Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Linearity in CRPGs

Am I safe in saying that nobody likes linearity in a CRPG? Non-linearity, or the illusion thereof, is one of the features that separates CRPGs from other types of games. The idea that you can just wander out from your starting point and explore the world, blundering your way into impossible encounters at low levels, doing quests in any order you choose, running right to the endgame if you know where it is, backtracking...it's intoxicating. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the games I cherish most are inevitably nonlinear.

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.

Hmmm...bridge trolls. Let me introduce you to a little thing I like to call a "Kill" spell.

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 statue!" here comes a basilisk. That's CRPG gold.

"In retrospect, we should have seen this coming."

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 II, 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.


  1. Fallout and Fallout 2.

  2. The Magic Candle series, painfully nonlinear.

  3. Choice n' Roleplaying are what I enjoy about these games too. Linearity is obviously chosen due to technical limitations of some graphically intensive game engines, cramming more pretty into a newly loaded mod, then moving forward to the next. It's an acceptable trade off, as long as the player still can make choices (unlike Half Life 2).

    Another useful trait of linearity is Urgency. Many open world games lose that. I mean, I LOVE going wherever the hell I want in a world, but when the GATES OF HELL are opening all about the land and I'm yawning and sneaking away, muttering "I'll get to you later..." you've obviously lost all the tension you hoped to instil. (Note - I've heard great things about Din's Curse which addresses this.)

    I'm working on a full choice Witcher 2 mod, and think I'll aim for open ended beginning, with an increasingly focused and linear conclusion to build urgency. Player choices however will be as open as possible.

  4. Fallout 3 is pretty open ended too. I've played that one a few times, and every game is different.

  5. An easy way to instil urgency into a non-linear RPG is to add time limits to some of the quests. I vaguely remember one or two of Baldur's Gate II's quests being tied to time limits (a day or two).

  6. Great post! Daggerfall is the one I remember, since the gameworld was so huge. I have no idea what the main quest was, because I ignored it completely. Yes, it was flawed, and I guess I liked Morrowind better (I didn't follow the main quest in that one, either), but in some ways, Morrowind still seemed like a step backwards (and Oblivion even more so).

    Personally, I think that Dwarf Fortress is on the right track. I want a living world to explore. I don't want the game developer to tell me a story. I want to make my OWN story by playing the game - not one of two or three choices, but wide-open freedom to do what I want. And those parts of the gameworld I miss should continue on without me, with NPCs behaving realistically (considering the setting and the situation).

    PS. I really enjoyed the Magic Candle games, but I don't remember them well enough to comment. (I only remember leaving a party-member behind to earn money on occasion. That was kind of neat.)

  7. JRPGs are notoriously linear, especially compared to CRPGs. Will we ever see your thoughts comparing the relative merits of the two RPG cousins?

  8. Non-linearity:

    Newer ones - Mass Effect, Drakensang, Gothic

    Older golden - Darklands, Das Schwarze Auge trilogy, Planescape: Torment, EotB II

  9. Deadly, EOTB II is spectacularly linear, there is only one way to go.

    For me, Wasteland, Magic Candle I, Pool of Radiance.

  10. as cool as Mass Effect is, i think its mission-like system pretty much rules it out as a proper rpg. i especially regret how restricted one is in these missions: obviously, there are various tactical choices when it comes to combat, but apart from that, there is very little you can do freely. and those simpleton's mission maps with a single possible way through only complete the picture.

    sadly, Dragon Age suffers more or less from the same. AND The Witcher too (same engine). although the level design in these games doesn't feel that restricted (esp. in the witcher), it's still a PITA.

    unfortunately, i'm afraid this is a new trend now. and successful at that.

  11. @stu .. I agree, that compared to newer non-linear games (as percieved today) it seriously lacks in many aspects, but comparing it to its prequel, it certainly offers more player-environment interaction and that "roleplayish" feeling to it. At least in my opinion

    @rizla croix .. Mass Effect isn't exactly a pureblood RPG, with the action/shooter sequences and all. But what I meant, is for example the whole paragon/renegade idea, which adds a nice twist to the game and allows (although limited) replayability.

