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Are nonlinear, open world games a dead end?

Brandon Erickson's picture

Far Cry 2

I've been noticing lately that I've developed a fairly strong preference for short, linear games over the more open world "sandbox" style ones. Taking a look at some of the games I've played recently (e.g., Call of Duty 4, Gears of War 2, Portal, Mirror's Edge, Grand Theft Auto IV, Far Cry 2, and Fallout 3), I can see a clear pattern emerging in terms of what games I'm more likely to go back to, or in some cases which games I'm simply more likely to continue playing through to completion.

A big factor in all of this is the amount of free time that I have. There's no getting around the fact that the way I experience a short, linear game versus a long, nonlinear one is heavily influenced by time considerations. As awesome as I think Fallout 3 is, I rarely feel the urge to go back and keep playing it because I don't have any guarantee that I'll get very much out of 1 or 2 hours with that game. The same goes for Far Cry 2. I'm sure it has a lot of great payoffs for those who are willing to make the commitment, but after traversing so many miles of simulated African landscape and being ambushed over and over again I finally said to myself, "I don't have time for this."

On another level, I'm also starting to believe that the whole idea of the nonlinear, free roaming game as some sort of holy grail for the medium is a bit bogus. We've already seen some pretty damn amazing open world games, but what I'm discovering is that there doesn't seem to be anything particularly earth shattering about these games that, for me, makes them feel that much more profound than the more scripted stuff. Personally, I would much rather be guided through a tightly choreographed experience like Call of Duty 4 than trudge around the world of Far Cry 2. And after beating Grand Theft Auto IV, I didn't feel any more satisfied than after beating Gears of War 2.

With certain TV shows, like Battlestar Galactica or The Wire, I can say pretty confidently that the added length allows for dramatic payoffs that are more profound than what I can get from most movies. I haven't really experienced that phenomenon with playing long games versus short ones, however. Of course, taking the discussion into the realm of TV and movies removes the whole issue of linearity versus nonlinearity. But I think it's worth making the comparison. If someone could figure out how to translate what these shows do into a super long-ass game, then I'd like to see it. But it doesn't seem to have happened yet.

Do I think that Fallout 3 is a worse game than Gears of War 2 just because I'm less likely to play it on any given evening? Absolutely not. I don't think nonlinear games are ever going away, nor do I think they should. But I'm also feeling pretty done with the idea that there's some mythical open world, infinitely branching interactive game out there just waiting to be made that will render linear games obsolete. There's room for both, and as seems to be the case now, people's tastes and preferences will probably remain contingent on that all important commodity known as time.

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Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
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Agreed

While I like a lot of games that take a long time to finish, a game that's too open-ended is overwhelming (what do I do now?) and boring. There's a lot of time spent wandering around the same scenery killing things. Looking at you, Oblivion.

Just how much linearity or lack thereof I want depends a lot on time, like you said, and just what mood I'm in.

I don't think either sandbox games or linear games will--or should--die out. I second that there's room for both.

Still Ok

I'm not yet sick of the whole open world style, but I have burnt out on them in the past. There are times when all I want to do in a game is just wander about for hours and see what I stumble across (did this a lot in Fallout 3), so I definitely see the appeal they hold.

I agree with Erickson's

I agree with Erickson's post. There's never been anything intrinsically compelling about the "open world" design as such, and spending valuable life time (even gamers are mortal, after all) on a single, unwieldy and needlessly slow-moving 80+ hour game rather than, say, four great and significantly more fast-paced 20 hour titles is rarely justifiable. Moreover, as is painfully obvious from the underwhelming Elder Scrolls titles, it's simple not possible (not even with a gigantic budget) to combine extreme quantity with consistently high quality. And what's the point of exploring a vast, open-ended world if every dungeon (Daggerfall/Morrowind/Oblivion) or derelict building (Fallout 3) looks more or less the same as the last one you visited?

