Linear Games and the Art of Control

<i>A funhouse is a linear sequence of scares. "Take it or leave it" is the only choice given. Makes you think about free will. Had our choices been made for us because of who we are? -- Max Payne</i><br/><br/>At some point in the past 10 years, the term "linear" became profane in gaming culture. The advent of the open-world genre changed what games allowed us to do. For some, this branching evolution became the only acceptable standard, the lowest-level expectation; without such freedoms, games with guidance felt restrictive. It's an understandable frustration. When a game forces your hand, you wind up walking a predictable path where you're at the mercy of an author's intent. Whether it applies to an unchanging story or one-route gameplay, there's an attached stigma to the sight or sound of "linear game," and it's often misleading.<br/><br/>Balancing theatricality and control without forfeiting either is an important creative struggle for developers working on linear games. For Amy Hennig, Creative Director on Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception at Naughty Dog, illusion is the solution. <br/><br/><center> <object id="vid_4e8cd277132c9a57df000012" class="ign-videoplayer" width="468" height="293" data="http://media.ign.com/ev/prod/embed.swf" type="application/x-shockwave-flash"><param name="movie" value="http://media.ign.com/ev/prod/embed.swf"/><param name="" value="true"/><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"/><param name="bgcolor" value="#000000"/><param name="flashvars" value="url=http://www.ign.com/videos/2011/10/06/uncharted-3-drakes-deception-desert-demo?objectid=94314"/><param name="wmode" value="opaque"/></object> <div style="width:468px"><a target="_blank" href="http://www.ign.com/videos/2011/10/06/uncharted-3-drakes-deception-desert-demo?objectid=94314">Three minutes of straight-line walking.</a></div></center><br/><br/>"I don't think players mind a linear story in the right kind of game," Hennig says speaking with IGN, "they just don't want the gameplay to feel too constrained." She suspects our knee-jerk reaction when a game is described as linear stems from an assumption that "player agency and choice have been sacrificed. Of course that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. Wide linear design and layout can encourage exploration and problem-solving while still guiding the player along a pre-determined course." <br/><br/>Naughty Dog struggled to give players as much freedom as possible within Uncharted 3's guided experience. Hennig is of the mind that creativity on the dev side and ingenuity on the player's side thrive within constraints -- the more freedom exists to flex, the more there's "freedom to fail." The challenge, Hennig explains, is giving players enough agency to feel like they're pushing the story forward rather than "being dragged along as a passive participant." <br/><br/><DIV CLASS="IGNE_quote">Game designers set up a game world with rules and limits, and equip players to explore it.</DIV>The best creators are as clever about making great gameplay as they are crafting elaborate illusions. They're magicians setting us up, playing us for fools, tricking us into thinking we're in control of a determined fate. This is a dangerous tightrope to walk. The moment we realize we're stuck in a box, following a static path, and doing exactly what we're expected to do, the game exposes itself. When we realize we're at the whim of a puppet-master, we're no longer convinced by the world, characters, and our goals. It's a fraud. <br/><br/>"Ideally our job as game designers to set up a game world with rules and limits, and equip the player to explore it," says Hennig. Uncharted 3 achieves this with a persistent sense of urgency. Nathan Drake is always making some daring escape, rescuing a missing friend, or hunting something down. He has a goal, and our understanding of the narrative drives us toward it. There is little temptation to color outside the lines.<br/><br/><img src="http://media.ign.com/games/image/article/121/1219548/uncharted-3-drakes-deception-20101216102111929_1330453411.jpg" /><br/>Hazards in the environment can funnel you down a narrow path.<br/><br/><br/><br/>Focus isn't a philosophy unique to Naughty Dog. Infinity Ward is a master when it comes to involving us in Modern Warfare campaign events that are out of our hands. Both developers rely heavily on scripted sequences to wow us while we play, but these highlights serve a stronger purpose. These big, cinematic moments are where linear games have the greatest opportunity for unpredictability.<br/><br/>A mission midway through Modern Warfare 3 places players on hijacked airplane. The layout is a literal tube, as linear as levels come. The setting doesn't afford Infinity Ward much room for erratic A.I. behavior, and it has even less opportunity for interesting level design. You look forward, you shoot bad guys. Before long, the plane nosedives. <br/><br/>What starts as a bland corridor-shooter mission turns into an out-of-control struggle to fight physics in a zero-g firefight. Allies, enemies, and loose items are obstructions for the floating player character getting tossed around the cabin. It's an unexpected change in an environment we understand from top to bottom. Infinity Ward forces another uncontrollable change on players when the plane rips in half. It's an inevitable, unavoidable event, but you remain in control of yourself and your actions even as the plane crashes.