  12. the paragon/renegade system in ME has a nice touch: those timed "take-action" situations during some dialogues. i noticed it often made a difference for me between a lengthy, boring cutscene and a thrilling, almost involving dialogue.

  13. I don't know about the previous 2 games, but Gothic 3 is extremely non-linear. You're basically dumped in a village, told that the orcs have occupied the human cities, and while the game gives a vague suggestion to visit the nearby rebel camp, you're free to head to the nearest city and decide to help the orcs instead, or you can just go off and explore the wilderness (I found myself far more impressed with G3's wilderness than Oblivion's), hunting the animals you find for meat and valuable body parts (although you need training from hunters to get the good stuff).

  14. Just discovered this blog and find it really interesting - keep it up!

    I too find non-linearity really compelling... although I also like good stories and I think it's very difficult to combine them effectively. I think Baldur's Gate (1) is in some ways the pinacle of this for me, since as you say it allows you to go just about anywhere right from the off. There's something about blundering about in the wilderness discovering monsters and quests that really quite appealing...

    Major thanks to Mano for that link to the spy camera - how would we have managed without that? :-)

  15. Yeah, Mano's post just got dumped. That's the first spam on my blog. I suppose in a perverted way, it's a sign of success.

    Thanks for your comments, Zeke. I agree that "Baldur's Gate" is one of the best games in this regard. None of the other Infinity engine games allowed the same freedom of exploration.

  16. I always try to "choose" one path from start. I pick a character and then I only use one weapon type in a very restricted way, just "saving" the other paths for the second play through. :)

  17. Open gameworlds :
    Fallout series, Gothic series (you can go {almost} anywhere, you might die though)

    Closed gameworld : Diablo series, Dungeon Siege.

  18. I find that many of the later Bioware games are very linear and that includes SWKotOR 2&2 as well as Mass effect. In none of these your have a really open world where you can walk around. It's usually mostly corridors and rooms where over half of the doors are perm-locked. Even when in an open area like on Dantooine in SWKotOR there are really only rather confined spaces which have a very limited area and which are extremely linear. Same pretty much applies to NVN and yes, even to Dragon Age.

  19. Very true, Sascha. I loved KOTOR for its depth of story, character development, dialog options, and roleplaying choices. But the game does railroad you along a particular path.

    1. I'm a big KOTOR fan, too. Obviously there is the choice of what order to visit the planets, and some limited choice on each planet in the order of quests, but that's about it. Certainly not open world games. I think the roleplaying in the two games really stands out, though, more so in 2. The big choice is between light side and dark side, obviously, but in 1 going dark side mostly consists of being a raging jerk all the time for no particular reason. I remember one review describing this as playing the role of Darth Obnoxio. I have played through both games multiple times on the light side, but have completed each of them on the dark side only once. DS in 1 was fun, but the DS experience in 2 was much better. I felt it was much more possible to roleplay a point of view with that character. He did "terrible" things, but they were quite rational from his ideological perspective. By the end of the game, I felt I understood and to a surprising degree sympathized with my character. I had huge pangs of conscience in the beginning of that playthrough, but by the end I felt I was just doing what I believed in. Maybe the game made me evil. I don't think so, but it did give me a chance to see through the eyes of someone with a totally different values system than mine, a very engaging experience.

  20. What's the point of having more railroads? These companies want to keep selling games anyway so why not go for the best experiences possible and not worry so much about quantity. Besides, if you enjoyed playing the game the first time and you are playing the game for the experience of living someone else's adventurous life, why wouldn't you play again?

