No, Notch, Linearity is not “artistic suicide”

First up, a disclaimer, This won’t be bashing up on Notch, and I know this topic and tweet is old and crusty, but it still provides a jumping off point for today’s topic: linearity.

His avatar at the time of writing

His avatar at the time of writing

Waaaaay back in April last year, Notch tweeted (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Making your game linear is artistic suicide.” Now, there are a lot of ways you could interpret it, but for my purposes here, I’ll say that he doesn’t like linearity and that it destroys any artistic value the game had. Notch, I think you’re a cool guy, but perhaps you should think before you tweet, not only for you, but for you to not dupe budding game designers into thinking in your ways. Linearity is not “artistic suicide”.

Linearity can actually be pretty awesome, if used in the right way. Any way you make your game, any way it plays, can be awesome if made with the right intentions and with care. Linearity is no exception. Let’s look at Half-Life 2, quite a linear game.

half life 2 art

Half-Life 2, for the most part, is a giant line that you follow throughout the entire game. You go from one encounter to the other, with some filler in between  The way you approach combat is very diverse, and can be taken from multiple angles. That’s where HL2 shines. The game is still pretty linear though, but the game is also one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time, and not because of the name. Because it was beautifully designed. Every combat encounter had enemies placed in fair and interesting locations, the game never felt stale or boring, and it made you feel like the biggest badass in the world, due in part to the dialogue. It was a fun game, and had plenty of artistic merit. And it was linear.

So, the conclusion can be made, linearity does not necessarily equate to bad. And the same could be said with non-linearity, like in a sandbox. GTA and the Just Cause series are among the most fun games I’ve ever played. So, neither linear or non-linear games are bad, and not one is better than the other.

Of course, they can be bad, as with any game. HL2 could have been a terrible sequel, had it not been for the nothing-but-the-best attitude from Valve. Amnesia: The Dark Descent could have been a shoddy horror game had it been designed poorly. The point is, any game, any idea, any mechanic is never inherently bad, and with the right dedication and work, anything can be crafted into an amazing experience. If you are in the preliminary phases of making a game, and it gets playtested with the result of, “it sucks”, it’s not because the idea is bad, it’s because the execution is bad.

Just because your game may fall into a label doesn’t dismiss it from being a great title. Your game could be a shooting gallery, and it could still be a game worth buying. If you make a good game, it will get noticed, no matter what it is. So go out there, make the game you want to make, but don’t exclude ideas because you think people won’t like them.

Good luck.


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  1. #1 by J Champion on January 16, 2013 - 11:40 pm

    I agree that linearity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, I can see where he is coming from too. Using your example of Half-Life 2, I think the linear progression within the game worked because it was already an established formula for the franchise and it’s something that people expected. No, I’m not trying to detract from the merits of the game. It was a lovely and brilliantly crafted game. I’m just stating that had it been a new IP in today’s market (HL2 was released in 2004 mind you), linearity may not, in fact, be such a good idea.

    The video game industry has exploded within the last 9 years. With the vast amount of competition that developers face, they are constantly in need of innovation within their product. Linearity, even when done properly, is not innovative. “Linearity” with ample opportunities for personal choice is fine in my book; the linearity of the Half-Life 1 and 2 era, is not.

    • #2 by SuperSN on January 17, 2013 - 1:25 am

      I can see what you’re trying to say, and it’s a legitimate concern, but the takeaway from the article was basically, it can be the most ordinary thing in the world, but done properly and designed well, it can be extraordinary. CS:GO for instance, should be the most boring shooter on the planet. There’s nothing particularly special about it, it’s got basic guns, nades, and game types. But it’s not boring. It’s EFFING AWESOME. Even outside of the context of the franchise, it’s a really, really good game for numerous reasons. Heck, CS:GO isn’t even innovate in the slightest, but people still buy millions of copies. So although innovation and new takes on familiar mechanics should be something to strive for, it’s possible to make a good game without those qualities.

      And about the HL1 and 2 comment, I just finished HL2 again, and it still feels fresh and satisfying, because of, and I touched on this in the post, multiple ways to approach every encounter. For me, since the game is composed almost entirely of combat encounters with a little bit of mild platforming involved, that makes plenty of personal choice. The way I look at it, the choices don’t have to come from dialogue choices like in the Mass Effect series, or where to go and what to do like in Just Cause 2. It can come by the way you tackle objectives.

      In any case, thanks so much for commenting. It made me think about my argument and expand on what I was trying to say.

  2. #3 by playingthecanon on January 17, 2013 - 10:55 am

    I think it all depends on theme and what the game is trying to do. Half-Life 2’s linearity holds up because that game is all about the push and pull of power. In some moments, you feel incredibly powerful, but in others, you’re completely helpless and exposed. The fact that you’re like a rat in this insidious maze reflects that; sure, you can use the Gravity Gun and cause chain-reaction explosions and generally be a huge badass, but you never forget the game is really in control and can crush you at any moment.

    Like you said, most design decisions can work if the developer is conscious of WHY they’re making their game in this way.

    • #4 by SuperSN on January 17, 2013 - 12:27 pm

      Ding ding ding! That last sentence is a summary of the reason why I think that anything can be done well. And I think that the idea that the game is in control can lead to some interesting things the player can experience. Spec Ops: The Line was exactly that, basically a lame shooter draped over the top of a crazy emotional roller-coaster, and not to spoil anything, but I think that what you went through as a player would have been much, much harder without you being directed where to go.
      Thanks for commenting!

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