Linearity or non-linearity ... or going round in circles?

By Rosemary Young (October, 1997)
Linear and non-linear, they are all too familiar words today to everyone in the computer game playing community. So often even the most casual assessment of a game passes a judgement as to whether it is 'non-linear' or 'linear' with the former widely recognised as a shining golden star of approval whilst the latter is assuredly the black mark of doom.

So central has the concept of 'non-linear' become to the essence of a 'good' game that game packaging and game promotional exercises now proudly advertise this precious 'asset'. No publishing company would dare suggest that their product was linear! But the problem begins when you examine the concept 'linear' (or 'non-linear') what does it actually mean, and specifically in computer game terms? Only one thing is certain here, linear means different things to different people, and this means that a term with an extremely nebulous meaning has gathered an inordinate amount of power, maybe even to the point of making or breaking a computer game.

Well, there are so many shades of meaning of linearity it's impossible to list each and every one of them. Very likely there are as many meanings as there are computer game players and since I can't read minds I won't even try for a comprehensive list. Although they are not mutually exclusive, here are just a very few examples:

    A game is linear if it progresses through to one single ending.

    A game is linear because it has a linear plot.

    A game is linear when it moves on in stages or from one game location/world to another and which does not allow free movement between location/worlds.

    A game is linear if there is only one solution to each problem, ie. you must find a specific key to open a specific door.

    A game is linear because specific actions initiate new circumstances, for example when you have done 'x' time will move on and something new will happen.

    A game is linear if the player must progress through it along one single unerring pathway in that it requires you to solve problems in a predetermined order ... puzzle A must be solved before you can move on to puzzle B ... and so on. (This last example is probably the most stringent application).

This list could go on forever and there are endless variations on the above with even these few examples intricately intertwined. The mind boggles when you think about it. For instance the problem of definition becomes more complicated when considering a game that contains different worlds (rather like several mini-games rolled into one and connected by an overall plot). If, on the one hand, you can visit and solve each section in any order some players stamp such a game as non-linear even if puzzles take a fairly ordered structure within each environment. Other players insist that if the individual parcels of puzzles are prescribed in some way or another then there's nothing for it, the game is linear.

Oh what a tangled web
It seems that it is impossible for us to agree upon a 'standard' for a linear (or non-linear) game. For each and every title released there is probably a case for pushing it one side of the fence or the other and, indeed, I have read and heard separate assessments of the same game that have done just that. For example, Zork Nemesis has been called both linear and non-linear, so has The Arrival and even Zork 1, The Secret of Monkey Island and many, many more.

Just how to untangle the mess? It seems impossible, even suicidal to try, but if you consider the above carefully one thing becomes evident: that in assigning the label 'linear' some players concentrate upon the storyline, others consider the structure of a game and still more hone in on the puzzles themselves, with, of course, numerous variations in between. The only common factor is that to varying degrees all definitions of linear in some way identify that a game does not allow enough freedom or that gameplay is too structured. It can be seen as a spectrum where at one end are those players who demand total freedom to do as they like in a game (to create the story as they go?) and ranged through the middle are those who seem to prefer some freedom, but still keeping some structure or story. At the other end of the spectrum is the linear game, seemingly the dregs of the earth, where a game is fairly rigidly structured and play is prescribed so that various actions must be achieved in a particular order.

In the strictest sense, if taking linear to mean that there is only one single unerring pathway through a game (the last example mentioned earlier) then I have to admit that I have played very few games that would merit the description of linear. I can think of maybe one or two that lean in this direction: Ween (the Prophesy) comes to mind, but even in this game where often each screen has a puzzle or selection of puzzles to be completed before the next screen can be accessed, it isn't totally linear. There are alternative paths on a couple of occasions and there are options to solve problems in a different order in each screen. Still, regardless of the elements of linearity in this game and no doubt you can think of other similar games, players nevertheless played it ... and enjoyed it.

As for a totally non-linear game, I don't think I've ever played one. Hmm, a game in which you can do whatever you want all of the time? Does such a game exist? Could such a game exist? I haven't played any strategy games but, perhaps, such games as Sim City come close, or even the Roleplaying games The Elder Scrolls Arena or Daggerfall in which there are innumerable side quests to fulfil along with a main quest. Interestingly, though both of these latter games were often praised for their non-linearity or the freedom they allowed, they also invited criticism for that very same freedom.