    A game that is sort of branching while still making the game a special adventure (not a sim) is KOTOR. Hands down it is probably my favorite ElectronicRPG of all time (I liked it as much as Final Fantasy 6 if not more so), and the reason for that is becase I really liked the main character who no matter what choices you made always had witty/badass dialogue (but it didn't sacrifice personality for characture) and what seemed like a good amount of introspection.

    If you don't mind, at least take from this post that I feel an ERPG (keep your 'CRPG Addict' name, but spread the term) is best when the PC(s) feel alive (Oblivion was disconcerting as my character felt like a robot being introduced to these fantasy characters) and the gameplay has a good context (not necessarilly going through a story but interesting reasons for what you do to better explain your PC).

    1. Oh, I was cheeky back then. I blame it on the angst of not gelling with Morrowind.... to this day I still think TES games have the most cardboard of game worlds, despite the games I mentioned having a lot less options and details.

      I suppose none of that matters now that I haven't enjoyed a game much less played one for over a half hour within a week. Sorry for the whine :)

    2. You've shown that you really know RPGs and have solid opinions...so it baffles me that you consider TES games "cardboard." I've rarely encountered a series with a deeper game world and history. Morrowind is probably the best example of this, with terrain, buildings, and objects you find in no other game, plus a history so complex that it's unclear up to the end what really happened with Nerevar, Vivec, and Dagoth-Ur all those years ago.

    3. What the fuck is an ERPG?

  21. Good article. I still get butterflies when I think back to Fallout 2. That, together with Baldur's Gate 1 are my all time favourite CRPGs.

    There are many great CRPGs that are linear (KOTOR, Dragon Age). While I did enjoy playing those games, I don't remember them with the same excitement that I remember Baldur's Gate and Fallout 2.

    I think the reasons for a decrease in the number of truly non-linear CRPGs is two-fold. Firstly, it is just easier to make a linear game. In addition to that, developers have gotten really good at having linear games that appear to be non-linear. Secondly, I believe that the people that enjoy non-linear games are a minority and thus not the target audience for most developers. I think the majority of people really dislike that feeling of not knowing where to go, wandering into an area with enemies that slaughter you in seconds, etc.

    This question of linearity I think ties really closely with the reduced difficulty of most CRPGs. "Back in the day" a lot of RPGs were very unforgiving. With games like Fallout and Baldur's Gate (and more recently the Gothic series), you could get yourself killed very easily if you were careless or unprepared. This aspect gave these games a lot of "edge" that made you think twice before challenging someone or going to a new area.

  22. "You could get yourself killed very easily if you were careless or unprepared." I LOVE games where this is true. I remember playing "Morrowind" for the first time, and I felt palpable fear the first time I had to venture into Red Mountain. It is incredibly boring in modern games knowing that the game won't let you encounter a particular foe until you're already strong enough to defeat him.

  23. I Think you'll love Drakkhen when you arrive to 1989...

    Great blog, BTW, just discovered 3 days ago and cant stop read it...

  24. You are a CRPGAddict Addict. Start a blog!

  25. Another example of a very non-linear game is Chaos Strikes Back. I really hope it's on your list of 1989 games, even though it was never officially ported to the PC. If you don't want to use an emulator, there is a fan made port based on the Atari ST version at

    Personally I think games where you can go everywhere can be a bit overwhelming if you have no idea what to encounter (like the early M&M games), or if the whole world is scaled to your level (unmodded Oblivion). But I love games where you have a good idea what is out there, like Baldur's Gate, Morrowind and Oblivion using Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul.

    What I really dislike is games where you are totally rail roaded, like Splinter Cell and Half Life 2. HL2 was a huge disappointment to me after playing games like Thief and Deus Ex, which had open leves where you the player was the hunter and could within a level do things in different orders to complete it.

  26. Yes, CSB is on the list. I keep succumbing when people tell me that a game technically wasn't released for the PC, "but there's this unofficial port..."

    I don't mind being railroaded in, say, a first-person shooter. I expect it in those games (although both HL games are admittedly a bit extreme in this regard). Hate it in a CRPG, though.

