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By Shinan [3/11/2002]
Shinan's Thoughts on Linearity

This is an article on linearity. Be warned though I am extremely biased. I love non-linearity and despise completely linear games...

In my opinion most homebrewn games that I have played (that has unfortunately been mostly rm2k games) have been suffering from a way too linear story. I understand that amateur makers want to create a story and wants to tell the story THEIR way. But this doesn't always work. Often I find myself wondering why the hell I have to do a thing. For example I once played a homebrewn game where I was supposed to visit a guy in a mansion. Unfortunately this guy was in a meeting and I didn't know what to do next. Well as in all RPGs I of course spoke to the townsfolk (perhaps triggering something that would end the meeting) and I ended up in a house with an ill boy and a mother who asked if I wanted to help her find a cure. There was a simple choice. And the choice was "yes" or "no". I chose no. Guess what happened. I ended up having to do the thing because of the "nobility" of the hero and because of the fact that this was required to get a couple of characters join your party. My question was immediately. Why in all hells were there a choice if the answer didn't matter at all? Needless to say I stopped playing after this event.

This was an example of complete linearity, something that I think one should avoid except if you're having state-of-the-art graphics and a novel-quality story. That way we won't even notice that it really is an RPG and non-RPGs are usually linear anyway. Linearity in homemade RPGs is also often present when there are many roads and only one is right, the comment "I really shouldn't go there right now" is often present. And almost as often it is very annoying, a sign saying "locked" would sometimes be much better, or even "This is a demo version and I didn't really bother with making this room yet but it'll be there in the complete version", most homebrewn games don't pass the demo-stadium anyway 8^).

A game series that I believe has become very linear is Final Fantasy, well I have to admit that I stopped playing it halfway through Final Fantasy IX so I haven't played any FF game after this. (FFXI is probably a non-linear game though... But it's a online multiplayer game). But the good side about Final Fantasy is that it does have cool graphics and quite a good story. But I didn't like part nine anyway because the only thing I did was fight a couple of battles and move from the next linear conversation to the other. On the second (or third) disc I hadn't yet gotten the ability to walk anywhere I wanted on the world map and I gave up. Earlier FFs (perhaps 5-6 especially) had something that I prefer to call "fake-nonlinearity". Something that all completely linear games should go for in my opinion.

Fake-nonlinearity is when you 1) follow the linear story just because it is so exciting that you just don't want to do anything else and you don't get stuck because of some lack of information 2) when there is more than one solution to a problem or when you can walk different roads and still get the same result (by some tweaking from the maker). Final Fantasy 6 I think is a good example of fake-nonlinearity. It has lots of things to do in the background (this was also present in FF7) and you get the feeling that "I don't want to do this so I don't have to". Although this feeling isn't true, you can't actually DO anything, but you feel that way and that is enough. Fake-nonlinearity is something that is very hard to accomplish, but I believe that when done succesfully it can be very rewarding.

And on another thing about completely linear games is that there are positive things about linearity too. When you make a non-linear game you can never even dream of making a story that can be as filled with emotions and dramatical moments as a linear game. Linear games can have "better" stories, but really, the "written word"-medium can sometimes be better than games when making such a superb story. But games can do things that nothing else can do though.

And then on to non-linearity. Non-linearity is mostly present in PC-RPGs that have their basics in the PnP-RPG world. Games like Fallout and Arcanum has been hailed for the ability to do basically anything. You don't like the guard who wants a golden apple before letting you through? Kill him. Of course in non-linear games your actions also have consequences and killing a guard on the street in the middle of the day mightn't be the best of ideas. Non-linearity is often easily done by the simple fact that you can kill anyone, although it isn't this that makes a game nonlinear. In most non-linear games there is a goal that you should accomplish. You can sometimes not care about the goal at all, but mostly you will not be able to see the cool ending-movie and therefore you will never be able to finish the game. There will eventually be an ending to the sub-quests and you will just be roaming around having nothing to do but to finish the game. Non-linearity can also be accomplished by having the choices that the Player makes have a meaning, a reputation meter is often something that is good, and multiple endings as well depending on how the game was played. These two examples can also be implemented in a fake-nonlinear game but mostly they don't have the same impact on gameplay as in non-linear games.

I like non-linearity mostly because I'm a PnP'er and I prefer to be able to do what I want. But there are many problems with non-linearity, these problems are mostly for the maker and not for the Gamer (the opposite to what there was in linearity). Linear games are fairly easy to make if you have a story and some well thought out characters. Non-linear games on the other hand require much more from the maker. Most nonlinear games have a lot of choices and the maker has to make answers to every possible choice, the maker also has to create discussions that only appear when the character has a certain reputation etc. etc. There's also the problem of sub-quests and other things that take a very long time to create. And while linear games mustn't include a lot of information on the world and other rumors, non-linear games require a lot more on the world-building part of the game too. Making a non-linear game is VERY hard and making a good nonlinear game is almost impossible. But as with a well thought out fake-nonlinear game a good nonlinear game can be very rewarding.

Ending stuff: I probably have contradicted myself around in this text. And all language (grammar etc.) problems I blame on the fact that I'm not English. Oh, and if you want to comment on the article do so in the RPGSource forums or send an e-mail to

-Jan Karell a.k.a. Shinan
"Be strong in your Ignorance"
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