The science of linear games

Between the wide plains of Skyrim and narrow alleys of MW3 you'll find the best games in the world...

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What if, then, there were games that built a careful path for players but allowed them total freedom to explore it as they choose? Would the best of both worlds make for the best games ever?

Amy Hennig got it wrong. Uncharted is a narrow linear game. In narrow linear games you're an actor playing a part - you hit your beats, read your lines and play your role, maybe with occasional freedom in the combat sequences you were carefully funnelled into. Enslaved is a narrow linear game - hold the stick in a direction Ninja Theory don't want you to jump, and you'll stay put, unable to take your own life even if you wanted to.

In wide linear games, players can indulge their creativity even within the confines a designer has built

In wide linear games, you're improvising, picking your route from several, and choosing your own tools for every job. In wide linear games, players can indulge their creativity even within the confines a designer has built. In Nintendo's Super Mario you can jump and succeed, jump the wrong way and die, or equip a cape and not jump at all.

To put it another way - in truly wide linear games, a player can surprise the designer. Arkham Asylum is a wide linear game; so is Bayonetta, and BioShock, and Half-Life 2, and even Resident Evil 4.

Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon are wide linear, and so are all the Metal Gear and Deus Ex games. Everyone wins when a game is linear enough for designers to carefully manage the story, but wide enough for players to make the story their own.

Take a look around and you'll see some of the most creative and thrilling games of this generation are linear, but wide. When Hideki Kamiya spoke about Bayonetta before launch, he said there would be so many possible combos the team couldn't test them all.

That's how the Kilgore / Durga combo made it in - a boss-shredding move that took everyone at Platinum Games by surprise. When Kamiya read the (exceptional) western strategy guide for Bayonetta he was surprised by how little he knew about his own game, and by just how much professional players had discovered.

When Cliff Bleszinski was asked about problems with Gears of War 2 by X360Achievements, he said, "Gears 2 was a bit too linear - there are a lot of these snake-like corridors, whereas the best parts of Gears 1 opened up into a bowl, got narrow again, and then opened up into another bowl." It's in those choices that Gears of War becomes the game it is.


In the PSM3 awards, Uncharted 3 won Game of the Year; closely followed by Skyrim. Skyrim is unmatched for size and scope; Uncharted can't be beaten for the precision of every obstacle.

Everyone walks the same path but will you sneak, shoot or charm your way to Human Revolution's big finish?

Between the two are games with a taste of Skyrim's freedom and a touch of Uncharted's control. In 2005 we were wrong to think the future would be open worlds and massive sandboxes - the real future was in games where players are surprised by carefully set challenges, and designers are surprised by players' responses.

It's the future, but like linear and open games, there's nothing new about it. Players rewrote the rules of Metroid and Zelda on the NES, forging creative new paths back in 1986. No two players walk the exact same line on their way to rescuing Zelda, killing Metroid's Mother Brain, or punching the piss out of The Joker in Arkham Asylum, and what could be more gamey than that? Games are all about the journey - not the destination.

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