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Way back in the time of the original Doom and Quake most 3D games were somewhat linear alright, but it was not even nearly as bad as it seems to be nowadays.
|Doom level e1m4: Even the relatively simple levels of Doom had quite some to explore|
While there was some linearity, the freedom of exploration inside the areas of a level was usually quite high. You could also usually backtrack to a previous area even after getting to the next ones (and in some cases it was even mandatory to solve the level).
Doom had much of this. Quake too. Other good examples are the Tomb Raider games (at least the first ones up to version 4 or such). While they were pretty much linear on the big scale, the freedom of local exploration was still pretty high, and solving levels was largely based on exploration puzzles.
I think that this is precisely because of the limited hardware resources available back then. I assume that usually the level designers were told something along the lines of "contruct a level inside a cube of this size, our game engine can't handle anything bigger in real-time" and then the level designer was more or less forced to make an exploration puzzle in order to keep the levels interesting and properly difficult (ie. that they couldn't be passed in 10 seconds just by running from one end of the level area to the other).
Nowadays, however, the situation has changed drastically. For the worse. Level designers are completely free to create levels of any shape and form, without any limitations or space constraints. Current hardware and game engines can handle levels of any geometry and thus the levels don't need to be constrained to a cube of certain size.
While this sounds and in theory is a great thing, the problem, however, is that the level designers are also given precise scripts about what has to happen in the level. "First this has to happen, and after that this another thing has to happen, after which we switch to the FMV, after which the player has to do this and this and this, in that precise order."
That kind of precise storyline scripting more or less ties the hands of the level designer. Even though the level of design freedom has increased drastically, he can't create interesting exploration puzzles anymore because everything has been scripted so precisely and he must ensure that the player does each action in a precise order (or else the "story" of the game would be destroyed).
What this has caused is that most current 3D games are utterly linear. Levels are basically just one long corridor along which the player runs and watches scripted events one after another. To keep things a bit more "interesting" the corridor has turns and lifts and bigger and narrower parts and so on, but basically it's just one single corridor along which the player is forced to run from one end to the other.
This extreme and ridiculous linearity can be seen in almost all 3D games, and especially in FPS games. Although otherwise really great games, titles like Half-Life 2 (and its sequels) and Doom 3 suffer from this utter linearity. There simply is no exploration element in them. You just run along a long corridor from one end to the other. There can at most be some rooms attached to the corridor which you can visit (usually to get some item) but that's it.
This utter linearity has gone completely out of hand in my opinion. These games are so utterly linear that it's just ridiculous. They are basically just showcases of pretty graphics (they are pretty and cool to watch, but once you have seen them there's nothing else) and target-shooting practice. In a very few cases there can be a really local puzzle where you have to move some objects inside a small room, but that's it. There's no exploration.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a rather interesting case. The whole world of the game is completely free to be explored. You can go anywhere you like and do anything you like with no limitations whatsoever. You can perform quests in any order you like and you can postpone quests for as long as you like to do other things first.
However, even this utterly non-linear game suffers from utter linearity! The quests themselves are really, really linear. There are no puzzles, there's no exploration, there's nothing. Most of the time there's even an arrow in your compass that shows you where to go, completely removing even the last bits of exploration that would be possible. Quests are simply "follow the arrow and kill the monsters along the way". It's incredible (and ridiculous) how they managed to put such a total linearity in such a totally non-linear game. While you can walk completely free in the huge world of the game, there still is no exploration element to it, there are no puzzles to be solved, nothing.
The exploration puzzle element of older games made them last longer. Even though levels were somewhat restricted in physical size (a completely unobstructed run from one corner to the other of the level usually would have taken less than a minute) they still managed to be complex (in an interesting way) and require quite lot of time to be solved for the first time.
The problem with the utter linearity of modern games is that this linearity makes them really short. For example, even though Half-Life 2 has over 50 levels (most of which are bigger in size than eg. the about 27 levels of the original Doom) I played the game through in just 5 days. (Of course the main reason why it took so little was that the game was really addictive and I played it all night long, but it still felt really, really short.)
These games have no real challenge to them. They are like watching an interactive movie. The only challenge in the games is to kill all the monsters without getting killed. However, that gets boring quite soon.
I really wish that game developers would go back to the principles of 15 years ago. A game becomes interesting when you have some freedom to explore the levels and passing the levels requires you to explore them and find the solutions. Games have become basically interactive movies with some shooting practice elements to them, and nothing more.
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