Log in or sign up to comment
24 Comments
Posted by vidiot

 
Notice: This is a long blog. Replies pointing out this fact will be ignored.

Linearity

From the word "linear", root word from Latin is "linearis".
 
"Lin" comes from...uh...."Lindbergh"... 
"Ear" comes from..."ear."..of course.
"ity" comes from "tits". 
Actually, most of the words that I read come from the root word of "tits". I think.  -_-
 
 
Custom blog graphic is still custom and still rad looking
   
In this blog I try to tack the subject of linearity in general. It's as convoluted as it sounds. 
 
This argument has been bouncing back and forth in my mind for the longest time. I don't really know exactly when I first began thinking about it, but a series of events both in the games I've recently been playing, and the ever-changing unpredictable curve of popular opinion has been shaping my outlook. Initially I was going to write this when I finished up Final Fantasy XIII, because that was the big argument that people were piling on in the web forums. What confused me initially was that such an exasperated argument was being made against Final Fantasy XIII. Think of the argument as a static statement: Final Fantasy XIII is bad because it's linear. How the hell does that even make any sense? Hasn't every Final Fantasy game since the series launched been in some form or another, linear?  
  
 It's not that the game is linear, so what has me miffed about Final Fantasy XIII?
So while I easily defended Final Fantasy XIII in my mind while I played it, I slowly began to dislike the nature of certain parts of Final Fantasy XIII's design, and it was at this point that I began questioning my own arguments. Perhaps the naysayers had a point? To give some background on my own bias: I've played, and beaten, every main entry in the Final Fantasy series. I own, yes own, imported soundtracks from some of my favorite entries. I'm not quick to throw blame on this series very quickly, and this idea that what was hampering this entry was because of linearity was something that still annoyed me. 
 
To start trying to come to terms with what tangible thing I can't immediately identify that I don't like about Final Fantasy XIII, I began thinking of linearity in gaming in general. Not just in how you fundamentally play the game, but how it's narrative is portrayed. My school of thought is whatever presentation standard that works the best for what your game is trying to portray, is what you used. I won't be trying to proclaim that one style is better than the other. Although in order to dive into this subject, I want to touch on western role-playing games here for a minute. Usually when such direct comparisons are made, people try and compare and contrast the games as a whole. That's not my intent, instead it's to illustrate a broader point.
 

   
Western RPG's have been trying to emulate the table-top experience of choice for the longest time. A good endeavor to accomplish, some of my favorite RPG's made by western developers are ones that bring choice hand-in-hand with the overall experience. 
 
The choice is usually static.
Kill dude and be bad guy. Save dude and be good guy. A developer from Bioware has been quoted on stating that they are literally making two different games with each Mass Effect entry. It's true, as both my Mass Effect characters: 'Nick Shepard' and...uhm....'Bitch Shepard' can tell you.
 
 This character might look like a grizzly lizard-man, but I am sure he will save humanity and do things with a serious lack of personal motivation. Or personal anything.
The problem with these choices versus something more static, is that there is a serious loss sometimes in coherency. For example: My character in Oblivion was a goody-two-shoes hero that saved the world, was the leader of every specialized guild imaginable, and the leader of an evil occult assassination organization.
 
My character in Fallout 3 was another goody-two-shoes but had no personal relations of his own. He wasn't a character, he was an empty shell. Some people consider the silent protagonist a good opportunity to convey your own emotions onto your own character. Because your playing a role, because it's a role-playing game, and when we get on web forums and want to be obnoxious, the more times you emphasis the world "ROLE" into your argument helps. For example, that previous time I typed "role" I made it bold, capitalized AND is underlined. No, I will not look at the other billion legitimate factors that go into trying to define what it means to "ROLE-PLAY" these days.  
 
Whatever. I personally find the silent protagonist kinda antiquated at this point. Personal opinion, disagree if you must.
 
This goddamn thing has a point, please stay with me. :P
 
It's gotten better though. Mass Effect seems like a mix between the conventional linear style and player choices. No choice is technically your choice, as the player essentially shepards (PUN!!!!) the main character down two distinctive plots. Of course you can mix-and-match for different situations, but the general outcomes have been predetermined. 
 
You think it's your own choice though, but it's not. You think you have a say with what the outcome will be, but you really don't. 
It's all an illusion. 
 