  27. Really? An FPS should be much easier to do as a non-linear game: Look at Doom. One of the first FPSs and it was aggressively non-linear. Look at oh, Halo...Choo Choo, all aboard the railroad.

    For some reason linear is big right now. It is a problem in computer games sure, but also in tabletop RPGs. It seems to have to do with the desire to tell a specific story or to be more cinematic, which is hard to do if the players can do the encounters in any order. If anyone is interested I can pull up some articles on it that relate to tabletop RPGs.

  28. IMHO the best way to combine a good story (railroad tracks) with non-linearity is just to allow ppl to go wherever they please. You "know" you have to go the the big bad cave to proceed with the "main" story, but no areas are locked and neither are your achievement.

    If you want to go to australia, even tho your next story step is in Paris... Why not ? I love exploration. FF13 was such a chore because you had ZERO exploration. If there's story involved when you get away from the main quest, that's even better.

  29. I wouldn't call Doom "nonlinear" just because it had a variety of corridors. You still had to defeat each map in a specific order, and each map had fairly limited choices about where to go.

    When there's nothing to do but shoot things, linearity doesn't bother me. But when a game is supposed to be about puzzles and exploration, excessive linearity becomes (for me) a problem.

    Anon, I think Baldur's Gate I is almost the perfect game for exactly the reasons you describe.

  30. |{P}|sez:
    I think you are probably right about non-linear RPGs. I think RPGs should be non-linear up to the point of specific quests. After the quest is complete, return back to non-linear mode.

    One thing I hate about Interactive Fiction is its moronic devotion to non-linear "game experience". I'm actually including a chapter devoted to this very issue in my deconstruction of IF games. Some of the problems I find with non-linear game design are:
    01. Missing "Cool" Things. If a game is completly non-linear, you might miss out on some good adventures. (That's a waste of code!).
    02. Missing out on "Needed" Things. Say you need a weapon to kill something and can't find it. Who really enjoys looking around forever for it?

    My basic premise is that a game player is NOT their game character and NOT from the world they find themselves in a game. Therefore, they cannot know how that world "flows" or be ?preticent? to what is happening in that world, or always know the best way to interact with that fictional world.

    That's why I prefer a "Quasi-Linear" approach to game design. Guide when needed, turn loose the rest of the time. Why leave gamers just floating in a game world? Very discouraging...

  31. |{P}|addz:
    Aw yeah, I got that IF decon out now. I really consider CIF games a type of CRPG-lite (but I doubt they're supposed to be).

    I never really bought CRPGs in the 1980s as they were always priced too high $50-$80 versus $20-$30 for an CIF title.

    Anyway, as CIFs share some characteristics with CRPGs, you might enjoy this CRPG Addict:
    ...really want this to be part of a larger work someday.

    I guess (in regards to non-linear design) my point is that non-linear IS prefered, but to make a game non-linear you have to be REALLY smart or gameplayers will be forced to consult walkthroughs or just give up on your game.

    I hate it when games strand you in nowhere and you have to wonder around trying to figure things out. Very bad designs.

  32. Dungeon Siege --> linear blaah...
    Dungeon Siege engine and Ultima V Lazarus --> greatness!

  33. The best linear CRPG I ever played was Witcher (the first game; the second one is somewhat less interesting, but OK too). Its linearity is mostly of "geographical" origin, meaning you can't go explore the great big world, but are limited to a few locations. But it has enough non-linearity in the way you solve quests to be interesting and even replayable (I played through it 3 times, although only 2 is probably recommended).

    I must say that I'm more interested in quest non-linearity (in methods and results), than in world non-linearity.

  34. I'm not sure I'd use "non-linearity" in the context you do, though. I think what you mean is that you like having quest OPTIONS. You're still on a train track, but it branches in several places. On the other hand, I did probably tie the issue of "replayability" too much to non-linearity. Games can be replayable because they're non-linear, and they can be replayable because you have a lot of quest options and it's fun to see what it looks like from the other side.

