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I hear stuff like this all the time:

  • "X game is so much more linear than Y."
  • "Is X a linear game?"
  • "It was a good game, but X was just way too linear."

What does it mean for a game to be linear?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 25 down vote accepted

A linear game follows a strict path for the player with little, if any, deviation. Basically, you traverse from stage 1 to stage 2 all the way to the final stage. Take, for example, Ghosts and Goblins or Magical Pop'n.

A non-linear game deviates in some fashion, either throughout the whole game or just for a portion. For example, the classic Megaman series was one of the first non-linear types. You had your choice of 6-8 stages at the start, but once you completed those you were on a linear sequence. Then you have a game like Metroid, where you just have one very huge stage that requires certain upgrades to reach certain areas but you can approach it from nearly any angle.

A freedom of choice on what you want to do in order to progress the game in order towards completion, that is what non-linearity is. So by extension, linearity is when the progression of events which actually contribute to game completion are sequential. In most cases, there's also no form of going backwards.


Usually, when people talk about "linear games" as opposed to elements like "linear gameplay" or "linear story", it's talking about the layout of the levels in the game. Not the structure of those levels, but the overall map of objectives that you go through. Games can have very open levels and maps, yet still be a "linear game" due to the approach for actual game completion.

An example of linear level layout is Iji, which might surprise anyone who has played the game that I've stated it. In terms of story and gameplay, it is extremely variable and non-linear. Each individual level is vast with many approaches possible depending not only on your actions in that level but also actions in earlier levels. But the level layout is a strict, one-directional set of levels accessed by completing the previous level. It's also a perfect example of why linear design is not necessarily a bad thing.

An example of non-linear level layout is Super Bomberman 5. Each stage has the same objective of "defeat all enemies", but clearing it opens gates that point to stages. Like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, each new stage presents a new choice, and some branches will intersect at various levels. Each world has around 3 separate boss levels which you only ever get to one, and there are even different variations on the final encounter. Once you've cleared the game, you can then opt to start at any level you've cleared before, in order to explore the other gates. So even though the story and gameplay are rather linear, the level layout is pretty much the epitome of non-linear.

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If you think about more complicated games, linear games are the ones in which you find that every choice except for one leads to a path that's blocked off and you have to backtrack, like in Max Payne or Halo, where you can't really get lost because you're 'flowed' through the level –  Mechko Jul 28 '10 at 21:27
    
There is a gray area, games like Final Fantasy which have linear stories, but moments where you can play in sandbox style. Traditionally we refer to these as being linear because the story is. –  tzenes Jul 28 '10 at 21:29
    
Not hoping to derail the thread, but would you consider Mass Effect (1 or 2) to be linear? The story always was nearly the same but you could take stops along the way to pick up additional squad members or complete their optional quests. –  Lotus Notes Jul 28 '10 at 21:44
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@Byron I would definitely consider Mass Effect non-linear. At most times, you could choose from a significant number of quests to complete, many of which were optional. Many areas allowed you to explore beyond the required zones. You could choose the characters you used, and your interactions with other characters could open/close branches of the story. The fact that the main story is always similar isn't too big of a factor. –  bwarner Jul 28 '10 at 22:07
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@Byron Non-linear. Usually a linear game is something more like Metal Gear Solid, where there is one story which you experience as you play. Mass Effect allows you to change the story based on your decisions. –  tzenes Jul 28 '10 at 22:10

Linearity is when you find yourself essentially not making plot choices. A non-linear game is a matter of degrees and decisions: a game is non-linear if someone thinks that they were able to influence the plot of the game. Often a 'wrong choice' in a linear game does not lead to failure, but simply ends up being the same choice because of some external factor that just 'happens to fail'.

There are several levels of linearity. The most obvious is where you have literally no choice, only one path to follow (eg side scrollers without stage select).

In more complicated games, linearity is where you find that every choice except for one leads to a path that's blocked off and you have to backtrack, like in Max Payne or Halo, where you can't really get lost because you're 'flowed' through the level. The levels on Halo 3 seem to consist of large open areas which are enclosed by walls or cliffs and have one entrance and one exit only, so you have the illusion that you are wandering around slaying the covenant, but in the end you only have one decision to make.

Fable is another example. there is a vast open world, a multitude of quests, and choices which can change your appearance and how people react to you. However, the problem is that in the end, you still have to come back to certain Key Quests which make up the plot line, and there is no avoiding that. That is linearity in RPG's.

