The video games industry is in the midst of a trend toward a form or modular play for its games. Publishers and developers are selling their games, both match and story based, on the idea that they play differently each time. Multiplayer games are taking steps to add variety, in the form of modes, maps, and character upgrades, to their games to keep them fresh. These attempts are not always successful or well thought out, but they are attempts. Similarly, publishers like Ubisoft are turning their franchises into open world games with a glut of options and play styles. They trumpet that your can play the game however you want.
Open for Options
Recently, the EA press conference preceding E3 declared that no multiplayer match of Battlefield 1 will ever be the same as another. Every match, according to to the EA presenter, will be a unique experience. Now, that could be a sneaky half-truth because every match of every multiplayer game is technically unique. as there are different players performing different actions in different ways. However, I am assuming the intent is to promote this idea of modular play.
Many Western role-playing games do this as well by packing tons of content into their worlds and presenting the player with decisions that lock off some amount of content when that player selects an option. This promotes multiple playthroughs and save files, so that players can get the most of their games.
In fairness, this trend is not new. The games industry has been trending this way for awhile, and it is fine. Variety is a wonderful element to games that can keep them fresh in the minds of their players for a considerable amount of time. Without the variety of the open world game, the micro narrative (a facet of games that I hold dear to me) would not exist as we know it.
Tell Me a Story
However, in all the hype, bluster, crazy map sizes, and gameplay options the industry is downplaying the importance of the directed linear experience. Linear is a word that is growing more and more ire in certain segments of the gaming press, as “too linear” is a demerit stapled to many reviews, but linear games can be wonderful and rewarding experiences that can enrich our lives with their stories. Brilliant games like The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite change very little from playthrough to playthrough. The player can make some decisions regarding how to approach different combat encounters, but the story is the same every time.
Journey and Portal are the closest entries we have to perfection in all of gaming. Journey is the same game every time, and that is the whole point. Its story is one about reincarnation or limbo, depending on how you interpret it, and performing the same tasks time and again to atone for the sins of the past. Spec Ops: The Line is a similar case. The experience is the same every playthrough, with a few decisions left up to the player, because the story would not work if it allowed too many options. Even flawed games like Remember Me and Uncharted 2 are immensely enjoyable and replayable, because of their linearity and not in spite of it.
These games present the same experience every time, and since they are so enjoyable we want to play them again and again. Linearity is frequently bemoaned, but it’s how we experience so many of the stories we love. Novels, films, comics, and songs are all linear experiences that we return to reexperience because they speak to us.
Play It Again
So many of us have our favorite stories that keep us enthralled. Books that we read yearly. Movies that we watch with our friends. Music playlists that we play on repeat. These linear experiences become part of who we are, and we feel driven to share them with others. Linear games can occupy the same space in our hearts. I have lost count of the number of times I have played Spec Ops: The Line and Parasite Eve and my wife has played through Journey. My friend Sam loves playing Starfox 64 and Resident Evil 4, and my buddy Kyle endlessly sings the praises of Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy Tactics.
When we find stories we love, we want to experience them time and again, and share them with our friends. Differences in kind and play are a vital component to many types of games that capture us, but a game that never plays the same way twice does not take hold of us in the same way that a linear story does.
I’m not saying that we should do away with open worlds and oceans of options. I’m also not saying that linear games are inherently better in any way. I am saying that these different types of games reach us in different ways, and we have plenty of room for both. Don’t count out the game that plays the same way every time.