Editorial: Linearity versus Openness: The Giant Tunnel or the Huge Sandbox?

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.

No readers, this is not a screenshot from Final Fantasy XIII. I know that it looks like one, but it is not.
Which is better? This...

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.

I never played in sandboxes as a child, but then I lived in Hawaii for seven years.
...or this?

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.

10 comments

  1. I think you’re entirely correct!

    Games that are too linear make me keenly aware of their artifice. On the other hand games that are too open ended cause me to become sidetracked and loose the momentum of the central narrative thread. Sandbox games like Oblivion present me with huge problems, in that I’m inclined to try and interact with everything that I am able to, which means my progress becomes very slow going and I eventually become bored with the game. In short the size overwhelms me.

    I’d be happy if every game had the exploration of FFVII or Lost Odyssey.

  2. I cited Disgaea and FFXII as good games on the extreme because I feel both games are JUST within the acceptable bounds of linearity versus openness. They are JUST linear enough or JUST open enough to still be fun to play.

  3. Yeah, FFXII does a remarkable job of feeling expansive, while also funneling you to all the places you need to go.

  4. I agree that it needs to be somewhere in the middle. Good examples in my book: Radiata Stories, Beyond Good & Evil, Borderlands, later Dragon Quests.

    Games I’ve played lately that are too linear: Radiant Historia. Too sandboxy: Bully.

  5. The level of openness in a game usually doesn’t much sway may view of a game, unless it’s very blatantly railroading you or refuses to give you a direction for what to do next. This also varies with the genre of game I’m playing.

  6. FFXII I think was a failure as a storytelling experience because you’d have those scenes in a pub where Basch, Ashe, Balthier, etc would stand around talking over a FF:Tactics map saying where they had to go and why. Then you would spend three or four hours walking there. By the time you got to the place you were supposed to be going, say Fran’s village, or wandered off the to the neon purple foxes that murdered the shit out of you in the rainforest cave thing, you either had no idea why you were there or had to reload your save and do it all again. I think FFXII has one of the most coherent and best stories of any FF game, but that’s only after watching the story cutscenes on Youtube.

    Playing it, I hated the gambit system, was perpetually fucking broke, hated the License Board which was the same for each blank slate character, and hated the summons which I can’t believe were deliberately designed to be fucking worthless. Also, the Hunts existed only to sell strategy guides on how to find the fucking things.

    From what I’ve heard about FF13, the first portion of it is about 50% longer than FF6’s World of Balance, minus the understandable dialog/scenario, and then opens up at the second half. So it would be like if FF6 had a shitty story full of crazy people and psychobabble nonsense, and then finally let you go and explore. In that way, I think Square-Enix can be excused to just fucking up one game and not being universally terrible.

    As for the linear versus open world thing, I like the “go explore!!!!” sort of thing you had in FF1, FF3, and DQ1-5 (possibly 6 I need to get back on that) the method of exploring the world was clear. You could walk around. You could take your boat. You could take some flying thing. The tiles beneath you dictated where you could move in each. As you got each new vehicle new things opened to you.

    I played a few hundred hours of Morrowind, and that game defintely made the open world interesting. Magic let you manipulate teh world around you and walk on water, float like a feather, and do similarly super human stuff. I spent more time before going to join the Blades (iirc?) in Balmora (also, iirc?) than I did after I killed the shit out of the final boss. There was even some hidden vampire shit in it that was interesting.

    @Lusipurr, go play DQ5!

  7. @EP: But what do you do when the game finally opens up in Pulse? HUNTS!

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