There is also Deus Ex, which is much less linear than the average game, but still not 'free'. You will find in D-X and many other dialoged games that now and then your questions are 'flowed' towards the right set of questions and only one or two actually have substantial answers/actions.

In most cases, 'linearity' is the result of a lack of funding/desire to add near infinite content to the game, especially when, in games like Max Payne, you are telling a story with an underlying theme (the linearity and inescapability of holes, and life in general).

The only truly non-linear game that I can think of is Bejeweled, since no two rounds that you play will ever be exactly the same (barring a 1 in 64,000,000,000 chance and an insane memory).

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Most fps'es are as linear as it gets. Clear this room, move onto next, repeat until the boss is dead. Some, like Prey, have a few "hidden areas" you can skip with additional threats but that is it. Others, like Quake 4, don't even have these, as far as I can recall. Others, like Doom 3, attempt non-linearity with skippable rooms with monsters and items and a level with a choice between two paths, but that is it.

Some games, on the other hand, try really hard not to be linear and give you maps to "freely" explore, sidequests you can skip and what not, alternative endings... but at the end of the day, if there is a plot, you are going to have to go through some hoops in a given order to finish the game.

The game that probably tries the hardest to be non-linear is Heavy Rain. If you're not into "interactive drama", the next least-linear game I know of is little-known Meritous, which needs 8 hours or so to complete but only comes with five/six "hoops" -- the game tends to get rather dull though, especially if you're going for the best ending.

Finally there are games that just don't have a plot at all. Quake Live comes to mind, for example as it completely lacks a single player campaign. If it qualifies, it's as non-linear as it gets I guess.

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I don't understand how you can begin by saying "most fps'es are are linear as it gets" then end with "The Unreal Tournament series or Quake Live ... are as non-linear as it gets." –  Christian Jul 29 '10 at 14:55
    
@christian: there is no plot whatsoever (well UT03 kinda has some, so it doesn't count; dunno about the others). There are no hoops to jump through. (I did say if they qualify) –  badp Jul 29 '10 at 15:29
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@Christian Even though I'm pretty sure I detect a hint of sarcasm, any game could be classified as non-linear by this set of standards. –  TheQ Jul 29 '10 at 16:36
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@Christian When you evolve past the actual "game story" and head into "interpretive story" crafted by the imagination/perspective of the player, you leave the realm of being able to classify it as "linear" or "non-linear". –  Grace Note Jul 29 '10 at 19:52
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@Christian Most people wouldn't consider standard actions or decisions as non-linear gameplay, is all. Hitting the "Jump" button in Super Mario is not a linear-choice, nor is standing around and not touching the flag to end a level. In your example, Doom, sure, you can hang out and chill but it's not progressing the game nor your character. Looking for secret areas is a non-linear part of the game, but it does not necessarily make a game non-linear. In fact, I think almost every game has non-linear parts to them, but that doesn't make them all non-linear. –  TheQ Jul 30 '10 at 12:20

Extreme examples:

Linear: rail shooters (like House of the Dead).

Non-linear: sandbox games (like GTA).

Most games are somewhere in between these two extremes. For example, in PoP:SoT you can go anywhere, and it has a very open feel, but brilliant level design works as a very subtle guide, and you end up on the one path through the game, rarely getting "stuck".

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"Linear" can be used to describe the story of a game, or how the levels are played, or both.

I would describe it like this:

Linear maps/levels means that the player doesn't really choose how to tackle a level, they are corralled through it given little or no choice which path to take or how to solve a problem (or kill something). You may backtrack or take side paths but if there is one way through the level it can be considered linear.

Linear stories are ones that the players actions do not affect how the story is played-out. The opposite is a game where the player's actions (either in-game or between levels) can change the course of the story. I would include games like GTA and Borderlands where you get to choose which parts of the story you pursue and when.

Generally if a game's levels are completely linear then the story normally is too (there are some exceptions where games let you make story choices between levels). And if the levels are very non-linear then the story is as well. Most games fall in the middle of those extremes though.

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I think it usually means that the player doesn't get any choice in the way the story / gameplay evolves.

A game in which you progress from area 1 to area 2 and so on - without a choice to maybe take a shortcut from 2 to 4 and then (maybe) go back to 3 - is called linear. The direct opposite of a linear game is called as sandbox game - where, like a sandbox, you get to do whatever you want, there's less emphasis on a specific sequence of events that must be taken.

There are many levels of linearity between a completely linear game and a sandbox game, though.

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