Why Linearity Trumps Open Worlds
E3, the advertising juggernaut, has concluded but not without announcing a whole lotta’ interesting titles. One such title I’m interested in is Nintendo’s attempt at an open world, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. (henceforth BotW) The series as a whole has used both linearity and open world designs but the 3d games tend to stick to the more linear style. There are a lot of smart dudes working at Nintendo so if anyone can figure out how to do one well, its them. I, like most people raised as gamers, have been a fan of the Zelda franchise for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories are of my older brothers pulling out the almighty gold N64 cartridge containing Ocarina of Time.
One thing that has me worried is that Aonuma Eiji stated that BotW’s Map will be about the size of Kyoto. Then some lovely and more intelligent people than I did some mathematics and noted that if true, BotW’s map would be about 10x the size of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s map.
That’s absolutely bonkers. And the only part that’s more ridiculous than that statement is that people are actually excited about that. Now now, don’t get me wrong, if done correctly having a map 10x bigger than an already pretty empty map() would be a pretty amazing feat for all of gaming. Only problem is that filling a map that large with interesting interactions is ACTUALLY impossible. And this is my friends is my issue with “Open World” games. Developers endlessly pursue larger maps and more mechanics instead of fleshed out worlds with quality level design and game mechanics with depth. So in this article I’ma talk about open world games and discuss Dark Souls.
Because all roads lead back to Lordran.
Linearity vs Open World
Value Proposition and DPH:
Lots of the praise open world games receive is thanks to the nearly worthless “value proposition.” The “bang for your buck” or “getting your money’s worth.” While nothing is wrong with trying to be smart with your money, there are many who equate hours of “unique” content to quality. Which is absolute garbage. Quality = Quality.
I played Undertale, my favorite game last year, for only 15 hours. And those 15 hours were significantly better spent than 15 hours I spent walking to all the various caves throughout my 100+ hours of Skyrim. Maybe I’m gettin’ too old, but if a game could pace itself nicely wrap it up in around 10-20 hours that’d be great. Instead of measuring hours spent we should measure Dopeness Per Hour or DPH. For example, Undertale had significantly higher DPH than TES: Skyrim.
Open World Design Problems:
Since open worlds are- so open, they need to do a LOT more stuff to be perceived as genuinely good. It’s not Bethesda or Bioware’s fault, it’s a “problem” inherent with the design of Open World. And while there is certainly value is in trying to create the illusion of player agency, I feel even that task is better suited to a more linear experience.
For example, In the Elder Scrolls series I really love playing the Dark Brotherhood quest lines. So first thing Lil’ Greg does when he buys Skyrim is find the Brotherhood and continue the quest line to completion. SPOILERS. You end up killing the EMPEROR. Now me saying spoilers was a just a formality because killing the EMPEROR does not matter. It doesn’t change a damn thing. Killing the Emperor should be a huge deal. But it ain’t. Wanna know why? Cause they had to make cave #129.
The size of the map makes it so all of the Dopeness developed has gotta’ get spread around. The freedom the player is granted means they have to spread out the Dopeness evenly as to lessen the chance of the player taking the “lame path” or Moments of Low Dopeness.(MoLD) This makes games like Skyrim or Oblivion feel like a huge blur to me. Because they had so much to do they couldn’t even make the pay off on one of the -major quest lines- worthwhile.
And Skyrim is considered one of the best examples of an open world done well. You don’t need me to tell you about all the bad ones out there.
Funny thing is this is all stems from Skyrim’s. Skyrim serving the open world niche got hyped to all hell and sold amazingly. The mindless suits and their focus tests are incapable of studying or understanding what makes Skyrim fantastic. So suddenly every game’s overworld starts getting bigger and bigger, with marketing talking about how much larger they are than their predecessors.
The Perfect Example: Dragon Age: Inquisition
The Elder Scrolls’ open world serves a purpose. The designers at Bethesda use the open world to try and create a world that feels alive. The NPCs seem to have schedules and goals outside of you. You can use the mechanics presented to set goals for yourself and aim towards them. And while Bethesda games are notorious for having immersion breaking moments..
The use of a first person perspective and large beautiful landscapes helps to invoke that all too important feeling of immersion. Many games think that just randomly including open world game mechanics just- because. Case and point, another game I enjoy, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Inquisition is filled with large landscapes filled with simplistic MMORPG-inspired side quests and resources to gather. Problem is, the character you play as is known as the “Inquisitor.” You are the leader of a great military might known as the Inquisition! Why is the boss doing the grunt work? We should be slaying dragons and saving the world! We could’ve had an interesting and immersive simulation forcing the player to take the role of a military leader in a troubled time. But we stray from the potential thematic cohesion, and for what?
Okay, so it doesn’t work narratively. What about mechanically? Well. The game somehow manages to be both linear and open at the same time. The solid story is bisected by the long periods of mindless gameplay as you gather a special currency that unlocks the next plot mission. There are huge lulls in the storytelling, the combat is a simplistic grind, and traversal takes forever. It takes all the problems that come with being open world and gets NONE of the benefits.
So why’d they do it? I dunno’.
Some suit was probably like. “Hey hey hey, we have a fantasy genre game under our belt right? So why don’t we try to make one of them Skyrims I’ve heard so much about?”
Alright so we’ve discussed a lot of the problems, what’s the solution? Linearity! My dear undead!
With a linear experience the designer has full control of the dopeness and can choose where and when to sprinkle the high moments. This doesn’t need to completely remove player agency as the designers can use a light hand in guiding the player towards the “correct” path. Perfect example of this comes from Dark Souls. After completing the tutorial you’re transported to Lordran, the main area of the game. You’re presented with three paths, one guarded by powerful enemies, one guarded by enemies you are unable to hit and the other with weak ones you’ve seen before.
Chances are, if its your first time, you’re gonna read the obvious sign and head down the easier path. But..
If you wanted to, you could try and persevere past the powerful enemies and be rewarded with powerful items. And on subsequent playthroughs many players do.
Also, linear experiences are less demanding technically. Its cost way too much rendering the large open landscapes required to create that sense of scale that open worlds require. It takes way too much manpower to fill that hard to render area with engaging meaningful interactions. With all those leftover resources the developers can sculpt more interesting and engaging worlds. They have the resources and time to develop more engaging gameplay.
Dark Souls managed to create a world more engaging and filled with more agency than the vast majority open world games despite being pretty linear. This beautiful piece to the left was an artists’ interpretation of the world of Lordran. A world that is almost entirely connected. The masterful level design and environmental storytelling makes the world come alive. Every corpse, every crack meticulously placed to get a certain point across. And it’s effectiveness shows, this is a piece from a fan of the game made to celebrate the LEVEL design of a video game.
If that ain’t praise, I dunno’ what is.
Cover Image by Judson Cowen. Prints available here.
Image Sources:(in order of appearance)