Turning the tables
It seems that if there are no (or at least, very few) games that can be stamped as totally linear or totally non-linear it is reasonable to assume that the majority of games have components of both linearity and non-linearity or that, generally, games have some structure (linearity?) but that there are varying degrees of freedom within that structure. Surely, then, there is something to be said for linearity. It seems it's high time that someone found something to say in defence of this concept and I don't have to rack my brains too hard to think of a few examples of the good things. Here they are:

    Linearity in a game facilitates the delivery of a strong story or plot. Many players appreciate this aspect of a game, some are even critical of the lack of a good story.

    Following on from the above, linearity likely means that there is an ultimate goal set for the player to achieve which many players find satisfying.

    Linearity (or a strongly structured game) can allow for more complex problem solving in the sense that puzzles can be intricately related. (You can't have puzzles interrelated in a complicated way if there is no order to them or if each problem is an end in itself.)

    On the other hand, in directing the player down a more circumscribed pathway linearity could mean that a game is easy to follow. In particular, this might well suit novice players because it is less likely that they will find themselves in a situation where they will be wondering just what to do next.

    Linearity (or structure) should better cope with the continuity in a game story. That is you won't be able to investigate a person or place before you have knowledge of them or you won't be able to complete a task before it is logically possible. By definition :-) it is a non-linear game that allows you to do things in any order (or even out of order) and this can play havoc with continuity.

But, of course, all this is academic if there is no real agreement regarding the definition of linear or non-linear. Very likely many of you will disagree with my broad understanding of the two concepts. So why do I go to all this trouble to defend linearity? Only because the label of linearity attached to a game seems to have become tantamount to the kiss of death.

A plea for clemency
Surely it is a sad time for computer games when such a controversial word can have so much impact. It is particularly destructive when a whole game can be castigated because it has elements that are perceived to be linear. My plea is that we become a little more tolerant and a little more open minded.

And the problem of the definition of linearity becomes even more crucial and confusing when its connotations have become so negative that it is sometimes used simply to say that 'this is a bad game'. The major problem here lies in the fact that using the term 'linear' can become a substitute for valid criticism. When applied in this way its use, or I should say overuse, implies a negative feature that is rarely questioned and to some extent prevents a game from being criticised on its merits. Thus we see games criticised for not living up to some impossible ideal rather than being criticised for what they are, or purport to be.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a tacit understanding that linear means bad, and this in turn assumes that everyone is in agreement with this statement. This is certainly not the case. Many players appreciate aspects of linearity in a game as noted above. After all, the most often quoted and, arguably, the most 'infamous' puzzle yet presented in a computer game ... the Babel Fish puzzle in Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy ... was linear in the extreme.

What next?
If linearity in a game continues to be castigated as it is there is a good chance that this seeming desire for the extinction of direction or structure in computer games might well have further repercussions, if it hasn't already done so. By this I mean that constant criticism of linearity is likely to influence designers of computer games to go 'light' on structure. Hence, there is a possibility that story line will become less important with more games based on a premise rather than telling a story, that puzzles will become less complex and, maybe more games will materialise where players (even experienced ones) will find themselves 'lost', not knowing where to turn next.

Of course, all this raises the question: What do game designers and publishers and reviewers mean when they say a game is non-linear, for example? Do they mean that there is freedom to explore within the game world, or do they mean that there is less emphasis on storyline, or maybe no ultimate goal to the game? The term is now so nebulous it's near impossible to tell. For me at least the idea of non-linearity succeeds in ringing some alarm bells because I identify complexity in a game with 'structure' and in my understanding it is structure that is likely to suffer in so-called non-linear games.

Linear or non-linear, whatever they mean to each of us, maybe neither is ideal in isolation, or perhaps both are legitimate components of a 'good' game ... but why see it as black and white, ie non-linear equates with good and linear equates with bad? And what on earth has happened to diversity?

Copyright © Rosemary Young 1997. All rights reserved.