Annoyingly Linear

Reaching into new parts of the Orange Box, I had my first taste of Half Life (2) ever this weekend. Yeah, I’m a bit behind the times, but is the gameplay supposed to be this dull? The game world is beautifully done, but I feel like I’m playing House of the Dead or something, except that I have more freedom to look around as I follow the one possible path. It looks like a big city, but it really is just a decorated alley that twists around a lot. It is twisty, but it is still a tube. Oh, and there are things shooting at me.

I found that silly in Portal’s escape section. It made sense for the levels to have one forced path: it is a puzzle game, and the Aperture enrichment course is a course. Go from A to B, you win! And then you get behind the scenes … and still have one forced path, still with convenient signs along the way. This only makes sense if that is still a part of the course, one that is designed to look like everything has gone wrong.

We hate MMOs with invisible walls, unclimbable hills, and impenetrable forests. They are the wallpaper that poorly hides the theme park nature of a world that pretends to be larger. And some of them have parts with the same problem: not only is there a single possible path, but the decoration is clutter that makes it really annoying to find the one possible path.

Maybe the series gets better. I hear that it has a great story, while others enjoy shooting masses of aliens. The gravity gun sounds fun. But if we are still at the point of making games that run from A to B with no meaningful choices, we might as well keep making them 2D games where we run left to right. The prettier they get, the clearer it is that we have all this great technology and nothing to do with it.

: Zubon

19 thoughts on “Annoyingly Linear”

  1. Yes, the whole “formula” of the Half-Life series is to run from one scripted encounter to another. It’s the theme park of FPS shooters. Half-Life was just better at it than others. Maybe one day we’ll have a sandbox FPS game that isn’t filled with dull filler content, but meanwhile.. I’ll be enjoying the ride.

  2. Gameplay-wise, Half-Life 2 is a tech demo. The focus is on interaction with the environment (through the gravity gun, simple puzzles involving mass, and vehicles, for the most part), and opponents seem to only be there to make it a game rather than a sandbox.

    The story and characters are foreboding, but much is withheld and I think that not playing the original Half-Life leaves you longing for context. Back then, I opted for System Shock 2.

  3. Yeesh, what is it with everyone wanting giant levels in games these days?

    Sometimes, there’s nothing more fun than being able to choose your own path in an open landscape. I’ve played through some levels on Crysis several times just to make sure I’m not missing any of the pristine scenery. My fondest memories of WoW are running around a new area complaining about the level design.

    But there’s no mandate for games to be open ended like this. For some games, the intent is not to create a sandbox. It’s to create a single experience that everyone will see, and see it how the designer(s) intended. This isn’t a bad thing!

    An open ended approach to level design is just _one_ approach to _one_ aspect of game design. It’s not the One True Goal of game design any more than the narrative or shiny graphics are. Saying that ‘single path games are bad’ is like saying ‘comedy movies are bad’. Maybe it’s a personal opinion, but take care not to elevate it to the status of universal truth.

  4. alex, you’ve exaggerated the argument. We all loved Contra. But we should recognize that we keep remaking it with better tech.

    The “annoying” part is attempting to hide that. If you are going to channel gamelplay into a single path, either do it so well that I cannot tell or just admit it. Don’t write a story that implies options while obviously railroading. Don’t make it tedious for me to guess where the tube is.

  5. Give it some time Zubon, HL2 is like a multi-flavored and multi-layered lollipop. The feel of the game and the gameplay changes a bit from time to time. Sure it is a bit linear on rails, but it gives you plenty of freedom to wander away from the tracks a little bit. The story has little twists and turns as well. The end was the best part though…the sense of scale and awe at the place you are at (at least for me) was palpable.

