Point A to Point B—that’s the way games have always been. Level 1 leads to level 2 until finally the game is beaten. Occasionally, a game like Zelda will challenge the formula and let you do things out of order just with a limit and a requisite for completion. But in a world now overrun with MMOs and Grand Theft Autos, we find the industry moving further away from the linear approach in favor of the Open World experience. And with that freedom comes a price that this traditional RPG gamer may not be willing to pay.
It may sound old-fashioned, but the greatest appeal that comes from linear gameplay is a lack of confusion. When you beat a level in an old game, you move on to the next one. When you complete a story plot-point, you move on to the next one. Easy to follow, right? But what’s the next level in an MMO like World of Warcraft? Or the correct sequence of story points in Skyrim? The answer is that there is no right answer. The inclusion of choice now allows most gaming experiences to go in any direction the player wishes and that can lead to both unique and confusing experiences. Take the would-be-hit Destiny for instance; this game now touts 3 full expansions and once the main, albeit short, story is completed, there is no direction given for the player on how to complete the rest. Now, it can be argued that after the main story, leveling up your character is all that matters, but the game itself DOES have a linear story that was timed with the releases of the expansions. Without that guidepost, the players ARE losing a part of the experience, and they are often left wondering what to do and why.
And the “why” is also my own personal problem with the open world experience. Without a push from behind telling me to go to Point A, I find myself wandering about as a clueless explorer. Of course, games like Dark Souls and Skyrim want you to feel that way so that you’re immersed in the world more, but I tend to find myself bored before long. For example, in InFamous, there’s no doubt that leaping around and beating up unsuspecting civilians was enjoyable for a bit, and eventually the game would remind me that there is more to do. But with my freedom of choice, there was nothing stopping me from hopping around and sucking the energy out of more civilians until I maxed my powersets. And by that time, I couldn’t care less about the characters or what the flavor of the world was like. I was just bored with playing in the sandbox. Sure, you can say that the story was there and it was my fault for not caring, but I think the freedom is more to blame here.
That same freedom can also be intimidating. When given a huge sandbox to play in, some tend to find it overwhelming. Others can dig into the small corners and work their ways through it with excitement at every turn. But most of us don’t have time for that kind of immersion. As a kid, I bet I would have eaten this up, but for more adult games like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto, those of us with responsibilities or busy schedules now have to make time for our passions. We don’t have hours to offer to a fantasy world where we can be and do whatever we want. A level or two at best in the old formula is about it. I long for the days that I could power through a Final Fantasy in a weekend, but even those had directions and save points staggered so you could take breaks. And this raises the biggest question about the industry and its future—with the average age of gamers going up and the points I’ve raised, shouldn’t development be focused on shorter experiences? The answer is in the palm of your hand. Indie games and mobile gaming are taking over and RPGs should be left in the dust. But they’re not. We’ve got new Mass Effects, Pokemon, Fire Emblems, Dark Souls, and more all still being cranked out. So should they be concerned about the open world versus linear RPG path given the age gap? You tell me your experiences and thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter to @RAT_FOX