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Open World vs Linear Games

Article posted on 1/28/2021

I don’t know about you, but I play a lot of video games.

Sure, what I’m playing ends up being cyclic - right now I’m on a huge Phasmophobia kick with my friends - but eventually, I always break out into something different. While I certainly have my favorite genres and styles, I try not to limit myself to only that and make sure that I break out into trying something out of my norm once in a while.

I die a lot in Phasmophobia. I take solace in carrying around the voodoo dolls and throwing them at players who are still alive.

Something I think about often as I flit between game fads is the kind of experience that each individual game offers. Specifically, an open world game versus a game with a more linear, deliberate story. I hesitate to say that I’m going to spend this blog weighing the pros and the cons of each type of game, because I enjoy both of them for different reasons. I don’t find, for example, a linear story game lacking a giant open world experience to be a negative.

As both a writer and a voracious fiction reader, I obviously love a good story. Typically, I find that open world games, while they do have stories, tend to put the emphasis on exploration and discovery more than on characters and plots. A linear gameplay experience that has a story with a clear arc and a beginning, middle, and end may not have a lot of exploration involved but is usually very rich with characters and plot. 

What are “Open World” or “Linear” Games?

Before I go too much further, let me lean into the explanation of what each genre style means to me. 

At its base, an open world game is a game where how and when you experience various events and encounter different NPCs (non-player characters) isn’t dictated by the game, but rather you and the choices you make. Some great examples of open world games are Skyrim, Genshin Impact, Breath of the Wild, and Star Control: Origins.

Genshin Impact is a newer open world game that I know a lot of my friends are enjoying

Conversely, a “linear” story experience is more like reading a book. There is a specific order of events and encounters that build up a strong story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it all happens at very deliberate times in order to elicit certain emotional responses. Some of my favorite story-based linear narrative games are Persona 5, Final Fantasy IX, and Resident Evil.

Story versus Immersion

Often, the main difference I see between a game that is truly open world versus one that is more linear is in what it hopes to accomplish. A linear game can do so much more in terms of a story: it can emphasize individual characters, create deeper nuances within the plot, and truly make the player feel like they are a part of a greater story. In a lot of ways, a linear game is more like reading a book with a specific narrative, each encounter designed specifically in service of the story that the developer wants to tell.

That dragon is about to mess this Nord up.

With open world games, I think the directive is a little different. It’s more like “here’s a world we’d like to introduce you to - go play and discover, and make your own story in it.” Skyrim is a pretty solid example of this; there is just so much to do in it that you can pour hundreds of hours into gameplay with barely ever touch what’s considered the “main” storyline. The story exists in the background of all of the exploration and quests laid in front of you.

Decision Paralysis versus No Pressure Gameplay

I love having agency - you know, being able to do what I want to do, when I want to do it. To that end, open world style games are wonderful. Don’t feel like doing that questline right now? Don’t! There’s plenty of other things you can go and do until you feel like tackling it. For people who get bored easily or just like to be stimulated by lots of different options, an open world means that you can follow whims and dive right into the experience of immersion.

Sometimes the quests on the left in Breath of the Wild would overwhelm my screen.

On the other hand, sometimes I suffer from indecision - when I have too many choices, it becomes really difficult to pick one. A linear narrative takes that away from me and really lets me focus on the experience as a whole rather than wondering about where I should go to grab my next quest or meet my next NPC.

A Variety of Experiences

One of my favorite things about open world games is discussing them with my friends who, inevitably, have had different experiences because they made different choices. 

When we were developing Star Control: Origins here at Stardock, a lot of us were obviously playing through the game and sharing feedback with the dev team and with each other. It was always fun to hear someone else talking about a quest they’d stumbled upon or a character they’d met that perhaps I hadn’t yet, which encouraged me to go look for them myself. 

The map for Star Control: Origins is...kinda huge.

Of course, if you’re the type of person who tries to actively avoid spoilers, it can be difficult to discuss an open world game safely until you’re sure you’ve experienced everything you want to do beforehand (which is hard, because as we’ve established, these games are often huge). 

Discussing a game with a linear story and plot is more like talking about a favorite book. Some of my favorite experiences with games like this involve sharing my excitement and reactions with friends who have played before me. Because of the game’s nature, they’re guaranteed to have experienced exactly what I experienced, and we can share some delight in my genuine reaction to it.

A Blending of Genres

A lot of my favorite games have found a beautiful balance between open world and story and have married the two ideas. The Mass Effect series comes to mind in particular - it gives you an extremely strong and specific narrative with some story limits on where you can go and what you can do because of that. But, there’s also a bit of an exploration element, and you can choose in many chases the order in which you accomplish certain (scripted) events. 

The choice system in Mass Effect also means that, even though my encounter is scripted, I still may experience it differently from someone else who selects different dialogue or action options. There are definitely other games that accomplish this as well, and as technology expands and limitations begin to shrink in the realm of gaming, I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more.

What are some of your favorite types of games to experience? Are you a sandbox/open world fan or do you prefer a more guided experience? Share with me!