*pew*pew*
A great illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. It's one of Mass Effect's greatest strengths, you get the feeling you are in control of the current scenario.  Now I'm not standing here trying to compare Final Fantasy XIII to Mass Effect, that would be ridiculous and I would be better off trying to compare Mario to Halo. I'm trying to illustrate one great example of the "illusion of choice". In the case of the choose-your-own-adventure scenario, I don't think all games should adopt it, such an outlook seems narrow. For narrative, there are pros and weakness between both styles of telling a story. Complaining that a story is linear seems a bit more opinionated versus something that should be adhered too. It also doesn't help why I'm miffed about XIII. I found the answer to my dilemma in something more traditional.

 
  
 
Resonance of Fate is Final Fantasy XIII's arch-nemesis. 
 
I've haven't seen two distinctively different games that proclaim they are from the same genre, let alone the JRPG sub-genre.
 
   Yeah, have fun trying to figure out what's happening in this scene and how you play it.
While Final Fantasy XIII holds your hand to the....thirty hour mark... Resonance of Fate by contrast could care less if you understand how to play it. The game quite possibly has the most, without a fucking doubt, complex battle system ever conceived. It just tosses you out there. It suffers because of it for sure, the first few hours are a dizzying whirl of just trying to figure out how to play it.
 
In this case it's the "illusion of interactivity". It's a balancing act for sure, how much should you lead the player versus how much you shouldn't. Resonance of Fate has a linear main plot, but the abundance of side-missions to take give the game not just extra padding in the longevity department, but gives the player a sense of self controlled progress. It's nothing new, most JRPG's and RPG's in general, follow the same design of RoF. Again variables abound over what gives the best illusion, but general pacing can be an easy example to site. Giving the player the time to collect his thoughts, to take a break from the traditional grind of your main mechanics.

This is the part where I cite towns, but it's much more than that. It's a lack of any downtime outside of cut-scenes or battles. A lack of depth in the world that I'm running through.
 
In interviews up to XIII's release, the developers like to cite Modern Warfare as a form of inspiration. I really hated this comparison, but let's run for it for a little bit. In a game like Modern Warfare, we can spend most of the time in high-stress scenarios, it's only eight hours. A lot of conversations I've had with people have had many reoccurring dilemmas with XIII, one that I found interesting is that people got tired of it. I would be lying to say that I didn't felt fatigue going through the endless corridors and difficult battles of XIII to the thirty hour point. Getting to Nautilus so far has been my favorite part of the game, because I was able to take a breather.  
 
At the same time, this linear design for dungeons is not a bad idea. I knew a guy who used to work for the Nintendo help line. One of my favorite stories, was how he had to help a kid on the phone get through the Phoenix Cave in Final Fantasy VI....ON THE PHONE.....IN IT'S ENTIRETY.....ROOM BY ROOM....
 
I think the idea of a linear dungeon crawl isn't necessarily a bad thing. I've always found JRPG dungeon design....weird....If there's something that should be stripped down,
  JRPG dungeon design does need improvements.  
this could be one idea. But again, it's the lack of freedom outside it's main battle mechanics that hurts whatever illusion it might have. It's the reason why I feel like I have more freedom in the first Final Fantasy on the NES, versus Final Fantasy XIII.
 
It also doesn't help that there is a right and a wrong way to do linear dungeon design, and it's not until the end of XIII's initial long march that we get something that works. Again, the developers actually cited shooters as an example for their supposed linear design choices, it's just too bad that linear shooters play with this illusion of interactivity within their set-pieces.   
   
 The design to make your game linear "Like Modern Warfare 2" is an empty claim, if you can't fundamentally realize that "being linear" is not what makes MW2's levels so effective.
Modern Warfare 2 had branching paths in what's essentially the same long walk forward that XIII exhibits, but it's populated level design masks what you are doing. Halflife 2 bombards you with events happening in-game in what's essentially another long walk forward. XIII by contrast to it's level design, is sterile, and only begins playing with this concept during the few scenes prior to landing on Pulse. Branching paths juxtaposed on a forward path.  

 
Our favorite games that we play are linear. Even the ones that we consider to be non-linear have strong linear components. It's the illusion we should be striving for. The illusion we should be commending.
 
