Thursday, May 17, 2012

Linearity vs Sandbox Style.

Let me start by setting the scene here.  

Game A is a game that offers no real exploration and your path is set from Point A to Point B.

Game B allows you to roam around in a large area, and you can get from Point A to Point B by various means.

When asked which is right, you'd get a mixed result.  After all, platformers like Mario and Sonic are type A by nature, whereas games like Grand Theft Auto fall under type B.

When asking someone about Linear games, you may get responses like "easy", "boring", or "insults my intelligence"

You smug bastard.

But is this really the case?  Well, in a word, no.  There are games that are fairly linear through and through, but most games fall in between.  Now, I'm going to rip into a game that I like very much below: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

The story of GTA:SA was well written, the world was expansive with several full cities to explore, and tons of little side missions you could undertake.  But in terms of story, it was fairly linear.  You had to do mission A to mission B, and all those side missions you did had no real bearing or relation to the rest of the game.  If you did some side missions for Cesar, it didn't relate towards doing missions for Smoke or Ryder, and vice versa.  While the world is open, it's not a truly open game.  for that to work, mission order would be very important, at least in my book.

Hey Niko, my world feels more alive, and it's on older hardware.

Another prime example of this type of open world/closed story would be Saints Row 2.  Possibly my most favorite Sandbox game (Have yet to play through SR3) with 4 major storylines.  The problem is though, apart from the radio newscaster keeping up to date with what you do, the rest of the world really doesn't.  The Ronin aren't intimidated by the fact you killed Mareo.  The Samdi don't flinch or change at all once the head of the Ronin has been burned at sea.  

This was such a huge opportunity to blend the stories together.  Instead they feel detached and kind of annoying.  The story is great, don't get me wrong, but with such a fragmented story, the world kind of loses some of it's vibrancy.  It's a game world with lots to do, with a good story, but the story segments don't interact.

Then we look at a game that looks linear on the surface, but is possibly one of the most open games I have ever played.  Alpha Protocol.

You thought you heard the last of me?  HAH!.

After the introduction missions, you become a rogue agent.  It's your task to uncover what's going on.  You can do operations in either Moscow, Taipei, or Rome.  I did my first operations in Moscow, then Taipei, then Rome.  What happened though, is that what I did during the course of one mission was brought up later in another.  The fact I took a non-violent approach in the first few missions in Rome meant that I gained respect with the person who flagged me down for my 4th mission in the city.  

Moments like that floored me in that game.  

Above: Me

The scope of that game was massive.  It's a game with so much replay potential.  What will happen if I let the Middle Eastern Arms-dealer bribe me?  What if I execute him?  What if I arrest him, but later do something different?  Each thing you do has an impact on how the rest of the game plays out.  Even doing a small, side objective during a mission can reveal startling things about your supporting cast.  

Going back to missions in Rome, because i did missions in Moscow before going there, I heard one NPC try to blame me for what happened to weapon shipments in Moscow.  Now, when I first played this game on PC (very poorly mind you), I went to Rome first, and that guy said he had no clue what happened.  In the post-mission wrap-up screen, I actually saw one of the changes made to the world when it said that I was under suspicion due to what that guy said.  

In that aspect, Alpha Protocol is one of the most Open games I've ever played.  

Going back to the subject at hand, if you step back from how grandiose a world looks (like GTA) it could still end up being fairly linear.  Then you look at one that looks nearly linear as hell (Alpha Protocol), but it can be a very complex experience.  

Now, examples aside, since I have a knack for rambling, is how do we make a better game using these two formula?

It's hard to say.  if you can make a tightly controlled game that feels open through non-explorable means.  That's better to me than a game that's wide open and easy to explore, but feels kinda dead inside.  

This is how Liberty City felt to me in GTA IV.

Linear and Sandbox, When you think about it, they're usually in the same game.  Open world, linear story.  A truly open game though, would require such an astronomical budget that I don't know if any AAA company would want to take that risk.  I hear Bastion is good at crafting the narrative around you, but I haven't tried it for myself.

I'm interested to see which way this goes honestly.  A linear game can be far more fun if the ride is worth it.  Half-Life 2 is a very linear game, but the way the set-pieces and the dialogue is delivered makes the experience feel more natural.  Sometimes Sandboxes get to big for their own good, and can't really deliver these memorable moments because they're spread out too thin to make an impact.  

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. I'm hoping GTA V will be different. I haven't played a sandbox game where actions really effected anything. Fable is kind of getting there, but it's still nothing groundbreaking.