In this facet, CRPGs stand in stark contrast with, say, first-person shooters. Imagine a Half Life 2 where there aren't so many mysteriously locked doors (couldn't possibly open any of those with my shotgun, rocket launcher, or grenades, could I?) and in which you could wander off the train, grab a crowbar from some shack along the tracks, start beating Combine soldiers, and head out the city's front gates. I might want to play it again. Even the classic "adventure" game tends to be fairly linear, forcing you to do things in an exact sequence to find the box that contains the key that opens the gate that releases the unicorn that attracts the virgin that gives you a kiss that etc. etc. etc. Each game in the King's Quest series is like a huge Rube Goldberg machine.
"It's impervious to crowbars, pistols, shotguns, grenades, rocket launchers, submachine guns, pulse guns, and gravity guns...a true revolution in home security!"
But fire up Morrowind, for instance, and you can jump off the ship, make a quick stop in the Census & Excise Office, and head literally anywhere in the huge game world. (There isn't even a single locked door that requires a key, unlike Oblivion.) You can just explore and never initiate the main quest, or you can make a beeline directly for Dagoth Ur's fortress beyond the Ghost Fence. Assuming you can survive--hard but not impossible--you can gather the tools you need to defeat the god and win the game in less than half an hour. This guy did it in 7:30, and most of that was waiting until the introductory characters stopped blathering:
Morrowind stands as the most nonlinear game I have ever played, largely because it is set on an island, so there are no artificial boundaries to progressing around the world. But really all the Elder Scrolls games share this feature. It is one of the most compelling elements of the series and more than makes up for their occasional flaws.
Other wonderfully nonlinear games include:
- The Might & Magic series. I remember IV-VIII well enough to know that you can pretty much go anywhere in the game world after the introduction. I'm discovering the same is true of I as well, but I don't know about II or III yet. Sigh...I suppose I'll have to acknowledge there was a IX at some point, but...just not yet, okay?
- Ultimas IV-VII Part I. You have the entire game world to explore and can visit the towns, and talk to the denizens, in any order.
- Baldur's Gate. Once the episode with Gorion is over, you can stalk off in any direction and have a number of fun encounters unrelated to the main quest. The main quest itself, with its "chapter" division, does introduce some linearity, but you have a lot of freedom even here. Baldur's Gate II is a little more linear because its game map doesn't have mysterious areas into which you can just wander--you have to be told about them first--but the game does give you a lot of freedom in quest order and how soon or late to move between chapters.
Although I typically follow the same pattern every time, I theoretically could do this in any order I want.
The issue of linearity helps explain why some games are simply less fun to play even when they use the same game engine, game world, or game play. The Bard's Tale I and II, whose interfaces are nearly indistinguishable from Might & Magic, are a lot less fun because they force you to progress through the dungeons in a specific order. There is no sense of exploration. I enjoyed Ultima VII Part II much less than Part I for the same reason. The Icewind Dale series uses the same game engine as Baldur's Gate but is far less compelling because you're forced to move methodically from one chapter to another. The first time I played Neverwinter Nights, I left some quests undone in Chapter 1, assuming I could wander back to Neverwinter from Port Llast in Chapter 3. I was very disappointed to find out I was wrong--and for the dumbest of reasons. I'm blocked by trees! That's worse than Half Life's shotgun-proof door locks.
The worst CRPGs are completely linear, railroading you through a series of maps and steadfastly refusing to allow you to backtrack. I'm talking about you, Dungeon Siege, and you, Jade Empire, and unfortunately you, Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. At least Neverwinter Nights allows you to explore each chapter's areas in whatever order you want.
What makes non-linearity so fun? I would suggest there are five main reasons:
1. The feeling that you're playing your own game. If you thoroughly shuffle a deck of 52 playing cards, chances are overwhelming that that particular arrangement of cards has never existed before. I like the same feeling in a CRPG: that the game I'm playing has never been played by another player. No other player has ever exited the Oblivion dungeon, headed back to the prison to try to turn himself in and, finding no recourse to do that, punched the guard on duty so he could be arrested and finish serving his sentence. But I did, last time I played.
