This past weekend, I finished my first playthrough of Dishonored, Arkane Studios’ recent stealth-action title. Yes, I said “first.” I plan to do a second playthrough in a few months’ time. After having gone through the game in a stealthy manner, I’d like to see how it plays as a straight-up action title.
That’s one of Dishonored’s interesting features. In spite of its relatively “linear” plot, each mission can be completed in any number of ways, using any number of paths, techniques, powers, and tactics, some of which are stealth-oriented and others of which are action-oriented. Levels have a relatively open design, so backtracking and exploration are encouraged. There are basically no time limits, so players can take as much time as they wish to search for collectibles in between completing objectives. In that sense, Dishonored is also a “nonlinear” game. That’s not a contradiction. It’s possible for a game to be simultaneously “linear” and “nonlinear.” In fact, I think it’s useful not only to discuss not only how linear a game is, but also the different kinds of linearity that it can exhibit.
The major distinction between different kinds of linearity that we should draw is that of narrative versus ludic linearity. Narrative linearity refers to major story elements being presented to the player in sequence, while ludic linearity refers to the presence of a small number of prescribed “paths” for the player to follow. I use the word “paths” loosely here. For example, an abstract puzzle game without a player-controlled character might have only a single solution to each one of its puzzles, in which case it would be ludically linear.
Dishonored is narratively linear, but ludically nonlinear. Its story events happen in a prescribed order, but its levels are designed to facilitate exploration and make players seek multiple ways to complete an objective. On the other hand, a game like Mass Effect 2 is narratively nonlinear but ludically linear. Its recruitment missions, loyalty missions, side missions, and DLC missions can be completed in almost any order, but most missions put the player through what amounts to a corridor, giving him or her a set physical path to an objective.
Of course, these classifications aren’t strict. Dishonored has elements of narrative nonlinearity. Much of the context for the story is provided by notes and book excerpts that the player can find scattered through the levels, and these aren’t collected in a prescribed order. Moreover, the story branches a bit towards the end, allowing for the game to have two different endings. Conversely, Mass Effect 2 has elements of ludic nonlinearity in that it allows players to use an array of weaponry, powers, and abilities to defeat enemies using a variety of tactics.
A few points of clarification are in order. Firstly, there are degrees of linearity. A game like Fallout: New Vegas, which allows players to pursue a large number of different storylines, is more narratively nonlinear than Mass Effect 2, which puts all players through the same major story beats. Secondly, it’s useful to distinguish between ludic nonlinearity and emergent gameplay, both of which Dishonored demonstrates. The latter refers to simple gameplay mechanics producing complex results, which is certainly a contributor to the game’s ludic nonlinearity. However, the multiple physical paths and open level structure are elements that were specifically inserted into the game by the designers; they don’t arise from the interaction of simple mechanics.
Finally, just because I’m advocating for a separate analysis of narrative linearity and ludic linearity doesn’t mean that I’m advocating for a separation of narrative and gameplay when it comes to game design. In fact, this type of analysis can help us better understand the relationship between story and gameplay. To again use Dishonored as an example, the game’s ludic nonlinearity complements its minimalist approach to narrative. The game does have cutscenes, but they’re relatively brief and serve mainly to relate essential story points, without much background or context. The blanks are filled in by the player as he or she moves through the levels, collecting notes, book excerpts, and audio logs. Ruined, rat-infested environments are contrasted with the well-furnished abodes of the rich, hinting at a class struggle in the game’s world.
Thinking of games in terms of the different ways that they can be nonlinear allows us to better understand how they work and how their different elements interact. It also allows us to explain how a game like Dishonored can be both linear and nonlinear at the same time. As Dishonored demonstrates, games need not take a wholly linear or nonlinear approach. Fantastic experiences can be constructed by borrowing elements from linear and nonlinear games alike.