Linear games: Are they worth playing?

Recently I’ve been trying to broaden my horizon and try out some games, franchises and genres that I don’t usually play or like. Among them were a number of quite linear games like the Call of Duty series and others. My goal was to verify my prejudices I had against a lot of mainstream titles without ever having played them.

In this article I’ll be talking about a few examples of linear games I’ve played recently and what observations I made while and after playing.

Note that I’ll be only talking about the single player portions of games and I don’t necessarily mean, that linearity entails a bad experience. If you like CoD, great, more power to you. There’s numerous of different preferences when it comes to playing games and I’m just talking about my personal experience.

Call of Duty Linear Games

Let’s get started

Call of Duty: Black Ops

This one I actually finished, just for the record.

I’m someone who tries to explore game environments, try different approaches to situations and in general find out what’s possible in the game. This is probably a result of playing too much System Shock and Deus Ex and also exploring the complex secret-riddled levels of Doom, back when it was released.

Turns out that’s a terrible thing to do in CoD. Following the games rules to the letter and staying on the path laid out for you is critical to “your” enjoyment of the game. Any deviation will either lead to death or absolutely nothing, because nothing will progress.

At first I tried getting at least some enjoyment out of the game by letting the AI do all the fighting or trying to skip sections and scripted events, but it usually didn’t work or took ages, of course with the same result, so eventually I caved and just played like I was “supposed” to.

At that moment I started thinking how my experience of the game was different from that of other players and I couldn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. Except for the difficulty and sometimes weapons, you basically have no say in anything that happens in the game, especially how the story plays out. Everything remotely important is presented via cutscenes and the actual gameplay playes more or less in a series of corridor-levels or at least linear areas.

But other than “That’s not the game for me.”, I didn’t really think much more about it after finishing up the solo campaign and getting myself killed a couple of times in multiplayer. But that would change a couple of years later when I tried the next game:

Linear Games: Halo 4

Halo 4 got a bunch of great reviews and a lot of people really love the title and series. It’s not really my cup of tea, but I’ve had some fun with it and I actually really love the visuals of Halo 4 on the XBox360. I think it’s absolutely mindblowing what they achieved on this old platform.

Halo 4 was similar in linearity to Codblops, but still different. While the levels were also mostly corridors, connedted in a linear fashion, the linearity wasn’t as apparent as in CoD. Don’t get me wrong, it was still glaringly obvious, but the level design or setting wasn’t as inviting to exploration as CoD.  In a way, the linear path made more sense. Maybe I’ll make a separate post about hiding linearity later, because this post will get too long if I dive too deep into that area.

What made a huge difference was the way both games handled the exposition of story to the player. CoD tries to be as cinematic as possible, which means forcing the player to relinquish control of his character very frequently to display cutscenes, thus telling the story.

Halo 4 on the other hand, while still using cutscenes, used them to a much lesser degree and a lot of the exposition was being made during the gameplay via radio communication with other NPCs. This at least increases the percentage of actual gameplay, however linear it might be.

While Call of Duty also relied heavily on scripted events, Halo did it a little bit less, making it harder to spot immersion breaking spots where for example not walking to a certain spot would create awkward situations that didn’t make sense in the story.

A few hours into the (co-op) campaign I found myself constantly thinking: “Wait, I know all this, but why? I’ve never played the game before.”, when it hit me. Of course I’ve never played Halo 4 in my life before, but the game was already a couple of years old and I remember watching the first few parts of a Let’s Play on youtube, when the game was released.

I don’t remember exactly which one I watched, so here’s a random one I found: Halo 4 Let’s Play

Remembering that, made me realize that the experience of playing Halo 4 and watching Halo 4 didn’t really didn’t make that much of a difference, at least to me personally. Which brings me to the main course of todays article:

Linear Games VHS
Is VHS still around? I have no idea, I still don’t really use BluRay or anything above FullHD.

Linear Games: Watching or Playing

Of course there are tons of linear games that I could also talk about. I still haven’t played the Uncharted series yet and as far as linear games go, I think it might be right up there with CoD or Halo. But I’ll play it to confirm or deny my suspicions.

Like I said in the beginning, linear games aren’t inherently bad. There’s a ton of interesting things you can do in linear games that’s impossible or at least very difficult to achieve in less linear games. Especially storytelling and cinematic presentation are much different.

In the end it depends on the type of player you are, your own personal preferences. While you can of course make Let’s Plays for less linear games, and they’re still popular, playing the actual game still provides a different experience with new information or gameplay and challenges than the person in the Let’s Play had. Let’s take titles like the Souls series for example. A single Let’s Play can’t cover every aspect of the game and actually playing the pretty challenging title yourself is a very different experience, because through character development you adapt the character to your playstyle. The story is also being told through the world itself, leaving it up to the player to discover (or care) about what’s going on.

My problem with the whole thing isn’t the quality of games like CoD, that’s up to the consumer to decide. If you like a game, that should be enough. But seeing the similarities between my own gameplay and watching the Let’s Play also demonstrated how close some games are to movies.

The comparison of linear games to movies isn’t questioning the taste of the players, it’s questioning the medium “game” itself. Games can/are, or should be, about interactivity, freedom and decisions. That’s why they are different from movies. Sure, you’re still playing with the gamepad, but you’re still following the script. Games can be so much more than that, but with rising development costs due to ever increasing hardware capabilities, short, linear games are a safer, and cheaper, way. And as long as people buy them, there’s no reason to stop developing them and I certainly can’t argue with Activision for making a new CoD every year, I’d do the same if I knew it’ll sell great.

Unfortunately for me personally linear games don’t offer the “best of both worlds”. Compared to titles like System Shock 2 or Demon’s Souls, they don’t offer the kind of custom experience I like and which should be the mediums strong side. And compared to movies, they usually also fall behind. A typical movie is over in two hours and it’s a crafted experience from the first second to the last. Linear games have drag the story out to fit in 5-10+ hours of gameplay, so watching a 42-part Let’s Play doesn’t quite give you the same entertainment value that a movie does. At least it doesn’t to me, your experience may vary.

But there’s no solution, because from a financial standpoint there’s no problem. I could argue that games should be more like this or that, but that’s still my personal opinion and I certainly don’t speak for everybody that plays games. In fact I believe I’m usually in the minority when it comes to my gaming preferences.

In the end there is no “games should be X” because there’s so many different types of gamers out there and that’s great. I don’t want to complain about Call of Duty or linear games. While I personally would like more developers catering to my own likes, I’ve actually got more than enough to play and I don’t see why other people shouldn’t like and enjoy more linear titles like Call of Duty or even Final Fantasy XIII (which I still partially liked).