  6. I’ve played a number of open-ended sandbox-like games, and the majority of them have sucked. I keep thinking “oh, multiple paths means multiple playthrus and branching story lines”.. but it doesn’t.. it almost always just means backtracking then hunting and sifting thru content that I’ve either outpaced in terms of level/power/available weaponry or a fractured story that makes little to no sense.
    Sure Half-Life and Half-Life 2 don’t have a open flexible path.. but they have a tightly told coherent story (Play thef first game followed by Blue Shift and Opposing Forces, then follow up with HL2 and it’s episodes. context makes a difference.) that the single path enables.
    House of the Dead honestly had more paths to follow than any of the Half-Life games, but then, it only takes a max of a half hour to finish the game each time, and the destinations are all the same no matter which door you go thru.
    I didn’t see the tedium of the “tube” you describe tho.. Because of the pathy nature of older FPS games (doom, quake, unreal, etc) and the drek I’d been exposed to in sandbox-gaming, I assumed I’d have just one or two paths to take or the scripting and story would be wasted. Then about a quarter of the way through the original game I realized that I wasn’t playing an FPS.. Half-Life is actually a puzzle series. Sure it has FPS elements to add a certain depth or urgency to finding solutions, but the core gameplay lies in figuring out 3 basic puzzle game goals: where to go, how to go there, and how to deal with the obstacles in your path (typically the answer is “gun them down” but it varies.)
    Given the apparent current choice between only being able to go to where I need to go to continue the story (and being assured that there will be exposition when I get there) or being free to go anywhere (and having neither assurance that I’ll go to the correct “next story element” nor that there will, in fact, be any story exposition when I get there), I’ll take the linear game.
    Once developers (other than Square-Enix and Bethesda, who actually seem to get it right, when they bother to use it) can get free-roaming non-linear story creation in order, maybe then I’ll be upset when I see what is basically a side-scroller ported to whatever new-tech-engine is out there.

  7. That pretty much sums up my experience with Half Life 2.

    I found the ‘puzzles’ to be particularly annoying. For instance, I would know that I have to stack some boxes up to get in a vent, but the clumsy mechanic for stacking them up was just an utter annoyance.

    Portal on the other hand was a thousand times better. It really defined the kinds of a puzzles an FPS can pull off. I just wish it wasn’t as short as it was.

    TF2 is also pretty darn fun.

  8. Every level in HL2 feels different. Numerous flavours of gameplay are experienced over the length of the game. I wouldn’t judge the game based on any one level, so keep playing.

  9. I think you are just having a different experience playing the game to me. It sounds like you are getting lost or at least confused about the way forward in the game. I didn’t have that experience playing through Half Life 2 at all. I can’t recall (off the top of my head) any areas I wandered around aimlessly in, apart from a single area towards the end, which was ironically enough the most open ended part of the game!

  10. Hmm, viewing Half Life 2 as a puzzle game is an interesting revelation for me. That might explain why I bogged down at the dune buggy level (major car-sickness, ugh) and never felt the impetus to go back and try harder to solve it. The story/setting just wasn’t intriguing enough in terms of pace or atmosphere. The levels just felt…empty of life, yet full of objects.

    By contrast, I liked the panic and adrenaline of Doom 3’s monsters who lurked behind corners and shadows – though the repetitiveness of the level design has kept me from finishing the game. Intend to get back to it some day though.

    The FPSes I did finish were those that were linear, and didn’t make excuses about it because they had some kind of story to tell. (Having a unique atmosphere helps too.)

    FEAR – a mystery that needed answering, and lots of horror type suspense.

    Bioshock – underwater dystopia, with discovering the protagonist’s story as its goal.

    Call of Duty 4 – Modestly named, for something that totally embraced a cinematic action thriller style, shamelessly going linearly forward…but it was so intensely movie-like that I didn’t really mind.

  11. The argument seems a bit lofty, as you seem to be implying every game should strive to be a sandbox, when I don’t think a quality experience is always attainable when the player can do whatever they want. For me, what makes HL2 interesting is the EXPERIENCE. Sure, I might not be given many options, but the game puts you in some damn cool situations that get your heart pumping. As for gameplay, HL2 was noted as being fairly typical FPS fair even back when it was released. It’s simply the quality of the product and the source engine that makes it stand out above the rest.

  12. Sure, next step – lets allow the audience to move around the camera in the dvd version of movies. Not rotate, totally move it around like, “hey, it’s a lake, lets spend the next 20 minutes in there while the protagonist kills people or whatever”.

    Shooters are made to be cinematographic. Some freedom is always welcome, but add too much and you lose focus. For other types of gameplay, play sandbox mmos. Don’t insist muffins are bad just ‘coz you like cakes, mkay?