<br/><br/>"We look at being creative in putting players in scenarios they've never seen before," says former Infinity Ward Creative Strategist Robert Bowling. Of course, scripted scenes can only work if the player is in control. Leaving players "in the moment" is on the developer's mind constantly. Securing our interest and involvement, Bowling says, is "why we don't cut to cutscenes."<br/><br/><center> <object id="vid_4eb9681c8e88c54635000017" class="ign-videoplayer" width="468" height="293" data="http://media.ign.com/ev/prod/embed.swf" type="application/x-shockwave-flash"><param name="movie" value="http://media.ign.com/ev/prod/embed.swf"/><param name="" value="true"/><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"/><param name="bgcolor" value="#000000"/><param name="flashvars" value="url=http://www.ign.com/videos/2011/11/08/call-of-duty-modern-warfare-3-veteran-walkthrough-part-2-hunter-killer"/><param name="wmode" value="opaque"/></object> <div style="width:468px"><a target="_blank" href="http://www.ign.com/videos/2011/11/08/call-of-duty-modern-warfare-3-veteran-walkthrough-part-2-hunter-killer">Hunter Killer is "more about atmosphere than it is free will."</a></div></center><br/><br/>At a certain point, when creators limit where we can go and what we can do, we're going to demand more. Throwing players into new situations like this is where linear games can spread their wings and surprise us. Rather than open up what we're allowed to do, they'll change up the conditions of the environment instead. Theatrical gameplay moments such as a chase, a character getting killed, or something exploding unexpectedly have become the go-to form of pacing a story. <br/><br/>We don't need to break a developer's set of rules to enjoy their game, particularly when that experience is done well. Linearity has its place -- after all, we couldn't have games without it.<br/><br/>People Can Fly Creative Director Adrian Chmielarz explains that, as a player, "you're not creating anything. The role has been written for you already." This is true in every game, no matter how uncomplicated or open-ended it may be. <br/><br/>For his studio's Bulletstorm, he looked at the story as a string while "the combat is the beads of freedom." We move along a one-dimensional line to pockets of flexible gameplay and repeat. This is true in something as vast as Red Dead Redemption or enclosed as Enslaved. Those "beads of freedom" are the main variable, and they're present in every game's design. Right?<br/><br/><img src="http://media.ign.com/games/image/article/121/1219548/bulletstorm-20100504093919810_640w_1330453716.jpg" /><br/>If the pockets of gameplay are fun, should open-endedness matter?<br/><br/><br/><br/>Chmielarz tries to think of a game, any game, that's wholly linear. He reflects on the original Super Mario, which is about as narrow as a game can get. During his meditation he has a bit of an epiphany. Saying Mario only runs right is outright untrue. He can explore vertically, take out or ignore enemies, acquire optional power-ups, and find hidden paths. While you and Chmielarz have the same end goal, your Mario game plays out differently than his. Does Monkey Island play out the same way every time you play it, he wonders? Kind of. <br/><br/><DIV CLASS="IGNE_quote">You're not creating anything. The role has been written for you.</DIV>All the pieces are there for you, but finishing one quest instead of another is divergent. It's an alternate path, and not exactly linear. Before long, Chmielarz starts exploring linearity outside video games. "A crossword puzzle is linear," he says before quickly turning on the idea. "No! Actually, you can approach the crossword puzzle from many multiple directions! Maybe I'll get a letter for this word if I can solve this line or column...it's nonlinear even though it's predesigned." <br/><br/>"Linear" became a bad word not out of any failing of focused design, but because the context of the medium has changed its definition. It's not that these craftsmen are trying to hold us back -- they're trying to keep us fixated on a central idea. Linearity may be a bad thing, but it doesn't actually exist in game design. <br/><br/>"Focused" is perhaps the better term. <br/><br/>The problem remains, certainly, that some titles force us to go in a specific direction or play in a directed way. Chmielarz says these issues are solvable. <br/><br/>"As a developer, you need to be ready, you need to assume the players will try to f*** your gameplay into any hole it has," he says. "Either we need a better design, or we need more time to prepare different outcomes for what happens."<br/><br/><LINK REL="stylesheet" HREF="http://guidesmedia.ign.com/guides/uni/IGNE_style.css" TYPE="text/css"><br/><br/><DIV CLASS="IGNE_divider"></DIV><br/><br/><i>Mitch Dyer is an Associate Editor for IGN's Xbox 360 team. He enjoyed Modern Warfare 3 quite a bit. Honest. Read his ramblings on <b><a target="_blank" href="http://twitter.com/MitchyD">Twitter</a></b> and <a target="_blank" href="http://people.ign.com/Mitchy_D">My IGN</a></b>.</i><br/><br/><br><br/><br/>&#169;2012-04-24, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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