Before you go any further this article contains spoilers for Journey and Uncharted 2 & 3. So if you’ve not completed them don’t spoil it for yourself. Go away and buy these games right now. Finish them and then return.
“Linearity”, in relation to video games, is thrown around as an insult or a dirty word nowadays. It seems to be a synonym for repetitive or dull. Well I’m here to argue the case that linear games aren’t always sub-par. In fact I’m here to say that linearity often allows developers to create a far more thriving and living world than a fair few open world games have managed to achieve.
For me the linearity of Uncharted 3 and Journey is an essential part of what makes the games, in my opinion, pieces of art. There are literally parts of these games which are the definition of “linear”; for instance Uncharted 3 and Journey both contain moments in which your only input is pushing forward, which causes the protagonist to trudge through sand and snow, respectively. Surely this should be boring, right? Nope. For me these sequences are some of my favourite parts of any game I’ve ever played and you’re literally just telling the guy to move forward. It perfectly complements the emotions of our protagonist by reflecting the idea that their only choice is to keep pushing on. They’re on the brink of death but they’ve got to keep fighting on.
This linearity highlights the ideologies of the characters themselves. I’d argue that Naughty Dog in fact uses the linearity as a way to flesh out the character of Drake. I don’t mind not being able to interact with NPC’s, engage in dialogue trees or choose which order I complete the story in. This stripped down style of gameplay - moving from mission to mission – is representative of Drake’s desires in life. He only has one thing to live for and that’s the adventure. He hasn’t got time for upgrading his guns or unlocking new sets of armor. The linearity of the game actually helps us to get to know the character even more because it reflects his focused and driven personality. It also helps to keep the player focused, we’re always looking forward and we know exactly where our next goal is: straight ahead of us. Games like this use linearity as a way of promising a reward at the end of each objective; we know the deal and we push on in hopes of reaching the next drool-inducing vista, or beautifully rendered cutscene.
This is also the case for the silent (excluding the bird-like singing) protagonist of Journey. The linear style of gameplay, along with the title, tells us what we need to know about our masked hero. Their one goal in life is to continue on this journey, and see it out until the end. While the blizzard scene in which Journey’s protagonist dies, symbolically or not, has very little in the way of player interaction it had way more emotional resonance with me than any dialogue tree or player choice I’ve ever had to make. I didn’t want to decide what our hero would say to the ancient spirits, but instead simply sit back and see what would happen.
The sense that the player has little control in what happens in the world doesn’t just effect the game in a thematic sense, it has also allowed it to be polished and refined to near perfection. Say what you want about Uncharted but you can’t argue with the fact that it’s a beautiful looking game. The art style may seem a bit cartoonish to some but the reveal of Shambhala in Uncharted 2 is just utterly stunning. This focused development ideology has allowed Naughty Dog to create some unparalleled pieces of cinematic gaming. They didn’t have to spend time sorting out all the bugs that often plague open world games. It’s also allowed them to create a world that feels real, the characters seem real and the scenery is simply jaw-dropping.
You may ask “how can a game specifically designed around the idea of exploration and adventure benefit from being so linear?” Well obviously, I’m about to tell you. I’d say Naughty Dog and thatgamecompany have managed to create such beautiful worlds such that just being in them gives the player that sense of adventure. The carefully paced movement from jungle, to mountain range, to desert and ancient hidden city makes it feel like the player is discovering all these places just by progressing through the game. Journey, and Uncharted alike, are littered with little secrets and treasures to uncover. I wanted to go and find these treasures because I was enticed by the already beautiful parts of the worlds I had seen.
However, linearity isn’t for everyone. In the wrong hands it can just lead to incredibly similar scenarios in incredibly similar scenery. I’m looking at you Max Payne 3. But when it’s done right, when the worlds, characters and narrative are so expertly put together, then linearity can often help a game excel to a different level rather than hinder it.