  13. I would tend to agree that sandboxes tend to be disappointing. As far as the story and atmosphere go, Half-Life 2 is rather polished. The same level of polish cannot be applied to a game that offers four times as much wiggle room without a *much* greater cost in development time, not to even mention the often contrived ways of tunneling people so no one misses the story. If you’re looking for an FPS that lets you see more-than-marginally different parts of the story depending on the path you took, you’ll end buying several very short campaigns.

    Bioshock got away with a choice of ethics which marginally changed the gameplay, but the plot remained the same, either way, and the objectives were clear and linear. It added a bit of phantasm (that quality wherein your effect upon the game affects you) to the experience. Because of the minor effect of this choice upon the storyboard, length didn’t suffer.

    Oblivion offered a sandbox. One could do pretty much whatever they wanted. On the other hand, combat was very simple and formulaic. There wasn’t much of a choice in character development unless you wanted to cripple yourself for a challenge by not being a fighter-mage-thief. Some of the quests were interesting, but most were rather static. “Level” design was atrocious and as repetitive as Hellgate London turned out to be. Sandboxes sometimes have tiny areas of polish, but for the most part it’s rough as sand.

  14. I think maybe you’re just looking for what you want in the wrong place. Just like you wouldn’t look in arthouse dramas for explosions and action, and you wouldn’t look in action movies for deep, moving drama, looking for “freedom” in most FPSs seems counterproductive. Either enjoy it for what it is, or don’t play, you know?

    I realized years ago that, while I like the storylines, etc. in some RTS games, I hatehatehate playing for 30 minutes or an hour and then getting ripped apart for a bad build choice that I made 5 minutes into the level. FPSes are, by their nature, linear, and generally the best way to make them linear is to create only a very few paths with a few fake crossroads where people will be funneled to. The other option is to go the MMO route, and have the enemies outside of the area the player’s supposed to be in be almost impossible to kill with the weapons currently available to them, and that’s frankly just not usually as successful.

    I’m not saying criticism of the genres doesn’t have its place, but the most compelling way to tell the story in a FPS is generally the one that’s been glommed onto by most developers. Maybe later someone else can come up with something that is both compelling and cost-efficient, but I’m not holding my breath.

  15. Half-Life 2 is dull as dishwater, except for the character sequences, but it’s not because it’s linear. It’s because the process of getting from A to B isn’t sufficiently entertaining. There’s far too many sewers and train yards and not enough new ideas. You’ll hopefully be pleased to know that the episodic sequels are infinitely better.

    But I don’t think escaping linear progression should be the goal of every game, or even most games. It’s a valid design choice that can help make experiences focused and intense where used well. The gameplay of Half-Life has never really been about exploration or sandbox-play, and inserting that kind of action into the proceedings would only take the spotlight off its real strengths in scripted sequences, character animation and individual-vs-squad gunfights. (In fact, the sin of Half-Life 2 is that it doesn’t play to these strengths nearly often enough – again fixed in the sequels.)

  16. HL2 crashes for me, repeatably and repeatedly, at a very specific point that I cannot bypass. That’s the trouble with linear level design right there.
    I played through the episodic content for the cinematics and the story – they’re that good. There are some fantastic sounds in there and the “autogun/zombies” area in ep.2 I found satisfyingly hard, much harder even than the end bosses – not to mention there’s a real neato opportunity weapon in there. Interestingly enough, it’s one of the areas where at least it seems that you have some freedom of action – although deviating from the set path will get you killed most of the time (as in, 99%).
    It’s all basically a 4d puzzle (you have to consider time as well and savegames act as your window into the future), not a 3d shooter at all.
    Another thing I absolutely hated was the end train yard in ep.1 – on first arriving there it’s not at all obvious that the combine will just keep coming if you keep shooting and that you have to do the un-obvious and just ignore them while escorting those npc’s to the train for the first time.

  17. The developers talked about this a while ago, and if you play EP2 you get into a lot larger areas. Part of the problem is the fact that computers and game developers just can’t handle massively open areas where infinite amounts of things can occur. It gets even worse when the developer wants you to follow a story.

    The Oblivion games try to do it, but that is one of their biggest weaknesses. Players just get lost and ten hours into the game they’ve realized they’ve done nothing productive in regards to the main story and quit.

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