It's good to be guided.
As an avid PlayStation aficionado, I often find two or three fall releases sitting in my present pile from the big man up north (no, not Ned Stark), and 2014 was no exception. Amongst the pairs of socks and Lynx shower gel gift sets, I was excited to unwrap Assassin’s Creed Unity, and Bethesda’s The Evil Within. “Great!” I thought, “The Evil Within seems like a pretty straightforward, linear title – I’ll delve into the horrors of that for a good 12-15 hours, then attempt the mammoth task that is completing a Ubisoft game.” Little did I know at the time that I couldn’t be more wrong…
(quite literally, in the case of Unity); in fact, I’ve already had a bit of a rant about this before. So when I came to The Evil Within, I was actually really looking forward to a straightforward title that didn’t water down the central gameplay experience by trying to provide the illusion of variety in ways to tackle the various challenges it held.
You can imagine my horror, then, (and not in a good way) when about one hour in I was faced with a demonic village that housed some less than friendly inhabitants, and that now age old technique: multiple paths. Would I try and creep round the back and cower in the tree line? Would I throw some glass bottles and stealth kill the villagers? OR would I disarm the numerous traps around the area and crossbow everyone in sight like Daryl Dixon on Ritalin? As it turns out, I would do none of these things, I’d stumble blindly into a bear trap, and then slowly get bludgeoned to death with a surprisingly comprehensive range of farmyard equipment.
I felt worried that I’d missed some all-important bullets… Worried that I’d missed some key page of a notebook.
When I eventually did reach the exit (which, if you’ve played through the game, you’ll know requires a magical metal cutting chainsaw) I wasn’t filled with a sense of accomplishment or relief at successfully navigating the murderous foes with all limbs still intact. Instead I felt resoundingly worried. Worried that I’d missed some all-important bullets, of which the game had afforded me about four so far. Worried that I’d missed some key page of a notebook, which would prove integral to the narrative later on. Ultimately I was worried that because there were several paths through, I hadn’t been allowed to experience everything the game had to offer.
This sense of worry, this fear of missing out didn’t die down until half-way through the Doctor Who Christmas special! This got me thinking nostalgically about a simpler time of gaming where choice wasn’t such a requirement, and simple level design meant that everyone faced the same challenges in the same way. I’m talking, of course, about the era of linear games.
Getting From A to B
Now, we’ve all played linear games, and we all remember them fondly. The chances are that if you grew up in the nineties, there would have been at least 3 houses on your street with a console of some sort, and going round to your mate’s house to tackle that end-of-level boss was the best way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon. I’m talking here about classic PS1, N64 and Dreamcast titles, the stuff every retro gamer’s dreams are made of (bear in mind I am only 21, apologies if this isn’t retro enough for our older readers).
The overall objective and gameplay never changed; get to the end of the level as fast as you can, grabbing gold rings here, there and everywhere.
Sega’s 1999 release, Sonic Adventure, for Dreamcast is an excellent case in point, adapting the 2D side scroller (that most linear of genres) style gameplay that had made the existing franchise so popular. Even though the title benefitted from rich 3D environments (by the Dreamcast’s standards) the overall objective and gameplay never changed; get to the end of the level as fast as you can, grabbing gold rings here, there and everywhere like you’re Gollum having a relapse after rehab.
The lack of variation, paths, choices and clothing options benefitted the game immensely as the developers’ focused their attention on what was actually there. It then instilled us, the gamers, with an unrivalled sense of pride and accomplishment when we finally tackled Dr. Robotnik; we were never worried that we’d missed out on Sonic’s tragic backstory side quest, which detailed his emotional collapse and decent into heavy kleptomania.
Another great example is Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot series, which again focused on linear level progression and simple platformer gameplay. The simplistic combat/platforming controls meant that when players were faced with an enemy they were basically left with two choices; should I spin-kick this guy in the face, or SHOULD I SPIN-KICK THIS GUY IN THE FACE?!
This also lead to gaming being a shared experience, where everyone arrived at the same ending using the same methods, something you could say is sadly lacking in the era of choice conscious games. I acknowledge that by today’s standards this wouldn’t qualify a £40-£50 title, and that you could say gaming is actually becoming more sociable because people can share the multitude of solutions to challenging puzzles or enemies. For me, however, there’s just something that can’t be beaten about knowing that you’ve beaten the game not because you’ve outsmarted it, but because you’re good at it.
The overriding point of this article is that gaming for me has always been about switching off, but the possibility for escapism seems to be shrinking further and further with every new spate of releases. Sometimes when I pick up the controller, I don’t want to be forced to confront the moral consequences of my decisions, or try and pick one of 8 paths through an area based on a thorough Sherlock Holmes-style deduction as to which is the least risky. Sometimes I just want to be told what I need to do, given one way to do it and be let loose upon the gaming world, not unlike our furry friends Sonic and Crash.
This is why I’m particularly excited for upcoming releases like The Order: 1886 and the final game in the Uncharted series, a franchise which is notoriously linear and one-dimensional. In the growing market of open world titles which let you make ‘moral’ decisions and choose your character’s scarf collection, there’s now a surprising niche for games that just give you one way to play through, and make sure you have a hell of a good time doing it. Today, I’m making a choice – to choose linearity!