Something that really annoys me about modern video games (particularly North American ones) is the way in which ‘freedom’ is typically glorified. Sandbox games are instantly praised for their free form nature and for the way they encourage organic experiences, while extremely linear games are generally mocked or criticized for not allowing more player choice. Of course, a lot of this argument boils down to individual tastes. Subjectively, some people will always prefer free exploration, while others will enjoy tightly regimented linear plot experiences.
Typically, big budget titles often fall solidly into one genre or the other. You get sandbox titles like Grand Theft Auto, or open-world RPG’s like Skyrim. You get linear shooters like Bioshock or extremely cinematic games like Metal Gear Solid. Rarely do the two mix. It should be noted that in many cases, the exploration impulse is successfully paired with linear games. In the Diablo series, for example, maps are randomized and exploration is a major part of the game, yet the experience is ultimately plot driven and linear. In the Deus Ex series, and lots of other stealth titles, you are given an environment and an objective, but free reign in choosing how to accomplish this objective. This ultimately leads to lots of player choice and organically exciting situations, while still keeping the game pretty linear. What annoys me, however, is when people prefer linearity or freedom solely on the basis of that genre style, without any reference to the narrative. There are plenty of awful games in which you get plenty of freedom to do as you want; I’m going to use Oblivion as an example.
Morrowind was my favorite game in the Elder Scrolls series. It involved lots of player choice in how to develop their character, how to play around in the world, how to complete areas and move on. The world was well-developed, and the locations were interesting and fun to explore. There were also plenty of things to do, and plenty of factions to work with. Oblivion, in contrast, was a huge disappointment. While some aspects of the combat system (spellcasting mainly) were vastly improved and streamlined, many more choices were eliminated entirely. All in all, the number of character choices available were far fewer than those seen in Morrowind. In addition, the gameplay simply wasn’t fun; without many of the more unorthodox spells to make things interesting, combat simply boiled down to trading blows. Combat was poorly optimized, so that it simply got more and more punishing as you went along, forcing you to be more and more precise with your character choices in order to be viable. The setting was extremely boring and bland, nothing but trees, fields, and generic fantasy castles, with the occasional elven ruin thrown in. There were things to do, yes, but none of them were interesting. Dungeons were generally just hallways full of enemies, and exploring them never yielded anything interesting except maybe a bigger chest at the end. Quest chains were rarely fun. The plot was the weakest of all; I can’t even remember any of it at this point, aside from the beginning and the end. What’s the difference here, between these two open-world games?
The difference is quality. When effort is put into making an interesting world in which to play, the game is fun. Systems of gameplay interact in interesting ways (such as any time you have spectacular car accidents in GTA4) and you have fun in a way that isn’t scripted, or if it is, you don’t notice. There’s lots of handcrafted content, and that content is placed around the game world for the player to find, encouraging exploration. You are rewarded for exploring, whether with new powers or with interesting experiences. There’s a spot in Skyrim where there’s an overhang over a waterfall. Finding this intriguing, I decided to save my game and then jump. I was surprised to find that at the lake at the bottom, the ghost of a former (failed) jumper appeared to congratulate me and give me skill training. I took a risk, and was unexpectedly rewarded. Games need more of this, and less of open dungeons with a bigger chest at the end. When rewards are generic, so is the gameplay experience.
Further, I enjoy open games which actively feed into their own narrative. In these games, you can go straight through the game in a linear fashion if you want, but there are plenty of ways to explore which enrich the experience and add to the narrative by fleshing out the setting or adding to the main plot. While linear games often employ this technique in order to pretend that they are less linear than they actually are (by encouraging you to explore already linear levels for little collectibles that have no real influence on the plot), it works best in hybrid games. With reasons to explore a hybrid game world, there is insurance that the player will get the best out of the game world by being encouraged to explore every corner of it and see all the sights there are to see. A good example is the tapes in Bioshock, which serve to give you a better understanding of the setting without slowing down the gameplay.
Linear games should also not be derided for their linearity. Linear games often focus on narrative to the exclusion of everything else. With the importance being on telling a certain story, the player’s choices are tightly regimented in order to ensure that the story can be told easily and effectively. Many people whine about the lack of choice or freedom in the game, but this overlooks the fact that choice in poorly made sandbox games is largely empty; you are given lots of options, but none of them are well-put-together or interesting. In a bad linear game, the plot is uninteresting, or the gameplay fails to mesh well with the plot. In a good linear game, the focus is on making a good experience for the player and everything is well-oiled to ensure that it functions smoothly. Even if only one choice is given, it can be much more interesting than the sum total of ten poor choices so long as it is a good one.
In short, the issue of ‘choice’ is largely an empty one. The focus instead should be on good narratives, which animate and realize those choices. One good narrative is better than ten bad ones, and this means that linear games can often offer more authentic and useful choices than sandbox games do. Bioshock is an excellent example of this. Since the storyline is interesting, the gameplay is fun, and the characters are sympathetic, it’s very easy to get lost in that world and forget the fact that it’s extremely linear and that there aren’t very many character choices. In contrast, bad open-world games like Oblivion pester you with illusory choices; you can make all the choices you want, but they don’t really change gameplay or the ending of the game to any serious extent. Hybrid games often understand this fact, and combine narrative and choice in such a way as to allow the player to make meaningful choices within an interesting narrative structure. World of Warcraft, for example, could hardly be considered a narrative game, yet a certain narrative emerges from the sum total of player experiences, and important events and raid bosses are certainly narrative in structure.
Let’s not get obsessed with choice in video games. Choosing to purchase a video game already means that you’re buying into someone else’s vision, a game someone else made. You’re the visitor, along for the ride. If you want choices, make your own video games. Then you’ll certainly have choices about how things play out. Otherwise, just enjoy the game and see how it plays out. Examine the choices that the developer has made for you, and play along with them as best you can.