Last time I wrote about linearity from the player’s perspective, today I’m taking a look at it from a developers point of view. Linearity is now how much the developer can control the way you can approach the situations they build. That might sound a little abstract so let me give some examples. Let’s take GTA for instance. It’s widely regarded as a sandbox game and the standard for what non-linear gaming should strive towards. Developers create missions for you to play through, but since you can do whatever you want between missions, there are often a lot of variables that can vary between two attempts at the same mission. Everything from the guns you carry, to the vehicle you’re driving to the amount of health you have can change, often drastically changing the ways you can play the mission. I always hated going through the bike mission in Vice City where you have to race across rooftops to promote your sucky movie. Instead I’d just grab the helicopter from the nearby building I owned and crash that around town for a quick and easy mission complete. Obviously the game wasn’t designed for me to beat it this way and that’s where non-linearity can lose its touch. The GTA developers often do try to sneak in linearity into their missions. Often they give you a weapon especially suited to the mission objectives, they’ll provide transport or downright force you into a certain car or other vehicle mode.
It's pretty cool to jump from building to building and it takes skill to accomplish the mission in the time limit. Or you just go around the block to get your helicopter, that works too. I like that thinking outside the box works, but it's pretty clear that that wasn't what you're supposed to do. In this mission you're not granted any freedom whatsoever. You're stuck in a van until you either complete or fail the mission and you have no choice but to use the plane. This does however create some interesting game sequences that would've otherwise never happened due to dominant strategy. That's the power of linearity.
Outside the missions you are also often blocked from going to different towns or otherwise restricted access to vehicles and weaponry. All of this isn’t just done so that you have an incentive to keep playing (though it definitely helps that too). It is also to limit the possible ways you can start a mission, so that the missions can be developed to give the best experience. In GTA this is relatively easy because besides flight, the controls don’t really vary that much with different gear. Some cars are faster than others, some guns shoot more bullets etc, but fundamentally what you can do as a player remains the same throughout the game. Compared to a game like super Metroid and the Legend of Zelda and, where the gear you obtain fundamentally changes your controls, the controls in GTA remain practically the same. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how over time Nintendo has put more effort into stopping people from sequence breaking in the legend of Zelda games. In Zelda 1,2 and A link to the past, you could just do temples out of order, provided you had the appropriate gear. In Ocarina some song teaching cut scenes won’t trigger unless you’ve beaten certain bosses, which restricts your ability to enter some temples even after getting all your upgrades. After that it has become rare to be able to deviate from the set order at all, mostly due to the integration of the plot in the dungeon order.
I always liked how the fourth dungeon integrated the light coming into the dungeon here ind dark world Kakariko vilage into it's dungeon and boss fight. I also usually skip dungeon 3 in favor of first going through dungeon 4 because the item lets you get a sword upgrade, a bottle and easier dark world entry. Incidentally I tend to clear dungeon 6 before dungeon 5 too. This game just lets you do what you feel like and if it doesn't work out then you know where you were supposed to go because the dungeons are numbered. . On the other hand, in this dark version Kakariko village you can't enter the temple until you've actually beaten the previous temple. Not because you're not fully equipped, but just because this conversation won't trigger and you need that to enter the temple.
One of the cool things about Metroid zero mission on the other hand, is how it allows you to sequence break it all over the place. It’s a nice little touch to be sure. Going back to Zelda, most puzzles in the older game were very room focused. You beat the puzzle in the room, got the key or found the hidden exit and moved on to the next room. The dungeons mostly work with what you can do from the beginning of the game and don’t really incorporate the items you’ve obtained that much into the overall dungeon design. A link to the past has multiple dungeon items that don’t even give you any new abilities, like the tunics and the mirror shield. You can beat the game without ever obtaining them. From Ocarina onward, dungeon items became an essential part of beating the dungeon. Partly because the game has forced you to beat the dungeons in a particular order, the developers have a better grasp of your abilities when you enter the level. This allows them to play with those abilities more and create dungeon wide puzzles that make each level feel like more than the collection of their rooms.
Don't get me wrong, this power-up is incredibly useful, because the dark world enemies were doing lots of damage before you got this item, but in terms of abilities it doesn't add anything. You can skip this item and beat the game. Same goes for the red tunic and the mirror shield. Also note how you can have 2 keys left over at this point. Keys were things you got from clearing rooms and weren't a big deal in the earlier games. Some of them were hidden under pots. In skyward sword keys are practically major items. Their value has really inflated over time. To be perfectly frank you can technically beat the game without the tunics in Ocarina as well, but they affect your play style more because the time limits inhibit the careful exploration required to get through the temples on your own. Still this isn't a dungeon item. All dungeon items in Ocarina needed to be obtained to beat the game.
Without a strict control on what abilities the player has obtained before entering the level, the temples would become way more frustrating. Imagine going all the way through the spirit temple, lowering the mirror thing and burning of the statue’s face, only to discover that your hookshot won’t reach the gates. Because of the more open level design, you now have a whole bunch of options to explore, adding hours of frustrating game time, before you come to the conclusion that this wasn’t the next temple you could beat after all. It’s exactly because of these increased options (added to the already slowed movement) that the water temple is so hated (wrongfully so in my opinion but that’s a topic for another day).
being lowered into the central room that you've been in several times both as a kid and an adult, solving different puzzles each time, really ties this dungeon together as a single entity. It is exactly because the game can force you to go through the temple in the one way it wants you to, that it all ties together so nicely in the end. Just imagine going all that way only to find out your hookshot won't reach. What do you do then? you don't know you need a longshot for this if you haven't played it before. There's still unpressed switches in the room, perhaps there's other stuff you haven't done yet. Realising you need to go back to the water temple because you skipped that item could take hours because of this.
Linearity allows developers to challenge players with challenges that are tough but beatable, to give players bigger and more complex puzzles without making solving those puzzles frustrating and it lets developers pace the succession of these things in as much detail as is desired. Linearity from a developers perspective is a good thing. It just needs to be communicated well to the players what the boundaries are. Nobody likes crashing into invisible walls, be they unfair constraints or you know, actual invisible walls.