Linearity in RPGs - An Exploration

Perhaps one of the most fortunate (or unfortunate, as the case may be) realities about our lives is the fact that we travel in a linear direction through time. Our lives have a beginning and a finite point; there is no changing that. We don’t have a Delorean we can charge up and race off into a different time period to influence our past and change the future (at least, not yet, right?). It’s with this in mind, it seems, that our favorite books and movies define themselves – one linear motion, each having a start and finish, regardless of their genre or plot.

Sure, some attempt to contort our thinking and help us explore the “what ifs” of our existence and the way we perceive and travel through time. You’re familiar with the old science fiction fallback of multiple variations of timelines based on our own actions, no doubt (called the theory of multiverses)? It is a seemingly overdone plot device in the genre, which attempts to perpetuate the theory of multiple outcomes for each action we take and, by taking one of dozens of different actions at any given point in time, we ourselves create a new “universe”. For example, if I find out you’re sleeping with my girl and confront you about it, at the most basic level, one of two things is going to happen – 1) I’m going to beat the brain matter out of your face or 2) we’re going to talk it over like civilized people. If I decide to talk it over, the theory would state that there is another “universe” in which I rearranged your face and a split in time would occur, one for each outcome. In reality, there could be a dozen different outcomes, each being a variation on both of those basic outcomes above.

Unlike our linear lives, this gives us the possibility – or, perhaps on some level, hope – that our lives can become more free-form, more open, spreading out in a wide variety of ways, encompassing a large array of directions, exploration and promise. Now, if only that theory can be proven and we could actually explore each offshoot in the timeline and decide which direction we would like to go.

You’re probably wondering what my point is and quite possibly are ready for me to shut up. Well, I’ll get to it. Unlike other forms of media and, really, our lives themselves, video games have the possibility to allow us to do exactly what we want the most – to explore other possibilities, other directions in the stream of (game) time. And this need we have to want to know what is ahead, to influence the outcomes we face, is likely what drives us to want the option of non-linear exploration and game play in the games we choose to play. I understand that and, sometimes, feel that need, as well.

One of my biggest pet peeves in this day and age of gaming is a group of gamers trying to change one genre into something it isn’t. Let’s take a rather popular game as an example – Modern Warfare 2. Everyone and their mother plays this and, apparently, loves it. What if a sizable group of people came along and had a conniption because there were no airships, no 3rd person view, no limit breaks and no spiky-haired emo kids? They implore Infinity Ward to change things, to patch things, to keep these ideas in mind for their next game. What would you say to a group like that? Probably something like I’m about ready to discuss now – don’t try to change the game into something it isn’t. If you want a FPS game with a great multi-player element – play Modern Warfare 2. If you want a 3rd person RPG with airships, limit breaks and spiky-haired emo kids, go play a JRPG. (Forgive me for perpetuating an unfair JRPG stereotype, it was done for the sake of getting my point across.)

In almost every genre of games, the story is told in a very linear1 manner (and this is debatable, no doubt). Sometimes games break the mold, but it’s rare. One of the genres that usually stands above most in breaking out of the linear archetype is the role-playing game. To me, though, there are two very different, very distinct genres of video game RPGs. You have your Eastern or Japanese RPG (Final Fantasy, Star Ocean, Disgaea, etc.) and you have your Western RPG (Mass Effect, Baldur’s Gate, Fallout 3, etc.). We will leave MMOs out of this discussion for the time being, because that is a whole different beast.

Basically, what it boils down to, is we have the traditionally linear JRPG pitting off against the sandbox-style Western RPG2. Western RPGs tend to come from more of a PC gaming background, but have boiled over into consoles, especially this generation. Japanese RPGs were born on the console and have ventured into the realm of PC gaming on rare occasions. To be honest, the issue I typically have is with people disparaging a JRPG because it is too linear. I have a couple points to counteract that argument, both follow a more open-minded assessment of that reality.

First off, many of the hugely popular non-RPG games of the past are horribly linear, more linear than most JRPGs, to be honest. God of War, Ratchet and Clank, Call of Duty (and the Modern Warfare spin-offs), Uncharted 2 and the list goes on. Sure, in certain cases you have the option to replay stages, retrace your tracks, search for hidden items, secret areas, treasure and and have some semblance of freedom (perhaps Arkham Asylum would fit this). But, for all intents and purposes, these games are linear. People can’t get enough of them. Why? One of two reasons: They have a story to tell and people are drawn to that or they have awesome game play and razzle-dazzle graphics and that appeals to some. People don’t care and don’t throw a fuss that these games are linear.

Secondly, those who complain that JRPGs are too linear lose sight of the fact that that is what the genre is about. See, besides the way the game is structured (linear vs. non-linear), there is another major difference between the two RPG genres. Japanese RPGs have a story to tell and want you to follow the characters in that story. Conversely, Western-style RPGs tend to offer a world to play in and let you create your own character and your own story within that game world. Sure, there may be a set story, but you can follow the storyline…or not. You can side quest…or not. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure.

I don’t attach well to choose-your-own-adventure, moral-choices-affect-the-story-but-you’re-playing-with-generic-characters type of games. While there have been numerous situations and characters in JRPGs that I could personally relate to and numerous events in those games that have triggered an emotional response in me, never once has any of that happened in a Western RPG. This tells me that a linear story, told as the writers and developers see fit, is more poignant than a haphazardly thrown together conglomeration of do-anything-you-want-and-you-might-stumble-upon-the-main-story style game play (hello Oblivion). Each RPG I play of each style solidifies this thought in my mind because, unfortunately, no matter how hard they try, Western developers just can’t match the focus, the connection, the emotional highs that come from telling a story – instead they always want you to make up your own story as you go along. Giving the player a huge amount of choice, to me, seems to negate any emotional reaction you might have to certain story points, especially if you can influence the outcome of major events, much like you can in Dragon Age: Origins.

