Skip to content
July 13, 2010 / Joe Osborne

Coffee Talk: Since When is ‘Linear’ Synonymous with ‘Bad’?

Welcome to Geekadelphia’s weekly discussion column, Cofffee Talk, where we talk about the finer topics concerning video games, technology and all the other things you can’t talk about with your slightly-less-geeky friends. Have questions or suggestions? Send an email to or tweet with us. Follow me on Twitter if you’d like to keep this week’s discussion alive. In a recent post on IGN’s 360 channel, it was mentioned that Square-Enix director Motomu Toriyama posted a news blip on Final Fantasy XIII‘s official site defending the game’s apparently linear design. Toriyama explained that while on a recent media blitz tour, he was repeatedly addressed with this issue (most likely by western or European outlets). He explained that, “In order to allow the player to become absorbed in the drama of the storytelling and the new and exciting world of Cocoon and be drawn to the characters without getting distracted or lost we have deliberately used a linear game design for the introduction sections so they can be enjoyed in the same manner as watching a film.” Sound familiar? Well, it should as this has been one of the major criticisms of Japanese game design since Western game development hit its stride a little more than ten years ago. More into why this design choice is has garnered so much negative energy after the break.

A map of the first few hours of FFXIII

To even begin discussing the ups and downs of the Japanese method of game design we need to establish exactly what linear is in this regard. After some consideration, I’ve broken down linearity into two questions. Is ‘linear’ the way in which the game literally guides your actions via physical barriers such as invisible walls? Can it also be how the  game bars your progress in the form of cues such as requiring a certain weapon to advance (Metroidvania, anyone?) or for the player to speak with a certain NPC or enter a new area to trigger a new plot point much like the classic JRPG. Let’s talk about the first form of linearity as you might find some humor in it. Toriyama mentioned that the FFXIII team’s inspiration for the early game’s linear path, littered with invisible walls, originated from the FPS genre. Let that sink in for a second and remember that the FPS is generally a western genre. To play devil’s advocate, it can be said that perhaps an RPG shouldn’t be borrowing from genres that are nearly irrelevant to its own, but how are games supposed to advance without cross breeding a bit? Just look at how the action RPG genre has exploded in the past ten years. With FPS series like Halo and Gears of War becoming more story driven with each release while maintaining and sometimes embracing the walls method of progression, what’s the deal? Perhaps we western gamers have become enamored in our homeland’s approach to creating a living, breathing world rather than event driven plot. It’s safe to assume this is exactly why Squeenix went global. Regardless of Squeenix’s attempts at understanding its western audience, designing FFXIII’s intense plot while focusing on creating a world-is-your-sandbox environment would’ve taken probably another two years at least. And that’s before localization, but more importantly, it isn’t their point.

An example of Bioware’s popular dialogue tree system shown here in Mass Effect

On to the next form of linearity: barriers of progress. This form has been a staple of Japanese game development since my Chrono Trigger and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past days. Players were free to explore the world set upon them as they wished, but couldn’t ever proceed with the story if key conversations weren’t initiated or weapons weren’t discovered and wielded properly. This method worked for a long (alright, really long) time, however western gamers seemed to catch on by the time developers like Bioware and Rockstar became household names. Players wanted control over the destiny of their favorite characters and, more importantly, wanted to feel like they were literally in another world rather than experience someone’s story. These western players soon became western developers and soon created the western RPG model —John Wayne should stroll into this article at any moment — which granted players a feeling of freedom and power over the outcome of the game. Today, the western RPG has seemingly gained dominance with titles like Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3, both with a heavy focus on freedom, topping sales charts and enjoying critical acclaim. When FFXIII goes for half price in Japanese stores only two months after its release, where does the JRPG stand? Is there even a place for the genre after the revolution of freedom? Perhaps Japanese developers are simply borrowing from the wrong genres to keep up with their western rivals. Is linearity in game design an avoidable flaw or a potential benefit? Get deep with us in the comments!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: