Hello once again, readers! Today I would like to discuss a frequently-debated issue: the idea of linearity versus openness in video gaming, specifically RPGs. Gamers have wildly varying opinions on the issue, but it usually comes down to a matter of Eastern versus Western gaming mentalities. Most fans of Western RPGs prefer the open-ended nature of most WRPGs, while Lusipurr.com weeaboo readers would rather have the significantly more linear JRPG story and gameplay design. This week, I will explore why it is that these two gaming camps have such differing points of view while offering up my opinion on the matter.
Linearity has always been an important storytelling device. For gaming, linearity pushes the player towards an eventual goal: an ending. JRPG fans, seeking an anime-inspired story, flock to linear games like Final Fantasy X or the much-maligned cutscene tube of Final Fantasy XIII, where they find a linear story and linear world with little exploration and little freedom for most of the game. This extreme linearity creates a world that, no matter how interesting or pretty, is not much fun to explore because the player is locked out of most of it. Games that are too linear feel restrictive; they are more interactive movies than games. JRPG fans, many of whom, like myself, are also anime fans, tend to prefer the linear storytelling of JRPGs because they tend to be anime-like. But where do we, as gamers, draw the line? While I tend to prefer my games on the linear side, I and most gamers do not want a game that is a giant tube full of cutscenes. Linearity as a storytelling device is fine when used correctly, but unfortunately many JRPGs suffer from being overly linear, a problem which the gaming community has made its opinion on very clear.
On the opposite side of the argument, let us now consider openness. WRPG fans like openness in their games because an open game is a game in which the player can explore the setting and discover the game world to any extent desired. Games like Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are popular with western gamers because of their open-ended worlds and storytelling methods. A large, expansive world like that of Oblivion allows for a great deal of exploration and sidequests to please the western gamer. However, there is most certainly a such thing as a game which is too open. I personally am not a WRPG player for this reason; I do not like games that are massive sandboxes with little to no clear purpose or linearity. A large and open game world is one in which it is very easy for the player to get lost and forget what goal one has been seeking. The main quest gets easily swept over by sidequests and exploring, and the player’s main goal can get forgotten among the myriad of time sinks. Openness is vital in a game, as a game that is too linear will lose player interest; a game that is too open, however, will also become boring rather quickly.
So, then, which of the two is more important, linearity, or openness? Well, the honest answer, cliched as it may sound, is somewhere in the middle. Linearity keeps a game from being an overwhelming and massive sandbox with no direction. Openness keeps a game from being a boring hallway or an interactive movie. This is not to say, of course, that there are no good games on either extreme, but that even the more linear or more open games have some aspects of both to stay interesting. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is extremely linear: storyline maps are unlocked by beating the previous map, and outside of the few rooms of the castle, there is no exploration whatsoever. Yet Disgaea manages to have sidequests; several optional map sets are unlocked through the Dark Assembly and through beating other maps. As the other extreme, a game that manages to be largely open but still maintains some elements of linearity, I present as an example Final Fantasy XII. FFXII as an experience is as linear as the player wishes. While there is a massive world to explore, FFXII also has a relatively linear main storyline that is not difficult to follow or return back to as the player desires. Both Disgaea and Final Fantasy XII are relatively extreme examples of linearity and openness, respectively, yet both manage to avoid slipping too far to either end.
What do you think, readers? Is linearity more desirable in games? Is openness better for gaming? Am I wrong in saying games should, as a general rule, be somewhere in the middle? Let me know what you think in the comments, readers, as I would like to know what other people think about this issue.