  35. When you say "illusion", do you mean that all non-linearity in a CRPG can be considered an illusion, or what?

  36. Yes, that's largely what I meant. There are no CRPGs that are truly non-linear in the way that, say, walking out your front door is. You generally have a fixed origin point, a fixed end point (or one of a small number of fixed end points), and a limited number of roads you can take to get from one to the other. Even in a game as large as Skyrim, there are a limited number of factions to join and people to speak with. There are quests that you can't avoid, doors you can't open without a key. And no matter how many times you play it, I wager that you find yourself drifting towards familiar paths. No CRPG ever has the nonlinearity of a regular RPG, but the illusion can be powerful, and that's what matters.

  37. Addict: Linear means 'in a straight line' So the start and end points don't matter, as long as you chose how to get there.

    Example of a really linear RPG: Icewind Dale. You went to dungeon A. Finished it, went to Dungeon B, and so on. I don't think the dungeons even branched very much inside, and I think you were prevented from backtracking.

    Nonlinear: Balder's Gate, Skyrim: Sure, there is a set ending (I think; I've not finished either one), but you can take any route you want to get there. Want to go straight to the main quest? Sure. Want to explore every single wilderness area first? Sure. (Note: This is why I don't oppose leveled enemies: I did this in BG, then was bored as I walked through the following dungeons.)

  38. As a note: I'm not saying there shouldn't be games with multiple endings, or where you can have more freedom, just that linearity isn't the right term for it. Linear means 'one thing happens after another'. While it is true there are some restrictions on this in both the games I mentioned you could have an entirely site based RPG that you could do in whatever order you wanted. (BG approaches this I think--You can do anywhere you want except the final city as I recall)

  39. Personally I don't mind if games are linear on a strategic level, like Icewind Dale mentioned above, ie move from map A to map B to map C etc. But I don't like when the individual maps/levels are too linear and you basically walk a corridor from A to B. Splinter Cell is the most linear game I've played, and I thought it lacked everything that made Thief and Deus Ex such great games.
    And IMO single character games suffer more from this than party based games where the emphasis is mostly on tactical combat and not so much on exploration.

  40. I realize what "linear" means, but we're using it metaphorically, of course. There is no CRPG game in which you literally walk a straight line from beginning to end. On a scale from completely nonlinear (tabletop RPG) to completely linear (a cart on a track), there are different degrees. What I was saying above is that, ultimately, even games that seem towards the "nonlinear" end are illusorily nonlinear.

    You are correct, though, that the concept of linearity exists on multiple levels. I'd suggest four:

    1. Starting linearity. Do you always start in the same place and have the same introductory sequence, or is there a bit of randomness to it? There aren't many games that give you different starting locations. Ultima IV is one.

    2. Main quest linearity, including whether you have multiple options and outcomes. Oblivion is completely linear in its main quest. Dragon Age: Origins is much less so. Baldur's Gate is in between.

    3. Game world linearity. As you point out, Icewind Dale is very linear in the game world. You visit the dungeons in a specific order. Icewind Dale II is even worse, as you can't backtrack. Oblivion, for all its quest linearity, is completely nonlinear with its game world.

    4. Game map linearity. Skyrim is very nonlinear with its world and very linear with its maps. Wizardry V is something of the opposite.

    Perhaps there is a better word for some of these than "linearity." "Confinement," maybe.

    I wish I'd thought of all of this when I was originally writing the posting, because I think this is a good model. If you rated games on a scale using these four levels, what would be the most "nonlinear" game?

    1. Considering the only other games I can think of with multiple starting points would be Dragon Age: Origins and Temple of Elemental Evil ... no, wait, Wizardry VII and VIII both varied if you imported a party, based on your end decisions from the previous games.