2. Honest-to-God role playing. Why did I do that sequence last time I played Oblivion? I decided my character was going to be an ex-guard himself, committed to the principles of law and order, who had made a bad decision and was suffering horrible guilt for it. In that game, you can invent such complex characters and role-play them accordingly. In Baldur's Gate you can (at least for a time) decide you always hated Gorion and head off in a random direction looking for gold. Or you can develop a pathological hatred for bandits and spend hours patrolling the Sword Coast collecting their scalps. Ultimately you have to capitulate to the main quest if you want to "win," but non-linearity allows you to do it the way you want to do it.
3. Backtracking. Ever visit your old High School and walk its corridors, using the experience to gauge how much you've changed since then? You get some of the same feeling wandering the streets of New Sorpigal (in Might & Magic VI) after clearing out a map full of dragons. Remember how the goblins in Goblinwatch gave you such trouble when you were level 1? Well, they've re-spawned since then. I love taking my level 30 characters into some dungeon on the first map and committing nonstop slaughter of my erstwhile archnemeses.
4. The joy of exploration. Most nonlinear games--though not all--seed their expansive gameworlds with interesting things to find and do, including plenty of side quests. Baldur's Gate has a village of Xvarts for no other reason except that you stumble upon them and have to decide whether to slaughter them or flee. In another map, you're wandering along through the forest and see a statue of a fighter in the middle of nowhere. Just as you realize "hey, that's not a statute!" here comes a basilisk. That's CRPG gold.
5. Replayability. This reason builds on the other four, but it's still worth mentioning. There would be no reason to replay The Bard's Tale unless enough time had passed that you simply forgot it. By allowing you freedom of movement, however, and the attendant role-playing and exploration that come with it, you could replay some games dozens of times and create new experiences each time. The funny thing is, I sometimes don't capitalize on this advantage: I often struggle to keep myself from playing a game the same way I've already played it.
Non-linearity, of course, has to be coupled with a game world worth exploring. I suppose that, technically speaking, Akalabeth is fairly nonlinear, but its effect is muted since you can't really go anywhere. Ditto Wizardry, Ultima I, Ultima II, Wizardry, and so on.
In last night's posting, I said that Might & Magic I was one of the most nonlinear games I've ever played. I suppose I should have said it was one of the most nonlinear that also had a large game world. In that sense, it certainly takes the prize as the first CRPG to allow completely open-ended exploration, including not telling you anything about your main quest! (I am assured there is one by readers.) This solves my mystery of why I love the game in a way that I didn't with the identically-interfaced The Bard's Tale II.
What are some very linear or very nonlinear CRPGs that I neglected to discuss here?
Supplement on 07/12/2010
BuckGB at GameBanshee posted a link to this article today and defended some of the linear games I mentioned, as did some of the comments. I admit I misspoke a bit when I said "the worst CRPGs are completely linear" and then proceeded to name Dungeon Siege, Jade Empire, and Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal as examples. Dungeon Siege I don't apologize for, but never would I try to defend my inclusion of Jade Empire and Throne of Bhaal on a list of "the worst" CRPGs. As it happens, I enjoyed both games immensely despite their linearity. They both offer excellent dialog and superior role-playing choices.
Thus, I probably overemphasized this aspect a bit. But generally speaking, I think that if two games are equal in other respects, the nonlinear one is the better of the two. Might & Magic beats The Bard's Tale. Pool of Radiance beats Champions of Krynn. Shadows of Amn beats Throne of Bhaal. Ultima VII Part I beats Ultima VII Part II. This is only in my opinion, of course, but then again it's my blog.
The GameBanshee post, along with comments on another site, do answer the question with which I started this posting: "Am I safe in saying that nobody likes linearity in a CRPG?" The answer is no, I'm not safe; many people like linearity in CRPGs. I don't get them, but they exist.