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Article - 'A Guide to Linearity & Non-Linearity' by Mateui

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Jan 14, 2004


Learn about linearity and non-linearity, the pros of each, and some tactics to enforce either of these.


A Guide to Linearity & Non-Linearity
By: Mateui

Should I go on the road less traveled, or keep walking straight?

Every RPG has it, and to think of it, so does every other game that has a story and conclusion. But not every game employs the same type of linearity, and the methods used are quite vast.

Wait.. Slow down. Before we discuss tactics, we need to define what linearity is first.

What is Linearity?

Searching linearity in a dictionary doesn’t give you a good definition, but I’ll tell you what it says anyway.

Linearity: The property of having one dimension.

See? It doesn’t give the word much justice. So what do we do now..? When in doubt, just ask me. :D

Linearity and Non-Linearity are opposites, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a mix of the two. When a game is said to be linear, every time you play it, you will achieve the same outcomes and the conclusion will be the same every single time, no matter what. Non-Linear games, on the other hand, change, depending on the player’s choices and actions in the game, and there are many conclusions that arise depending on those past actions.

Now that we have a more broader definition of the two, we can get down to business.

Which is Best to Use?

Very likely, you are creating an RPG, but you don’t know if you should go the linear or non-linear way. It’s a hard decision to make, but I’ll give you a short list of the pros for both options.

- Easier to create than a non-linear game
- You have total control of how the story will unfold
- You can ensure that all players will achieve the same outcome, thus causing that all reviewers will grade your game based on that same outcome.

- Replay value of the game goes way up
- The game is customized to meet the player’s demands and choices
- Likely to receive better reviews

Well there you have it. Now we will discuss some tactics that you can use, depending on whether your game is linear or non-linear.

Linear Tactics

Your game will always have the same outcome – but you can still make it appear that it doesn’t. How so?

You will have to use a lot of trickery to make your game appear non-linear, even though it really isn’t. How can you do this?

Masking Tips:
We’ll call this tactic, “masking”. To do this you will have to create situations in which the player will need to make choices. He will believe that the game will change in some way, but cleverly, either option he chooses will lead to the same outcome.

For instance, the player is given this choice:

- Follow the mysterious stranger to find out about the murder.
- Go through a back alley, hoping to find some clues there.

If the player chooses the first option, he pursues the stranger, and eventually, he ends up in an old, abandoned factory.

If the player chooses the second option, he walks through the back alley, only to find some drips of blood on the cement. Following those, he ends up in the old, abandoned factory.

See? Either way, the player still ended up in the abandoned factory. Since he could only choose one of those choices, to the player, it seemed like he made the decision for himself – unbeknownst to him however, you manipulated it so the outcome would stay the same. The player will never know, unless he replays the game.

Now, when masking a part of your game, you need to be careful about the duration of the time when the game will seem non-linear. (I’m talking about the time between the initial choice, and the outcome).

If this duration is really short, the player will feel like he was cheated, or choose the wrong choice. This may leading him to re-loading the game, and trying the other choice. If that duration is also short, that the player will have an even worse look on the game than before.

Lesson? Allow some time before both choices come to the same place.

Pre-Game Choice:
If you played a game like Tactics Ogre, you know what this is about. Some games ask you some questions before the actual game starts. Some questions may be philosophical, while others of a different nature. Whichever answer the player chooses, a different statistic rises or falls. In the end of all the questions, different stat changes change the way the character acts in battle, but either way, these stats do not affect the story.

Another pre-game choice may allow the player to choose which job the main character would have. For example: Knight, Mage, Thief, Monk, etc.. This would change the character’s appearance, stats, and battle techniques, but the story would still be the same.

Non-Linear Tactics

Creating a non-linear game is pretty hard, especially when many choices can be made. In order to help yourself out in this regard, you may need construct a branching type of diagram. I can’t really explain it well – it’s a lot like a conditional branch/fork condition type of chart. Here, I’ll give you an example, in the form of a picture.

Branching Off:

Let me explain. First the player can choose to either go left or right. This is the initial choice. If the player goes right, he meets the wizard. If he goes left, he meets the fairy. Then he can either choose to fight the character he meets, or get help from them. After that, more choices are given and different outcomes appear. Just follow the arrows, and they’ll tell you what happens. (Note: Sometimes, 2 different choices may lead to the same thing. This is like masking, and the advantage is, that you don’t have to keep on offering more choices to the player.)

The HUGE Choice:

At some place in your game (The beginning, or some important event) you may wish to offer a really big choice to the player. This one choice will steer the game is one way or the other. Choosing one option closes the other option’s possibilities off, and vice versa.

For example, at some point in the game, the main character faces a really hard decision. The villain has captured the main character’s romantic interest, as well as a group of small orphans. He threatens to destroy both of the groups. The main character is forced to decide who he will save. Either the orphans or his girlfriend.

Saving the girlfriend will kill the orphans, and this will make the nearby village really angry at you. So angry, in fact, that they will label you as the villain.

Saving the orphans will kill your girlfriend, but the village will be really happy. They will give you a lot of items, and you will become their hero.

These two options seem simple enough, but choosing one of them will make you the game’s villain, while choosing the other one, the hero. Then, more possibilities and choices are opened up, and the game becomes even more non-linear.

A Mix of the Two

If you can mix linearity and non-linearity together than this will lead to a nicely balanced game. Really, if a game is too linear, the players will find themselves to be like slaves of the story, too non-linear, they will find that the story doesn’t have enough control or action over them.

Also, the type of game you are creating will dictate whether linearity or non-linearity should be employed. Simulation games should be far on the non-linear side, while RPGs should be more closer to the middle or linear side.


Well, that’s all the time we have at the moment. I hope that you learned something about linearity or non-linearity as you were reading, or skimming through this article.

So I guess that’s it!

Bye Bye!

- Mat