The next time you read or watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy, consider this: The part of the story where Gandalf falls through the depths of Moria after the fellowship’s encounter with the balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, we see Frodo and the others thinking he’s dead and the emotional reaction that comes with it. How much of an impact do you think that part of the story would have if you could say, “Oh, wait, hold on, I don’t want Gandalf to fall, if I choose [insert action here] instead of him stopping to attempt to block the path of the balrog, we’ll all be one big happy family again and the fellowship can continue on unscathed. Yeah, cool, that sounds good!” See, introducing a large amount of choice, or less linearity, would likely lessen the emotional impact of the scene. And that, I feel, is what Western RPGs do to an almost extreme extent sometimes.

See, JRPGs are like your typical novel or movie – they have a beginning and an end, they are an entire package designed to tell you a specific story with specific characters in a specific way, attempting to get a specific emotional response from the player. They’re focused. Not unlike Uncharted 2. Not unlike Modern Warfare 2. Not unlike God of War.

Speaking of God of War, David Jaffe, the game’s creator, made an interesting remark on his Twitter recently in response to someone asking him about camera control, and this illustrates my point in another way. Someone asked, ‘Why take camera control away from the player?’ His response was that giving camera control to the player slows the pacing of the game. In addition, he wanted to send the players on a ride of his creation, and having the developers, through the game, control the camera would allow him to do that. (Note: I paraphrased, because the conversations were all in “leet speak” and slightly difficult to read, so I cleaned them up a bit.) Now, let’s put that in the context we’re talking about here. Allowing too much freedom in a game – through non-linear sandbox-style game play or massive amounts of moral choice type dialog options – takes away from the impact of the story, it lowers the emotional highs, it interrupts thematic pacing. On the flip side, being able to move the camera in exactly the way the writers and developers want, providing less freedom to the player, helps get across to the player the emotions and thematic elements they want to represent at any given moment and makes plot points have more impact, bringing emotional highs when they should and keeps the pacing going at a speed that compliments everything else. In other words, less freedom of choice brings about more poignant moments, which, in turn, give the player more emotional attachment to the characters and the story.

Again, I ask, why do we not care about how incredibly linear our FPS or action titles are, yet balk at linear RPGs? Isn’t it almost a double-standard, a hypocritical attitude?

I’ve said this a dozen times before for various reasons and I’ll say it again: If you want to play a Western RPG, go play a Western RPG, don’t complain because a JRPG isn’t a WRPG. That would be like complaining to whatever higher power you believe in that your life is too linear and in the future you would like to be able to explore all possible outcomes of each action before you decide on one. It just isn’t going to happen.

Our lives are also defined by emotional highs and lows, they’re defined by the good times and bad. While we certainly never wish for anything bad to happen to us or our loved ones, when they do, there is no choice, there is no decision, they just happen. Those events in our linear travel through time define us, who we are, what we believe and what direction our path will take. If we could decide for ourselves how the outcome of certain choices and certain events in our lives would take place, unfortunately the world would be a much more boring, predictable place, where our lives aren’t defined by what happens TO us, but what we CHOOSE to happen to us.3

Japanese RPGs are our books, our movies, our lives. Western RPGs are that fantasy we always dream of having, where we can choose the outcome for ourselves and make informed decisions about our future. It’s true, both genres have their pros and cons. I’m not trying to condemn Western RPGs because I do enjoy them, too. Sometimes it’s nice to dream, but, when morning comes, we must wake up and join the real world once more. Yes, I am a JRPG fan. But, I don’t discriminate and I am rather open-minded. You like what you like. All I’m saying is that the linearity of a game should be a non-issue, because there is room for both genres of RPGs and you should play the one you want to play, don’t play one and then complain about it because you feel it should be something it inherently is not.

You know that line from Forrest Gump that goes something like, “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get”? Someone does know what each and every piece of chocolate in that box is made of – and we’ll call these the writers and developers of a Japanese RPG. They gift you this box of chocolates and, for sure, you don’t know what you’re going to get, but you are quite certain that you’re going to eat what the developers put in the box. You can’t throw a hissy fit because you can’t choose the chocolates you want, you will, indeed, be eating those chocolates if you want to see what they are. Feel free to go buy your own box of chocolates, but the fact remains, unless you eat that specific box, you will never know what the developers had in mind for you. Ultimately, that’s like complaining when life gives you apples and you had your heart set on oranges. There’s no way to change things – you will be eating apples whether you like it or not. It’s futile to attempt to change the outcome of the box of chocolates or the fruit, you have to live with what you get. So, why try to change an RPG into something it isn’t simply because we want something else? Since we seem to be so big on choosing our own path and making our own choices, go out and play a game of a genre you want and leave everything else well enough alone.4

1 Linear is relative to the type of game you’re playing. Obviously most, if not all, RPGs have stuff to do between story points to some degree or another, but just having a few side quests and a couple treasures to hunt does not a sandbox-style RPG make. So, when we’re talking about linearity in RPGs, consider that this is different than linearity in action games. Although, the same argument can be said about both.
2 Not all Western RPGs are strictly the the sandbox variety. Mass Effect, for example, seems to be a mash-up of both Western-style freedom (mostly in the dialog choices) and Japanese-style linear story.
3 Some would argue that we’re defined by the choices we make and not the events that happen. I agree, to a point. However, the events that happen define those choices. Without those seemingly unforseen and random events, we would have no choices to make, therefore the event itself is what ultimately defines us, not the choices we make after, because those choices are forced upon us by the events that are out of our control.
4 You know an article is long when I have to add in footnotes!

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Chad Awkerman

Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.

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