Growing up in the SNES era, linear games were pretty much the main style of games, long before the open-world of GTA III, that gave players an incredible sandbox like never before. But recently, it is very common to see reviewers and pundits claiming that the linearity of a title was a flaw, that they wanted open environments, even though sometimes that doesn’t fit the genre. And from what it seems, the word linear has been used to the detriment of a title, carrying such a negative feeling that it needs to overcome another hurdle.
I’m not saying that open-world games are not great, Watch Dogs 2 was my favorite game of last year, but we are very close to a saturation of the genre, after all, the vast majority of the AAA market relies on the open-world structure. There are some truly incredible examples, like The Witcher 3’s world, that is a real character, filled with missions and activities that feel meaningful, without being overwhelming. GTA V’s Los Santos is lively, beautiful, full of details. But many others feel as if they would be much superior if they had a more linear structure.
Mafia III, that despite having varied settings, they all felt boring and unexpressive, being empty, and robbing some of the brilliance of an amazing story. That could be greatly enhanced in a more controlled environment. No matter how fun it can be to have a massive world to play with, it is much easier to tell a compelling story in a linear game.
Many people may not agree with me, but to me, the best story and game of the Batman Arkham franchise is Asylum. That took advantage of having a compact location to tell a significant story with real impact to the Dark Knight. That because it didn’t have a lot of the distractions of an open-world, felt urgent. Something that’s been lost a bit in the sequels, that are great, but fail to reach the same level of quality when it comes to the story.
Uncharted 4 increased the scope of its levels, turning them into bigger spaces, however they managed to keep their linearity, using these traversal moments to improve on character development. Managing to resemble an open-world gameplay without sacrificing its commitment to telling a great story, something that is very hard to accomplish in a sandbox.
One of the best games of the last generation, if not ever, The Last of Us, used it to its favor, creating a stunning and detailed game that resonated with many. Characters that became iconic, unforgettable, mainly due to the strong focus on the story, and even though it was heavily scripted, TLoU remains a powerful game, with a much-awaited sequel.
Journey and Inside minimalistic approach to storytelling require a more concise and controlled gameplay. Not only the story can benefit, the gameplay as well, Titanfall 2, for example, that created set pieces, and levels that would be very difficult to execute in other circumstances, being recognized for its surprising campaign, that leads players to unexpected places and played with their assumptions.
Having a massive world doesn’t equal quality as we’re lead to believe. Open-world games can be great, but they don’t have to be the rule. Linearity, if done properly, can tell powerful stories and create breathtaking moments, that only a greater attention on the story can bring. Being linear is not something negative, it is another way of bringing to gamers experiences that are a lot more fulfilling, than a project that had an open-world tacked on as we see in many cases.