      I think Wizardry VIII and Ultima IV would be paramount for different reasons here; Ultima IV's game map is completely nonlinear, whereas Wizardry VIII requires you to go through certain areas to get to others, but the end of the game can go several different ways, whereas obviously Ultima IV only has one "final" ending.

      The only exception I can think of to this is that, I will confess, MMORPGs actually in some sense contain the greatest non-linearity and freedom of any CRPGs, as they often have a dozen or more starting locations, enormous worlds where you can go anywhere you want (and die in 99% of the locations when just starting), delve any dungeon or never delve a dungeon at all while just stitching together armor for no reason ... the only problem is that, as there IS no "end," there is no way to judge the "main quest." Or perhaps in that sense, they are the purest CRPGs of all, refusing to accept a "second point" with which to draw the line from the beginning? Haha.

    2. I agree that U4 would be high on the list if you gave every game a score in these categories. You start in one of eight locations and you can do things in pretty much any order before hitting the end point at the Abyss. The dungeons are a little linear, but otherwise a great example.

      I was hoping more games than that had differences in the starting locations. Maybe we'll come across some more as I go through my list.

    3. This is quite old, and I'm not sure what the etiquette here is for replying to very old posts. But I thought it worth mentioning that tabletop RPGs are usually not completely nonlinear, but fall somewhere in the middle. In the end they have the same limitations as computer games - creating elaborate and interesting content (scenes, characters, plot elements, twists...) takes a lot of time for the GM. Content created "on the fly" by the GM is bound to be a lot more generic. So while in theory the characters could explore freely in tabletop (if the GM lets them), you're usually going to follow the hooks the GM has set, unless agreed otherwise.

      Tabletop is a bit more flexible, of couse, as a GM can change things up on the fly, even giving the players the impression of freedom while slowly leading them back towards the story. It takes considerable skill to be able to do that well, though.

    4. There is no concept of 'necroing' a thread here. Welcome :)

    5. We have eyes on the entire blog...

      That's true, depending the GM, a story can be setup and promptly ignored by the players until the GM forces the players down the only remaining path. Content isn't infinite, although a lot more flexible with starting points in a tabletop environment.

    6. I've subscribed to, I think, every page so I don't miss any old comments. :D

    7. That's a good point, Buck. Clearly, in tabletop RPGs, the game master has a path in mind, and sometimes the greatest tension (or greatest fun, depending on how you look at it) comes from players bent on subverting those intentions.

      You got what I meant, though. A human game master could theoretically (if not practically) do everything while a computer will always be bound to the limits of its program.

    8. I'd say it is a little mixed. There are DMs who are very proud of going in and doing everything in reaction to what the players do and making it look planned: I game with someone similar to that now.

      Then there are DMs like myself who rely on pre-written adventures, but regularly wind up improvising as the players go off the rails.

      Then there are convention type games, and organized play, where you have tight constraints on what you do, so that every group has a comparable adventure. (I've done a lot of these in the RPGA. They sound lame, but some conventions the best part is meeting at the bar afterwards and everyone comparing how they got past a certain trap over beer and burgers.

      Ok, I need to find out if there are local gaming conventions now that my Dad moved within day trip distance so we can start going together)

    9. There is also yet another type of GM - the ones that manage to turn whatever the party does into the rails for the overarching plot.

      If, for example, your party insists on going out and hunting orcs instead of participating the political intrigue of a succession crisis, have them eventually find out that the orcs were stirred up by one of the parties seeking the throne to weaken and destabilize a rival.

      This gives players plenty of agency for the players, while allowing the DM to guide them back to the main plot so subtly they barely notice - especially if you don't always tie in their butterfly quests to what is going on.

      This is my preferred style, but it takes a lot of work, because to do it right you need to have a lot of schemes worked out in advance that you can quickly grab and improvise into what you need.

  41. I suppose Mount & Blade but in that game it's pretty much up to you to imagine your own Main Quest. As one of the other posters pointed out, at some point you lose all dramatic coherence if you go too non-linear, or sand-boxy as I like to call it.