Crysis > Call of Duty 4 but Call of Duty 4 > Far Cry 2

I liked Mike Doolittle's assessment of emergent gameplay versus scripted gameplay but I too rather play COD4 any day over Far Cry 2 but Crysis and Crysis Warhead are superior than both those games. The Crysis series shows how non linear gameplay can be done right.

I've never seen anyone claim

I've never seen anyone claim that nonlinear gameplay will be the "new face" of gaming. In fact, sandbox games have always been around (e.g. SimCity) and sandbox games have always been less popular than heavily scripted games - so unpopular, in fact, that they half-ass the sandbox approach now. In its pure form, sandbox games don't need a main goal, just ways to end the game. You set your own goals, which is not an approach everyone takes kindly to (Performance Review: Employee has trouble taking initiative). Games like Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Far Cry 2 throw in a main story that you can play linearly anyway just in case you're not into that sort of thing. Even in EVE Online, which is a pure sandbox games, 99% of the gamers can't think of a goal more creative than "make money."

I also caught that thinly veiled "because I have a life" argument: "people's tastes and preferences will probably remain contingent on that all important commodity known as time". Stash your stilts. You don't need to play as many games as possible to be satisfied with gaming. I've been playing Total War for the past few months and I don't regret that I could have rushed through five linear games in the process - and blown $200 more. That's a nice chunk of change.

Linear vs Open World

I have been playing video games now for the past 28 years or so. When was younger I used to have plenty if time for all kinds of games. Now that I am older with more responsibilities (Career, University, Marriage, raising kids), my gaming time has been severely restricted. I need to basically get my gaming fix in short, satisfying bits. This does not mean I think the sandbox type games are less fun. Far from it. It just means with all the other things going on in life, there is not much time left for the games in the amounts that I could fit in in my youth. Of course, there are some games of the longer variety that must be played (Fallout 3, Final Fantasy XIII) but what invariably happens is that I will still be playing it when everyone else is done, and I will depend on the FAQ guys a bit more heavily than I usually would. And there is nothing wrong with that either. I just don't have the time to be solving all the puzzles like I would in the past. I have said all the above to say this - The older you get, the more responsibilities you get, the less time for games you have. Thus the bite sizes are usually less. It is called life, and it is where most of us will end up. Just enjoy the ride, and enjoy your gaming hobby. Just coming now in mini-bite sizes.

non linear is ok depending if u are a ...

well i say if your a control freak and just like being able to decide all aspects of everything the world has to offer nonlinear is for you. I mean most free roam games are either to long to short to easy or just take place in to big of a world but if you can have a hundred different out comes in a game from one mission from just the way you do it this shows a level of reality more than just the way the game looks. But the nonlinear games are recently new so it will take time to dial in on what the gamers want for free roam nonlinear games so don't loose hope.

The point is, when we move

The point is, when we move to gaming with blu-ray disks, we have an extreme amount of space to work with. The better thing about sandbox games is that is seems more fulfilling, if I buy a PS3 game and play it for 80 hours I'll be happy: I just paid 60 bucks for it! 20 hours of gameplay seems like a ripoff with how much more space is available, and a ripoff paying 60 bucks for a mere 20 hours of play. Nobody wants to beat their game in a week or 2, and have nothing to do with it but do it again, maybe on a harder setting...

This is a pretty crazy story

This is a pretty crazy story in my opinion. Non-linear games are amazing, and shouldnt be looked at as 'Not being able to finish them', but they should be looked at as being able to explore everywhere in the game, and being able to continue to play the game whenever you want. I can go back to Fallout 3, and go to places and do quests Ive never seen before, even 120 hours into the game! This aspect is beautiful, because the goal of playing a game for me is not to be able to finish it, but rather to have fun and enjoy the time playing the game, and to discover new and interesting things.

Dont get me wrong I love linear games where you have to follow the story and do what the game tells you to do, but I also love the fact that you can play Oblivion or Fallout 3 and just be creative and not worry about finishing the game, but to have fun playing the game

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