 
 
Unlike other forms of medium, games are interactive so we try and figure out how much that interactivity should be implemented. It's the defining quality, but I think we get too sucked in with this idea that you should "be in control how much your character breathes." A loss of creative vision or coherency can sometimes be derived with this idea that games should be more sim, versus an entertainment experience. Yet in the grand scheme of things there's not really a big difference between a linear static cutscene, versus choosing what linear static cutscene to watch. Or choosing whether or not deciding to wander to another linear path, before diving head-long into the next main linear scenario. It's a balancing act, and there's no real distinctive all-encompassing way of implementing the illusion across all games. 
 
In the end Final Fantasy XIII simply fails at the illusion. It's a great game for sure, and if you read this blog and think I'm just bashing the game, my apologies that's not my intent. It's just missing key basic components that we have come to expect, not just from games in the series but most games in general.
 
To argue though that the reason XIII fails at immersion because of it's linearity, is not the argument we should be making.
 
We need linearity. Because without linearity, with completely pure non-linear game play, we for better or worse run the risk of producing chaos. For those of you who want any example for this, here is a pic from a session I had with Sleepy_Insomniac playing Sleep is Death. The game is played by two players, one who plays it like an adventure game, the other player literally makes the game between turns. It's the closest thing I've seen to actual genuine DM'ing in a computer game.  
 
In this session I was creating the game while Sleepy played the game.
 
Then this happened:
 
 
...
 
...Yeah....
Posted by RelentlessKnight

Agree but XIII linearity is the reason why I hate that game...

Posted by Organicalistic_
@vidiot: If Giantbomb were to nominate a Most Valueable User  It would be between two people in my opinion 
  • YOU- because of your awesome knowledge of games no one has heard of
and 
  • thomasriis1987-because he has an awesome attitude and is well, awesome.
Posted by Claude

This is one of the prettiest blogs I've ever seen. The words were rather linear though.

Posted by vidiot
@Claude: Those transparent custom header dividers are phenomenally easy to make. I first used them as a last resort, as the headers in my Yakuza 3 review weren't showing. I will be using them for them foreseeable future.   
Posted by Xeiphyer

GOD This blog is linear.

Posted by hai2u

when does this blog open up?

Posted by vidiot
@Xeiphyer: Your face is linear. I assume most of the replies here are going to be puns on things being linear. -_-
Posted by Claude
@vidiot said:

" @Xeiphyer: Your face is linear. I assume most of the replies here are going to be puns on things being linear. -_- "

I am truly sorry for starting that.
 
I just feel I'm not smart enough to say anything else. I sometimes feel like I'm repeating myself over and over. 
 
Linearity in video games is a constant. I find the linearity in sport games are the most sublime. Each game is different and can be quite dramatic, the last second shot, winning the big game, a double eagle to win a golf match, on and on it goes win or lose. Other games are just tyring to catch up.
 
 
 
 
My favorite sublime linear video game other than sport is The Witcher. Life is so gray to be the White Wolf.
 
I live by the rules of the video game world created. Sandbox games and WRPGs like Oblivion allow me to follow my own instincts which is welcome. I grow tired of those quickly and look elsewhere for more structure.
Posted by vidiot
@Claude: You didn't start anything. :P Trust me, I was ready for that. Even the sheer suggestion of this idea in the IRC chat returned a torrent of similar replies. 
 
I liked the Witcher a lot because of the gray area's in it's writing and scenario. Sandbox games (GTA) are still confined by the designers whims. You have more options in the sandbox in comparison, to a hub-level. Even still, sandbox still usually confined to the linear missions similar to the old hub-world style levels. 
 
I feel like we don't realize that even in the most non-linear situation, there is linearity. I agreed in the blog that the lack of coherency, or how you put it: structure, can be off-putting.
 
Oh, and thanks for reminding how ancient you are with that video made almost ten years before I was fricken born :P
Posted by bonbolapti

I tend to dismiss FFXIII from being linear because It fits with the theme of the characters being fugitives throughout the entire game. So for me, FFXIII works in that respect. I just wanted to put that there.

Posted by vidiot
@bonbolapti: I get that. I remember Kitase talking about how he liked the idea of a contained story that eventually opened up, and stated that XIII's long haul was akin to being in Midgar for the first portion of Final Fantasy VII. 
 
