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...

When you want to see a game developer squirm, ask them if their linear game is, in fact, a linear game.

They'll tell you it's 'measured,' 'directed' or maybe 'controlled' and 'carefully managed' - anything before admitting it's linear. But look at your game shelf and your downloads, and you'll see - the best games ever made are described best by a word beginning with L.

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'Linear' is such a filthy word on a game critic's lips that developers will do almost anything to dodge the bullet. It's most commonly used as a piece of passive-aggressive spitefulness built for the assassination of a game's character while appearing positively diplomatic in the process.

Somehow 'linear' has a more damning effect than infinitely nastier adjectives such as 'broken,' 'unfinished' or 'shite'. Can you think of anything less sexy or next gen-sounding than a straight line?

The story is linear but every space is a sandbox in which to fight the most beautiful fight ever possible in a video game

When critics accused the PlayStation 3 exclusive and hyper-guided adventure Uncharted 3 of being linear, creative director Amy Hennig set about redefining the argument. "It's about having a very clear, linear story arc that doesn't allow for a lot of the dilution that is created by player choice in some cases," she told Gametrailers. She went on to elaborate: "We always call Uncharted 'wide linear' - within the path that we give you, you have a lot of choice. It's not just 'hit this button, and this button, and this button.' We need that authorial control over the story to do what we're doing."

It's a defensive posture Hennig adopts, rebranding her game's progression as wide linear and conceding that linear progression is something to be ashamed of. It wasn't always this way, though.


As far back as the early 1980s, games such as Wizardry and Ultima gave players massive (though basic) worlds to explore, but even then Wizardry wasn't representative of popular gaming. In arcades and on consoles, games played out in linear fashion and nobody raised a word of complaint.

This was videogames - an endless march to the right side of the screen, overcoming whatever obstacles the designer chose to throw at you along the way. But that's not so different from what Call of Duty does today.

The perspective has shifted - forwards, rather than right - and the obstacles are prettier, but Modern Warfare's path is no wider than any walked by Mario in the NES days of the 1980s. This year's Modern Warfare 3 is the very definition of what developers would call 'directed' or 'controlled', while falling over themselves to avoid the L word.

Look at a Call of Duty map from above and it's like a snake - a thin but obvious line filled with twists and turns, obstacles carefully dotted along the way.

It's an easy thing to criticise; it's not a game - it's a rollercoaster ride, a ghost train, a Hollywood blockbuster. Linear is as old as videogames. Linear is an antique we surpassed in the early '90s when first-person shooters such as Wolfenstein and Doom were built as non-linear maze games, right?

You can go anywhere in Batman's semi-open world, provided you have the gear for it

So what could be more modern than Skyrim's open world? The town of Whiterun lies near the start of the game, and there's apparently someone there who can help you, but you have to chart your own route to reach it. If it's night when you arrive, you have to wait until everyone wakes up.

Nothing is urging you forward and no designer is placing specific obstacles in your path. There's a questline if you want it, but there are also fungi and flowers to be harvested; you choose which you'd rather do. It's truly emergent gameplay - situations arise spontaneously - and for a while back there, game developers were in love with it.

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