.

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