But to be a fugitive for 30+ hours? Alright, a lot games have had that as a story-line, I can't remember one specifically that went over the....thirty hour mark.... But you still need general pacing. You still need breaks, and you still need to have level design that accommodates this. A singular hallway seems to be a very limited concept to illustrate characters on the run. If people at Square want to continue with this design process, they need to start learning about level design.
Posted by Hailinel
@vidiot said:
" @bonbolapti: I get that. I remember Kitase talking about how he liked the idea of a contained story that eventually opened up, and stated that XIII's long haul was akin to being in Midgar for the first portion of Final Fantasy VII.   But to be a fugitive for 30+ hours? Alright, a lot games have had that as a story-line, I can't remember one specifically that went over the....thirty hour mark.... But you still need general pacing. You still need breaks, and you still need to have level design that accommodates this. A singular hallway seems to be a very limited concept to illustrate characters on the run. If people at Square want to continue with this design process, they need to start learning about level design. "
It's just the way that particular game was designed.  Look at Final Fantasy XII, which was much more open and less linear than X and XIII, or Final Fantasy VI, which opened up once you reached the World of Ruin, or even the latter portion of Chrono Trigger.
Posted by LordXavierBritish

That was a good read and perhaps one of the most obnoxious/eloquent ways of slamming a game I have ever seen. 
 
Damn fine work sir, damn fine.

Posted by vidiot
@Hailinel said:
" @vidiot said:
" @bonbolapti: I get that. I remember Kitase talking about how he liked the idea of a contained story that eventually opened up, and stated that XIII's long haul was akin to being in Midgar for the first portion of Final Fantasy VII.   But to be a fugitive for 30+ hours? Alright, a lot games have had that as a story-line, I can't remember one specifically that went over the....thirty hour mark.... But you still need general pacing. You still need breaks, and you still need to have level design that accommodates this. A singular hallway seems to be a very limited concept to illustrate characters on the run. If people at Square want to continue with this design process, they need to start learning about level design. "
It's just the way that particular game was designed.  Look at Final Fantasy XII, which was much more open and less linear than X and XIII, or Final Fantasy VI, which opened up once you reached the World of Ruin, or even the latter portion of Chrono Trigger. "
Again, I'm not harping on the game being linear. Final Fantasy game's are linear. If the design was to give you, the player the impression of being on the run by having the first 30+ hours one long continual run, then it failed. If the idea was to give any tangible scope to the world (at least until Pulse) of Final Fantasy XIII, then it failed too.
 
This game still needs fundamental pacing. This game need's to incorporate basic level design elements from games that it's own creators poorly point to for inspiration.
Posted by Symphony

That was long? Pfft. So wasn't! 
 
Very good read though and I agree with pretty much everything, though I enjoyed FFXIII more than most. That said, a lot of the dungeons and areas felt like they went on and on and on just for the sake of padding out the time spent playing. 
 
And someone needed help through the Phoenix Cave?! Dude, that is one of the most linear dungeons in the game!! You just happen to need to use two parties, each of which can't move forward until the other goes forward and presses a button. ><  
 
I'm curious to know how you dealt with that scenario in Sleep is Death. You prolly already posted screenies and I forgot >.>  
 
PS: I'm looking forward to your next set of awesome blog graphics :D

Posted by dankempster

Fantastic read, vidiot. 
 
I too am enjoying Final Fantasy XIII, but I'm getting hung up on the problems that you cite. I think from what I've seen, fellow Giant Bomber Meowayne has summed up the main problem with the game best: "Final Fantasy XIII is one long dungeon". As you said, you don't get any downtime between events; it's storyline, battling, storyline, battling, storyling, boss fight, lather, rinse, repeat. Thankfully the lore of the world is sufficiently interesting and the battle system is sufficiently addictive to hold my interest, but it is a shame that you don't really get a chance to fully explore and appreciate the world that the developers have created.

Posted by Ghostiet

Hey, I just realized that if you read my nick, it ends with a little "tit".

I wrote that to break those horribly linear puns.

I was always baffled by the concept of that ellusive "unlinearity", or at least what gamers try to make of it. People think that removing the story drive and giving only a basic sense of what is going on can turn the player into that drive himself. And that's bullshit. So far, that kind of thinking only achieved one type of gameplay - it's been very clearly described by vidiot in that pic and by Penny Arcade (though I don't find the example of Mass Effect to be so accurate):


This looks like the start of Morrowind. "Cool, dude, you're out of jail. Here, go meet that guy, but you know, I don't think anyone would give a shit if you didn't."

