Going from Point A to Point Z, with Every Letter In Between
Linearity in Role Playing Games
I recently start in on Final Fantasy II. The NES one, mind you, which took years (and a few console generations) before it actually made its way stateside as part of Final Fantasy Origins for the PlayStation. This is a game that's generally reviled by most Final Fantasy fans because of the huge changes the game made to the formula set by the original game in the series.
We're not here to litigate that, though; I want to actually get through the game first (which I'm playing on the NES with a fan translation so I can really experience it in its truest form) before we tackle whether or not the game is "good". No, instead I want to talk about linearity in RPGs. I remember a few years back, when Final Fantasy XIII came out, fans were in an uproar about how linear the game was, with many of them noting that about 80% of the dungeon maps were essentially straight lines. I haven't played that game yet (if I continue going through all the mainline games in the series, I'll hit it eventually), but I have to note that most RPGs are pretty damn linear. Sure, they may not be straight line linear, but that's only because the straight line curves around the world. You could still likely layout everything to show a straight line if you really tried.
I think of this because, now that I'm about four hours into FF2, I've realize this game is pretty damn linear. You got to a place, get your plot point, which leads you to the next place, which might be a dungeon, and then that takes you to the next place. So far, a sixth of the way in, my path through the game hasn't diverged from "go here to do this to then go to the next place, in sequence". A straight corridor it is not but it's also not that far off at all.
That then got me wondering: how many RPGs have I played, over the years, have actually been linear? Chrono Trigger, the game I'd hold up as the best RPG ever, is linear for much of its runtime, with each plot point leading to the next and very little divergence or side missions to do at all. Secret of Mana was like that as well, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized linear RPGs are the standard, not the exception.
Sure, there are games that diverge greatly. Dragon Quest, for example, present you with an open world where you can basically go anywhere. Of course, "go mode" in that game is you collecting three items to build a bridge and fight the end boss, so it has one of the simplest plots of any console RPG I can think of. And even its nonlinearity is an illusion as the game is setup with zones that gate your progress, if not by needing key items than just because the enemies get too difficult for you to take out before the time you're supposed to go there.
It's not as if Square RPGs are the only ones that are linear, either. In the past we're looked at two RPGs in the Shining series -- Shining in the Darkness and Shining Force -- and both of those are amazing linear, even if they present the illusion that they're anything but. Sometimes there are side paths to take, yes, but those are always for one-off treasures and not big story diversion.
So where does the idea that RPGs should be nonlinear come from? Likely from the tabletop setting. When you're playing in a dice-and-paper game with a group of friends, you can end up wandering wherever you want. Sometimes the DM (or GM, or GOD, or whatever you call them) can force you on rails, but the best (and I'd argue most fun) RPG sessions come when the party is allowed to do their own thing, find their own path through the quest, even if that means ignoring the quest completely. Being a good GOD often means herding cats, where the cats are the players in your game.
The thing is: you can't do that in a video RPG. The computer, which functions effectively as the GOD in this setting, isn't smart enough to handle letting the players wander wherever they want, doing whatever they can, whether it means sticking to the main game or not. The only way for the computer to let players off the beaten path is if a side quest is programmed into the game, which kind of makes it a less beaten but still beaten path. Computers aren't creative so true, open, nonlinear game play is very hard to find in a computer game setting.
Secret of Mana actually allows us to talk about a related genre to RPGs: adventure games, like Zelda. The Zelda games are held up as examples of nonlinear titles, but I don't even know if that's really true. The first game in the series, The Legend of Zelda, seemingly has an open world to it, but you pretty much have to go to the dungeons in order if you want to gain progression from one to the next. You aren't getting to dungeon four, for example, if you've hit dungeon three and gotten the raft. There's the illusion of nonlinear game play, but the key items gate much of your progress. (Unless you are a speedrunner and can screen-clip, of course.)
It's sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, happens to be the most RPG-like in its construction (experience points and spells and all that), but it's even more linear than the previous game. In fact, most games in the series are pretty darn linear, and that formula was only finally broken with Breath of the Wild. Of course, that game is so nonlinear you can essentially go to the end of the game as soon as you escape the starting plateau. Collect your three needed items and you're off to the end game is you so choose, which is a lot like Dragon Warrior, really.
Arguably the most nonlinear games we've touched upon are also the ones with the least amount of story. They have to be because the second you start doing a plot progression -- from A to B and then to C -- you're forced into a linear series of events. There are games that manage to get around that some -- although they're loot-shooters, they're also RPGs, and the way Borderlands and its sequels handle the problem is to add a bunch of side quests on that you can earn, and do, at any time -- but even in these kinds of titles the main story progression is still sitting there, gating your way further and further into the world.
Essentially you have to ask how much story do you want in your RPG. If you want to be able to tackle the game in any order you so choose then you have to sacrifice story. If you want a detailed and heavily plotted story then you have to sacrifice linearity. You can't have it both ways, not without the game getting weird in places as certain events have already occurred but you have side quests and characters acting like they haven't yet happened. Computers, again, are stupid and don't understand having it both ways.
For me, I'll take more linearity if the story is compelling. And maybe that was the problem with Final Fantasy XIII (certainly it's a problem with Final Fantasy II so far): the story just wasn't compelling enough. With a better story I'll take a linear path from the opening cut scene all the way to the end credits. Make it intriguing enough in story and characters and I'll take whatever straight line hallways you want to give me.