    As an example, I didn't complete the GenoHaradan questline in Knights of the Old Republic because where I was in the story at that point and the implied urgency of the plot at that stage of the game, well it made absolutely no sense for me, in role-playing terms, to go back and try to finish those side quests.

    I even went so far as to not turn in some of the ones I'd actually managed to complete because going back to Manaan would have been too "out of the way"!

    Oblivion was very broken in this respect.
    - "Hold on would ya, I gotta go find some really nice wine in the back of some cave."

    There ought to be a thesis somewhere on the balance of a cinematic linear plot and complete freedom in a non-linear world.

    1. This is, again, where Morrowind did such a great job. Caius Cosades would keep telling you to go out, adventure a bit, join a guild, build your skills, in between steps of the main quest.

  42. I am rather surprised how Ultima IV is not often praised for it's non-linearity. I believe that Ultima IV is somewhat transcendental.
    I don't really understand how Planescape:Torment is considered 'philosophical' and all that. For This, I would have to play Planescape:Torment, but I think philosophical ideas suggested in Planescape:Torment does not go into such depth. Well, my opinion may change after I finish the game.
    The rest of my comment will be a joke:
    I am pretty sure about this though. Ultima IV is transcendental but it must be overcome.
    Behold! I teach you the Over-CRPG.

  43. I think I learned with this blog entry why I like both crpg and jrpg. I can enjoy linear and non-linear game design because the most important aspect I look for is and will always be the story, or the gameworld. That's why I my most favoured (non P&P) rpg so far are Ultima IV+VII, Final Fantasy IV+VII, and recently Skyrim. And btw, saying Skyrim has no great story isn't true. It has almost hundreds of great little stories, that's what makes it special IMHO. And Tamriel is like a well crafted P&P fantasy world.

  44. This particular article made me recall a Youtube vid that coined a word for designing in this kind of freedom: The Shandification of Fallout. TL;DR Tristram Shandy is the literary equivalent of a Wikipedia walk. Games are uniquely good at replicating this, immersing the player further. Making games cinematic misses the point. Fallout: New Vegas was better than Fallout 3 because it turned you loose in a living, breathing world rather than a setting.

  45. The Exile Series by Spiderweb was my favorite on the PC growing up due to this exact reason. I only ever had the shareware versions, but there was heaps to explore in those games, especially in Exile 3: Ruined World. I still remember using the Orb of Thralni just to see how much I can actually explore within the limitations of the sharevare.

  46. Good post, it made me think. I "lost track" of the main quest in Skyrim. I usually safe the main quest for the end and do all side quests before that. Only in Skyrim, I sort of lost the motivation to play before I had done all the major side quests. It will require some effort to return to it and finish it but I want to do it.
    I enjoyed Fallout 2 more than Fallout...because it was bigger and had more side quests. Can the degree of non-linearity be expressed by the ratio of side-quests to main-quests? In some way yes, but in other ways no. I guess that it not only depends on what you can do, but also how you can do it. Or am I confusing replayability with non-linearity?
    There is the recent tendency to regard games as "interactive movies". I guess this is why RPGs have become more linear. Sadly, I think that the commercialization of video games will make them poorer. Replayability only hurts profits, because you have more fun with a single game. Linearity requires complexity and that makes it complicated.
    I still remember Morrowind fondly. I was thrown into the game with no idea what to do, and the realization that I was the Nerevarine was grand. Yet I already loved the game before I realized that.
    I wonder if the Mass Effect games are RPGs. Part 1, probably, Part 2 maybe, Part 3 hardly.

  47. I'm a big fan of the TES games but IMO the level scaling seriously distracts from any sense of non-linearity. It's a false freedom.

    Sure, you don't have a 'level 5 dungeon' in Oblivion like you do in other games. But that's simply because if you're level 5, then the entire world is level 5. The only difference is your surroundings.