And that type of gameplay is going batshit crazy. The game does not have a Goddamn idea what to do to the player, neither the player knows what to do with the game. Seriously, it's like an excuse for not hiring writers - yeah, let's just throw the player into the middle of things, without a background or something. He'll exploit glitches and just guide his shell of a character forward to check out how large is the draw distance. He'll be fine. He'll find the plot someday.

Also, when you mentioned ROLE playing, I felt that this kind of narrative (or rather lack of it) achieves something that truly scares me in many cRPGs game - the illusion that jumping in place, stealing spoons from a table and running in full plate armor without your pants on is playing a role.

Posted by Video_Game_King

Wait, you're insulting Final Fantasy VI!? What the hell is wrong with you, and why haven't I arrested you yet?

Posted by vidiot
@Symphony: Admission: I can't gauge how much I'm writing. My first version was a page longer and I toned it down, then you bring it in the GB editor which I had to edit and tweak the thing like crazy because nine times out of ten what you have in preview mode is going to look nothing with what you first publish. It's the reason why certain images had no quotes initially.
 
But that's beside the point, the real question is regarding the difficulty of the Phoenix cave...
 
@Video_Game_King:
...which I think personally is difficult, especially if we don't have a guide on standby and you're on the phone. Splitting up multiple parties working together, going through a long dungeon while fighting enemy encounters, and it's 1994 and your on the phone with some prepubescent brat. I'm was trying to cite a common problems with JRPG dungeon design, an emphasis on making things obtuse versus something akin to a challenging puzzle. Perhaps a better example would have been The Cloister of Trials in FFX, or the mindfuck that was Eternal Sonata's Fort Fermata....I....I'm getting scared just thinking about that....
 
So no, not complaining about Final Fantasy VI specifically. Just trying to cite a broader problem, and how the design choice for dungeons in XIII isn't a bad idea, just horrifically implemented....which brings me to....
 
@dankempster:
...Yeah, I agree. It is a giant dungeon crawler. That's actually a pretty good description, although even the most prolific and dated dungeon crawlers weren't hampered the same issues that XIII exhibits.
 
@Ghostiet:
My gaming tastes are quite broad. My #S Ranks of Oblivion/Fallout 3 (XBOX 360 achievements legit) and both Mass Effect games will tell you that I still like these games. Although my same feelings that I pointed out, and you share, are most certainly apparent. I know so many people that have picked up Fallout 3 and have quite a few hours out into the wasteland because they're completely lost. The lack of tutorial in the first Mass Effect was quite criminal, what's ironic is that I'm experiencing the same problem with Resonance of Fate, this coming from a sub-genre known for excessive hand-holding.
 
I think we need redefinition on what constitutes on what being linear means. I hope this blog can help push the mindset's of what is really important, and a realization this game design, specifically giving control to your character is a delicate balancing act that has consequences on both sides of the coin.
Posted by ZenaxPure

Er, nothing to do with your topic itself but did it seriously take people 30 hours to get to chapter 11 in FF13? Like I wasn't skipping cutscenes and I made it in roughly 20 hours. As you stated in your post the game has little exploring and stuff to do pre chapter 11 which is why I can't figure out how it took so long for people to get that far into the game. Honestly I beat the whole thing in roughly 32 hours (maybe a bit more I can't remember atm) and thought it was very short compared to any other FF main series game, how does one take 30 hours to reach chapter 11 when there is nothing to do but the main story prior to that?

Posted by vidiot
@Zenaxzd: I loaded up my save when I hit chapter 11. It reads 27 hours (few minutes to 28), so I was off by three hours. There are choke-points in the game where you can grind for experience, so perhaps that might be an answer for you.
Posted by Video_Game_King
@vidiot:
 
If obtuse dungeon puzzles is your problem, then I'd suggest hitting up some Lufia (it's more "puzzley") or, to go toward the outer reaches of the JRPG genre, Zelda (again, I said "outer reaches")(the puzzles are a bit less obtuse, aren't they?).
Posted by Hailinel
@vidiot said:
" @Zenaxzd: I loaded up my save when I hit chapter 11. It reads 27 hours (few minutes to 28), so I was off by three hours. There are choke-points in the game where you can grind for experience, so perhaps that might be an answer for you. "
I didn't do any experience grinding prior to Chapter 11 and made it there in between 20-25 hours.  I had played it for about 60 by the time I was done with the main playthrough and have yet to tackle all of the optional content.