Since the explosion in popularity of the likes of Assassin’s Creed and The Elder Scrolls in the previous console generation, the AAA gaming industry, as a whole, has undertaken a marked move towards open-world design. This paradigm shift can be traced, in part, to the production and release of new, more powerful consoles capable of rendering massive environments in microscopic detail, as well as market trends. Unfortunately, as developers have chased the bubble, linear narrative campaigns have suffered. The most recent victim is Visceral Games’s Star Wars project, which has undergone a “pivot” mandated by publisher EA in the past couple of weeks, raising concerns among some commentators that single-player gaming is dying. The closure of any major studio will always send the sensationalist media into a frenzy, but far from signifying the ‘death’ of single-player gaming, the closure highlights a more long-term and potentially troubling philosophical shift.
The fading light of linear adventures stretches back beyond the beginning of the current console generation. As rumours and reports of a hardware refresh took hold of the gaming media, critics were simultaneously at the forefront of a backlash against linearity. Irrespective of any other issues the games may have had, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, Deadpool, and DmC: Devil may Cry were among those widely-criticised for the design cues that a firm directorial hand requires. Some titles, including The Last of Us, Max Payne 3, and Bioshock Infinite, managed to avoid being tarnished with the same brush, but they were exceptions to the general rule. Therefore, by the time the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were released, the open-world mentality had taken hold, infecting even classic franchises such as Killzone and Thief. However, some bastions of linearity remained.
Early in this console generation, both Sony and Microsoft bet big on a new linear single-player-oriented property. For Sony, that game was Ready at Dawn’s The Order: 1886, a major new action-adventure in the vein of Uncharted. Unfortunately, critics pilloried the title over its short, straightforward campaign and lack of player freedom. Likewise, Microsoft contracted Crytek for Ryse: Son of Rome, a hack-and-slash title telling an epic story of an Ancient Roman general. Similar to The Order, Ryse was criticised for not providing a deep experience to invite replayability. The failure of these two flagship projects, coupled with the strong reception of Grand Theft Auto V, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, among others, created an impression that has continued to guide mainstream game design in the intervening four years.
Scale, openness, and player agency has become the barometer for the critical success of contemporary games. The larger and more complex a title is, the more likely it is to be well-received. This general rule of thumb is evident in the successes of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Divinity: Original Sin II, Persona 5, and Horizon: Zero Dawn across 2017. However, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Nioh, and Resident Evil VII: Biohazard—all traditionally-structured linear adventures—also count among the highest-rated new games of the year, even if their sales figures have not matched those of the open-world titles. Instead, such titles seem to serve as symbols of the general audience’s turn away from this style of game. This conclusion is based on flawed logic. Resident Evil and Wolfenstein may count among the most recognisable franchises in gaming, but the latest entry of the former reverted to an intense survival-horror experience that, after the crowd-pleasing action excesses of recent entries, was always going to be a hard sell, while the latter is part of a genre in which story campaigns have scarcely mattered since 2007. Furthermore, although Nioh underperformed when compared against Western-developed AAA titles, it was announced as publisher Koei Tecmo’s “most successful title in the west” shortly after release. These realities illuminate a significant issue in EA’s justification for the Star Wars project reinvention, as well as for the relentless march forward of open-world games.
Making decisions based on an analysis of the AAA gaming market as it stands at the present time can only create a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the statement announcing the reworking of Visceral’s Star Wars game, EA indicated that the decision was equally motivated by playtest feedback and “closely tracking fundamental shifts in the marketplace.” While the shape of those shifts was not explicated, the description of the project as “a story-based, linear adventure game” and its long gestation (reportedly in production since 2013) point to the ever-increasing prominence of open-world-styled games. Therein lays a logical fallacy. EA’s sales predictions are based on a market where the scale and type of game that Visceral was working on is no longer available. Indeed, the last test for the ultra-high-profile, strictly-linear action-adventure was, arguably, Quantum Break a year a half ago, which went on to become Microsoft’s best-selling new IP on the Xbox One. Therefore, the choice to redesign the Star Wars project was made without the existence of recent case studies. Instead, the proliferation of open-world games is taken as justification for the production of more open-world games in an endless cycle. Courage is required to break the mould, but the major publishers are, for the most part, startlingly risk-averse.
Given the flops of the prominent early-generation games mentioned above, a degree of reticence on the part of the publishers is understandable, yet fear should not be the motivating factor behind creative decisions. The player agency found within Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was revelatory for that franchise and a refresh needed after three iterations of increasingly breathless, rigidly-directed, spectacle-based gameplay. However, the brilliance of Naughty Dog’s decision stems not from an inherent problem with the rollercoaster ethos of the first three Uncharted games, but from the need to shake up the formula. Nevertheless, a monolith of the form blinked, and everyone else looked away. The problem with the industry-wide rejection of linearity is that it can only lead to homogeneity. Sprawling hubs busy with activity markers provide ample opportunities for players to explore and complete MMO-esque side quests, but when every game features strongholds, stylised combat, stealth mechanics, and a similar selection of mission objectives, a sense of tedium is inevitable. Additionally, even individual titles can suffer from repetition, as was the case for Ghost Recon: Wildlands earlier this year. Linear games are an antithesis to that sense of monotony.
An old axiom states that variety is the spice of life, and that idea can be applied to gaming. Games with a focus on openness tend towards a design principle that inspires busywork to push numbers higher. Completing quests provides experience points, better weapons, money, or some other form of reward to enable players to complete subsequent quests more easily. Stories, of course, are present, but take a backseat to the fostering of an endless sense of progression. In contrast, linear games provide a sense of purpose—Wolfenstein II is about liberating America from Nazis; Quantum Break is a quest to fix time; and The Last of Us is about taking the chance to save humanity. While open games are about increasing numbers, linear games are about the rollercoaster experience of peaks and valleys, and the focus required to ensure that the experience matches the developers’ intention allows each one to be utterly unique. By definition, the firmly-directed gaming experience invites a level of variation that free-form play cannot hope to match, and that is why ‘linear’ should not be a dirty word.
EA’s decision to shutter Visceral Games has likely been a long time coming. Since Dead Space 3 released in 2013, the studio’s games have underperformed, and development on the Star Wars project was reportedly dire. For any would-be respectable outlet to claim the death of single-player gaming from an isolated event is irresponsible, but such an event can shed new light on long-standing trends. The reputed design philosophy behind the Star Wars project stretches back to a different era, before the industry-wide push against linear games that has become an Ouroboros, preventing the re-emergence of the old form. However, perhaps the time is nigh for a major publisher to ignore the dictates of the contemporary industry and create something that harks back to the carefully-tailored days of Bioshock, Prince of Persia, and God of War.