Non-Linear RPGs... Or Are They?

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I've been thinking about this and I think dividing games in linear or non-linear is too simplistic.

Skyrim for example has a giant open world where you can go wherever you want almost from the very beginning (there are some areas you probably shouldn't go to at low level, but you can if you want to). However, almost all of the quests and dungeons are very linear. Once you enter a dungeon, it's a straight path to the end while killing all the enemies inside. Similarly, when you start a quest, it's a matter of following the quest marker until the quest is done. There are a few exceptions, but most of it follows this pattern.

This is worse in games like GTA, where you get a big sandbox to play in, but as soon as you start a mission you have to either finish it or abandon it and the missions themselves are very restricted.

The first two Witcher games on the other hand had a pretty linear world, but allowed you to make meaningful decisions in the story that could actually close off entire parts of the game.

I suppose the most non-linear games are the ones that just give you a sandbox to play in, like Minecraft. Then again, you could argue that Minecraft isn't even a game, as it has no proper goal to work towards.
 
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@Pifanjr As I see it most games often have some kind of hybrid between the non-linear and linear ways in how you go about exploring the game. In Assassin's Creed Odyssey (I'm a bit low level, but so far it seems so) you can basically go from island to island, but you are restricted by meeting higher level enemies that will one-shot you if you are not careful. That game basically wants you to follow the main story, but, you can explore to your choosing, even if it will have some limits the further you explore outside the safe zone of your character and enemy level.
 
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@Pifanjr As I see it most games often have some kind of hybrid between the non-linear and linear ways in how you go about exploring the game. In Assassin's Creed Odyssey (I'm a bit low level, but so far it seems so) you can basically go from island to island, but you are restricted by meeting higher level enemies that will one-shot you if you are not careful. That game basically wants you to follow the main story, but, you can explore to your choosing, even if it will have some limits the further you explore outside the safe zone of your character and enemy level.

Right, which Zloth argued makes it a linear experience in his opening post.

Something else I just thought of is how games that allow different builds factor into this. Titan Quest for example is a very linear game, but it does offer a wide selection of builds, such that two playthroughs can be almost completely different in what kind of game you're playing. Similarly in Skyrim, where playing as a destruction mage gives an entirely different game than playing as a sneaky archer or a duel wielding berserker.

Build options allow some measure of player agency in how they approach the game in a similar way as choosing which quests to do or what part of the world to explore in my opinion.

Though I I realize that build options aren't a substitute for the freedom to tackle challenges in any order you want.
 
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Zloth

Community Contributor
See, I still think of that as a series of linear experiences. When you drop the thieves guild questline to do some mage missions you come right back to where you left off, the only difference being your level and equipment, neither of which have any meaningful plot impact, so it's still the same experience every other player has.
No meaningful plot impact, but a big impact on what your character can do and what you're character will face. To steal your example, maybe Frodo and Sam don't face a broken, insane Shelob but one in full possession of her powers. Luckily, Sam has a Holy Avenger sword now, so they've still got a chance. Plot-wise, its still "they have to fight a great challenge" but that battle won't play out the same at all.
 
No meaningful plot impact, but a big impact on what your character can do and what you're character will face. To steal your example, maybe Frodo and Sam don't face a broken, insane Shelob but one in full possession of her powers. Luckily, Sam has a Holy Avenger sword now, so they've still got a chance. Plot-wise, its still "they have to fight a great challenge" but that battle won't play out the same at all.

Kinda a nitpick, but Skyrim doesn't really change all that much between low and high levels in my opinion. The biggest change you get is probably when you unlock the ability to stagger your opponents and, as a mage, when you don't run out of mana after every spell.

I do agree with you though, being able to unlock new abilities changes the way you play the game. It's similar to what I said in my previous post about different builds.
 
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Inspireless Llama

Community Contributor
@Pifanjr I feel the same way with Skyrim but then with werewolfs / vampires.

Also, I was thinking about linear games that let you play in a different way too. I was thinking about Sniper Elite, which I'd say is a linear game and not open world, even though the area's are very open, and you get to choose but how you deal with the targets and in which order you do them.

The same with the (new) Tomb Raider games, very linear games, but they all offered you some kind of choice in how to go through the different levels.

On the other hands, I think some games don't work as open world. The 2013 Tomb Raider was most linear and the best game, whilst Shadow of the Tomb Raider was much more open world and less interesting. They weren't supposed as RPG's though, but I think it's worth mentioning.
 
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