    It leads to some ridiculous situations from a RP perspective, too. Why is this guy who is wearing Ebony armor and carrying some of the most advanced magical weapons in the world choosing to stand next to a dirt road in the middle of the rain, mugging passer-by? He's wearing equipment that is worth more than his victims would earn in 20 years!

    If Bethesda would drop the level scaling nothing would compare to the TES series. They're still really, really good... I don't think I've ever enjoyed a game more than I enjoyed the original Arena back in 1994, but the scaling is a turn off.

    1. Yes, I agree. I've talked about that elsewhere. I think Skyrim does a slightly better job, but overall this is something that they should work on. There should be a few areas that are always difficult, a few that are always a breeze, and in between maybe scale the MAXIMUM enemy level, but not every enemy level.

    2. That's the danger of destroying game balance from having an immense open-world environment. If you stop feeling challenged early on in the game (5 hours of gameplay?) and that game boasts 10 times longer than that, I doubt you'd probably stop caring about character advancement or bother about side-quests; thus cancelling that extra hours of contents that the developers created.

    3. I understand the point about level scaling, and I don't disagree with it, and surely the way this issue is approached in games can always be improved. I would point out though, that if certain areas are ones that in principle you CAN go to, but in practical terms are just not survivable, then you have functionally imposed a kind of linearity on the game, to a greater or lesser degree defeating the purpose of an open world. TES didn't address this perfectly, but III-V remain some of my favorite games of all time. I'm probably sounding like my position is more inflexible than I intend, I guess I'm trying to say that there's a spectrum here where it's hard to find the sweet spot.

  48. I've previously stated in a comment somewhere long ago that Linearity happens in CRPGs because of a strong & specific storyline that the developers have in mind. This is usual in the case for JRPGs which have a singular ending with a lot of plot twists and/or contrived storytelling leading up to that (with Chrono Trigger as a brilliant averted trope that boasts 10 different freaking endings with an open world that exists in 4 different timelines).

    That said, I wonder how Linearity is considered here. What if there was no way to backtrack but there is a huge decision tree to choose from? Case in point: VTM Bloodlines by Troika.

    The game is broken down in chapters and you may go back to the areas you have visited before but the game is linear in the sense that you cannot go to other unexplored areas in the game before the end of the current chapter.

    Yet, it is very diverse with an extremely high level of replayability due to the large amount of decisions and skill-sets of your chosen Clan. I doubt anyone could play through one game (with the final fan-patch, of course) and stop themselves from immediately starting a new one.

    1. In this comment:


      I broke it down a little more. You're right that there are different kinds of linearity and different ways that linearity manifests. It's worthy of a more detailed analysis.

  49. Lands of Lore I (haven't played the others). Provides an illusion of forests, swamps and towns, but actually leads you along a very linear path throughout the whole game. No wonder they didn't bother to include a map of the game world. After having come from Realms of Arkania and the Xeen games with their extreme freedom, I was somewhat disappointed.

  50. One word: Randomization! I would settle for a minimal backstory if I get a large RANDOM world map with RANDOM dungeons, RANDOM quests, RANDOM monsters and RANDOM treasures. I find the map exploration the most exciting part of any game, and with a procedurally generated random map replayability becomes practically infinite...

    1. Procedurally generated content has limitations though. I don't want a game populated entirely by Fallout 4s 'radiant' quests.

  51. This blogpost has made me reflect back on what my primary issue with the old Final Fantasy 1 problem was. A huge open world with dozens of towns and locations you can visit but a single rube goldberg machine like plotline, where one needs to visit some locations in a specific order to find an item to activate another specific location's event, etc etc. Which would be fine if the game had the decency to give you even mild hints about where the next item is located. This is why most players that play the game inevitably tend to say something along the lines of "Where do I go? What do I do?!"

    Truly the worst of both worlds, in terms of what you said about linearity and open world games


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