While there is certainly room in the world for both open world “sandbox” games as well as games of the linear “point a to point b” type, we often find ourselves comparing these two. This is especially true for the case of role playing games; as this generation has introduced a leap in the size and detail in free roam gaming. The split in the community seems to be arising, some gamers are experiencing open world games and deciding that linear role playing games, or in some cases linear games in general, cannot be as good as open world games. This is largely a matter of opinion and taste. This full in-depth analysis of linear games against open world games shows that both of these game types are fundamentally very different and provide a specific experience to their targeted audiences. Read more for a deep look into both sides of the issue including a complete breakdown of both types of games and what defines them, specific examples from the perspective of a hardcore gamer, and the reasons why some people prefer open world games even though linear games are still leading the industry.
There are many different types of open world structures, as well as linear. The fundamental idea behind sandbox games has always been that multiple realities exist and your player has the freedom to control your actions and craft the experience. This freedom was huge in Grand Theft Auto III; however the game was still linear in nature. Many games have done a great job of walking the middle road by creating hybrid models of the two concepts. The main difference usually recognized between the two concepts is story structure. The ability to side quest is generally considered an attribute of open world games. In true open world games there is a branched main storyline that changes based on the players’ decisions at various moments throughout the game. The linear game’s main storyline structure is very different, in that it usually features a line (hence the word “storyline”) where each scene is told from point A to point B and the general story cannot be changed. The ability, or inability, to walk away from the main objectives in a game is really the true distinction between a linear and open world game experience.
Games like Final Fantasy XIII are being questioned and often misunderstood as the RPG genre has seen mostly open world games this gen until recently, while linear games like Uncharted 2 do not have to deal with this stigma. Obviously the success of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3 on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in the absence of a next-generation Final Fantasy title have strongly influenced the belief that the linearity of FFXIII‘s story is a negative aspect to the game overall. As Chad Awkerman reveals in his epic Final Fantasy XIII review, the very storyline itself is restricted by the fact that the main characters are all fugitives on the run with no place to stop and take a breath. Open world games and linear games definitely offer something that is worthwhile, and both types of story telling should be respected. However, it seems apparent that linear games are at the root and core of the majority of successful concepts out there (Ex: God of War, Halo, Call of Duty, etc.) and because of the developers’ ability to control the players’ experience more intimately we have seen that developers are able to maintain peak levels of entertainment in linear games.
Let’s talk for a minute about character depth. In Open world games often the characters don’t feel real. There are moments when they definitely seem just like any non-playable character (NPC) from linear games, especially as the characters develop further, however the fact that you can usually kill most of the non-essential characters removes a lot of the believability from the game. On one hand, it is more realistic to be able to kill any character you want (including essentials) because in reality we are all mortal, but just as the inability to kill a NPC in a linear game takes away from immersion so does being able to kill every NPC in the game. It provokes a sense of apathy in the player. The player doesn’t truly care about the virtual people beyond skin deep when they are all expendable. The player begins viewing everyone as a resource and instead of caring about shaping their reality through their decisions most open world games become about scavenging the world’s plentiful or sparse wealth and items.
In linear games the characters have a greater opportunity for holding your attention long enough to portray themselves in a vast way that shows they are complex individuals with a lot behind their emotions and thoughts. Linear characters tend to be more believable in general because they typically exhibit more human traits in the span of the game than open world characters. For example, in many linear games the characters will go through a dramatic series of events and grow emotionally from it while attempting to learn from it all. This is very human and resonates with the player; it is something we can all relate to. Most of the open world characters never get a chance to show that to us and we see them as black and white with no gray area for growth or spontaneous thought. This is just part of what makes linear characters much more real to the player.
Dialogue in a linear game often contains much more back-story and explicit as well as implied context than open world game dialogue. In a game like Fallout 3 characters’ dialogue is almost one dimensional in nature. In a linear game like Final Fantasy XIII, you feel as if you know the person by the end of the game. The player has heard so much dialogue from the same characters across their journey they know the inner workings of each character’s mind. In most open world games the playable characters usually say very little of worth and NPCs as well, making it hard to get a bearing as to who they are. That is assuming they are not simply the one dimensional characters portrayed, either way the immersion factor is taking a hit here every time you have a dialogue sequence in a game where the characters come and go, number in the hundreds, and rarely have any real impact on your journey.
Some gamers feel like they are playing a movie with games like FFXIII and God of War III and are unable to be in the immersion because they feel a lack of control over the destiny of their characters. Open world games give them this control. In this economy the length of games has become an issue to some gamers. Linear games are typically viewed as short compared to open world. Short length doesn’t necessarily make a game bad by any means, but when researching often times the game play duration of a game will be an important factor to potential buyers. Typically the longer the game experience the more we want the game. On the opposite side of the fence many gamers feel that, because the time they have to spend on a game each day is limited by lifestyle factors, games of the linear type offer them more bang for their buck. Many people experience a sense of being lost among the details to existing in an open world game and do not have time to take it to the levels of immersion the open world is attempting to achieve.
Although I personally love both concepts, many gamers find themselves split between freedom-based story branches and legend-based story lines. It all comes down to taste in the end; however the control the developer has over the game experience is evidently more efficient in linear games. When a developer is creating a scene, they know exactly where your attention will be as you run through it and that means the detail can be focused on more in those areas providing more immersion as the gamer is noticing less faults in the graphics and game play. The ability to keep you on the edge of your seat with a good story, set of game play mechanics, and deep characters the entire time is seen to be something linear games do best. Actively choosing your reality in open world games is realistic, in the fact that in real life we can also make our decisions of free will and they will affect our reality, but it’s also unrealistic because the amount of decisions and alternate realities that exist in games are far too few to deliver on that promise. Again the paradox of being more realistic and unrealistic at the same time occurs. A lot of gamers are unable to immerse in open world because of this.
If you’d like to stick to the never-ending exploration of free roam by all means that is your right to do so, but do not forget that linear games are still the top dog in most, if not, all game genres. In the future as more advanced technology is leveraged open world games will likely take the path to the top using a variety of brand new approaches to branched storytelling. Until games can come further ahead in representing the infinite quantum branching of the real universe, open world gaming will find it difficult to surpass linear gaming in terms of keeping players engaged. Games have often given players the feeling that the possibilities are endless, however those illusions have yet to replicate the majesty of life’s possibilities. Maybe some day in the near or distant future a game will come along that gives the world a simulation so vast, there are near unlimited factors to each moment. Just think how big an open world game could be if it simulated life itself, taking a huge leap in the capability to deliver a massive amount of possible experiences at any given moment would revolutionize gaming as we know it. Until that time linear games will mostly have the edge over open world games, and the mixture of the two concepts will continue to inspire future generations and prevent game experiences to come from becoming stale and redundant.