People online tend to be desensitized to conventional swear words. You can rant at a game and call it every expletive there is and the chances are that no one will care. If you really want to bash a game, you have to use words that should be neutral but that the gaming community has also been conditioned to view as universal negatives. One of these is “linear.” Calling a game linear is seen as an insult that can only be countered by listing evidence that it has non-linear aspects. That linearity is a bad thing or that non-linearity is a selling point is rarely questioned or explained, and I think it’s time for that to stop.
Linearity is thrown around without any meaning besides “I don’t like this game” so often that I think it is necessary to first define what linearity in a game actually is. Its literal definition is a straight line and that definition flows smoothly when applied to video games. Linearity in video games means that you have to either take a set path through a level or participate in gameplay events in a certain order. A “linear level” is one that has a set order; there are parts that always come later than others and backtracking is not required — and sometimes, not possible. A linear structure for a game’s story means that at least the mandatory parts of a game have to be completed in one specific order. Whether a game benefits or suffers from linearity should be subjectively determined, but it’s clear at this point that this isn’t happening.
How did we come to this bias? I think a majority of the problem can be tracked back to 3D video games becoming mainstream during the mid-1990s. The availability of multiple genres in 3D led to them becoming less linear. There are two primary reasons for this: one is that non-linearity is simply easier to convey in a 3D environment and the other, which I think often goes unrealized, is that early 3D gaming technology was not well-suited for what linear games specialize in. Densely layered obstacles and hordes of enemies were difficult for early 3D systems to handle, emphasizing the flaws of camera systems that were very much a work in progress. Wide open areas didn’t require as many details on screen at once, were easier to make camera angles for, and allowed developers to earn mileage from the same area by having players comb through every corner for collectables and secrets. Contrary to the commonly held belief that linearity is a sign of lazy developers, non-linearity is often less work for both the system and its developers.
That explains why video game companies embraced it so strongly at one point, but what about gamers? One reason is similar to a reason developers had: non-linearity was new at the time and the novelty drew gamers to it. The generations where non-linearity dominated 3D games also made people associate it with 3D gaming and created a sense that linear games weren’t “real” 3D or next-generation games. The non-linearity that dominated the fifth and sixth generations have also reached nostalgia status for many gamers and that alone can make almost anything seem better than it is. Non-linear games also tend to be longer, although I’m going to address why that isn’t always a plus soon, and being able to claim higher gameplay times is always a selling point. It’s easy to understand why so many gamers are so heavily inclined to dislike linear games.
With all of these reasons, why should we want linearity in games? One thing that needs repeating is that linearity is not inherently superior to non-linearity for every game — there are some genres that clearly play better or may only be able to exist with a non-linear structure. However, there are also genres that benefit from linearity. One of the main battlefields for linearity vs. non-linearity is platformers. I mentioned earlier that non-linearity tends to make games longer, but linear level structures allow gameplay to be packed more densely into the level design and allows levels to go all out with their mechanics. The need to be able to backtrack in a level, to be able to go around things, to decide the order in which you complete objectives — it limits what a level can do. Nowhere is this clearer than in platformers, a genre where the level itself is your main obstacle. Giving the player freedom to explore means that the level has less freedom to challenge the player. Long stretches of floating platforms, levels that change shape to attack the player, enemies that are used as one time platforms — these genre staples simply don’t work anywhere near their fullest potential in non-linear levels.
Benefits to linear levels don’t only apply to platformers. One omnipresent issue in early 3D games was camera angles and the fact that developers just didn’t know how to handle them. Things have improved since then and one of the things that games can do now is have a competent automated camera. Fast-paced games benefit greatly from not requiring the player to angle the camera themselves, but making an expert, game-controlled camera still requires linearity. While controlling a game’s camera is often viewed as a universal good, the fact is that a game knowing what a player will see allows for more complexity in genres such as platformers and action games.
Another benefit to linear game design is difficulty balance. This is fairly self-explanatory; in order for a game to grow progressively harder without resorting to simply giving enemies stat boosts, the game needs to know what order in which the player will experience the events. If a game introduces new abilities, a set order to play in becomes even more important, since levels can’t make a player fully utilize their abilities if whether the player even has those abilities is up in the air. Instructive design, which I’m a big fan of, also requires linearity.
One last area where linearity benefits a game is in gameplay density. This was touched upon briefly in the benefits to platformers section, but it applies to almost every genre. Non-linear games have a length advantage over linear games, but there’s a trade-off. Backtracking, figuring out where to go, looking around for hidden items — it’s entirely possible for a game to overuse these elements. A game taking longer to finish doesn’t automatically make it better; the quality of a game needs to be taken into account, as well as the quantity, and linear games tend to have a greater percentage of the game be at its best.
Linearity, like non-linearity, is not a universal good or something that every game and genre benefits from. However, it is not a universal flaw and it is certainly not a sign of game design regressing. If we really want the medium to move forward and for us to have the best games possible, it is vital that we do not judge them with sweeping generalizations. Linearity is not a swear word — it is a valid game design choice and whether it is the best one for a game depends on the individual game, nothing else.