Are Linear Games Still "Good" Games?

A research paper for my Intro to Interactive Entertainment, discussing the ways in which a linear game can still invoke player agency today.


Early video games provided limited possibilities compared to those in modern games. These early games are best categorized as linear; their overarching stages and objectives are strictly sequential without deviation. An example of a linear game is Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, a visual novel lawyer role-playing game in which the player must present the right evidence at the right time and follow a strict storyline. Linearity may describe the game’s narrative, gameplay, or both. Today, there exists a large number of nonlinear games, in which each player chooses his/her own sequence of levels to follow. Minecraft is an archetype of nonlinear games. Players choose to partake in various activities, such as surviving or constructing creative buildings, without a sequential storyline or map of objectives to follow. As nonlinear games have increased in abundance, the value of linear games has diminished. Criticisms against linear games center around their repetitiveness and lack of replay value due to their inability to provide fully interactive player-controlled experiences. The aim of this paper is to discuss the ways in which a linear game can invoke player agency, challenging the view that linear games do not provide engaging aesthetic experiences because they do not offer players enough control over in-game consequences to be considered truly interactive.


A building created in Minecraft, a nonlinear Sandbox game


There exist multiple criticisms on linear games for their lack of compelling player experiences. Video game designer, Brie Code, noticed a lack of interest in Child of Light from one of her friends because “The linear story and turn-based combat didn't provide space for her to play around with the kind of questions she cares about in life” (1). She notes that, in order for a player to truly enjoy a game, it must offer ways for the player to understand and amend his/her problems in life. A linear game cannot easily achieve such an effect for two reasons: (1) linear narratives and gameplay are both nearly impossible to tailor towards the individual lives of every player, and (2) players lack the space to “play around,” as linearity is intended to suppress emergent styles of gameplay. In an essay distinguishing games from other media, game scholar Greg Costikyan writes, “The thing that makes a game a game is the need to make decisions...At every point, he considers the game state...And he considers his opposition, the forces he must struggle against” (196). In this excerpt, Costikyan outlines some of the defining aspects of a game. First, players are guaranteed the ability to plan out and decide their characters’ actions. Second, their decisions must alter what occurs in-game as a result. Lastly, they are allowed to adapt to these alterations by making premeditated decisions during gameplay. These factors define the degree of player agency that a game invokes. Therefore, linear games commonly lack player agency because they are designed to keep these decisions from emerging, which is both efficient and cost-effective to design. Game educator Ian Schreiber explains that linear games are advantageous because nonlinear games must “account for a larger variety of player inputs,” are costly to design, and run the risk of allowing actions that are illogical within the game’s boundaries to occur, threatening the suspension of disbelief (2). However, he criticizes the fact that a linear game’s story and game mechanics often feel disjointed during gameplay, creating a “not very game-like,” lackluster gameplay experience (Schreiber 2). Hence, many people reduce linear games to simple narratives due to this lack of accommodation for unique player decisions.

Visual novel games such as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney are perceived more as narratives than games due to a lack of room for emergent, interesting player decisions

Michael Mateas, director of the Center for Games and Playable Media at the University of California: Santa Cruz, offers a perspective on how games achieve player agency. He outlines two factors: material constraints, which describe the actions, resources, and functionalities available to players during gameplay, and formal constraints, which consist of the motivators that keep players in pursuit of the game’s objectives (Mateas 4). For example, in the game Dead Island, the material constraints include health, weapons, and the ability to attack zombies, while the formal constraints involve the pressure dealt on players to survive. As Mateas notes, “In order to invoke a sense of agency, an interactive experience must strike a balance between the material and formal constraints” (5). In other words, material constraints provide tools, while formal constraints provide guidelines, for effective decision-making, allowing players to feel that their choices are unbounded, yet meaningful to the game. Most linear games contain more formal constraints over material constraints due to their limited possibility spaces, or “all of the gestures made possible by a set of rules” (Bogost 120). Players are essentially forced to abide by predetermined decisions and methods for completing the game. Often, the resources and functionalities within the possibility space of a linear game are intentionally restricted to those that directly aid the player’s advancement towards the game’s end state. However, there are ways for linear games to balance their formal constraints with their material constraints.

Grand Theft Auto’s formal constraints include its linear main story and objectives, while its material constraints include all the possible sports, activities, and crimes one can perform.


The Last of Us is a linear game that successfully implements this balance. In the game, the player controls a character named Joel, who exists in a world where a mutated fungus has turned most of society into aggressive cannibals (known as the Infected) and reduced the government to martial law. He must escort Ellie, a fourteen-year-old girl who is immune to the disease, to a rebel group attempting to discover a cure and restore the government to its former self. There exists little room to explore the world outside of its boundaries, and the game forces the player through a one-way, unchangeable storyline. However, one of the central aspects of The Last of Us lies in its unique allocation of resources to players. There is a wide variety of weapons that the player can find and craft, including nail bombs, scoped handguns, and unique melee weapons. However, the game world was intentionally designed so that there would be a scarcity of these resources. This design encourages the manifestation of interesting decisions. For instance, when the player encounters a mob of clickers, he/she must decide whether to move stealthily past them and conserve shivs or to attack head on. Although rational players would almost always choose stealth, the character designers intentionally designed the Infected to appear realistic, capturing the beauty of nature while maintaining terrifying personas. The resemblance of the Infected to nature effectively blurs the barrier between the game and reality, overcoming the player with an impulsive fear that what happens in-game may happen in real life. This fear makes the decision of avoidance versus pursuit even more difficult and emotional to make. Dean Takahashi interviewed developer Bruce Straley, who claimed: “[The Last of Us] gave us an opportunity to develop characters inside of that world...paralleling that with the conflict in gameplay and conflict in stories, we can make you as a player feel more of what it’s truly like to exist inside a world where every bullet counts and each step you take is a conscious choice that’s going to make or break your existence” (1).

The “beautiful” yet terrifying appearance of a Clicker in The Last of Us


An enormous number of interesting decisions appear inside each stage of the game. With human bandits, for example, the player must consider a variety of other factors, such as the distribution of the bandits, how fast each enemy moves, and how to successfully trek through obstacles. Although the storyline and sequence of checkpoints remain unchangeable, the method of reaching these checkpoints remains the player’s decision. The game’s material constraints from the player’s interesting decisions and formal constraints from its linearity form a symbiotic relationship, simultaneously providing a variety of options to choose from as well as the feeling that the player’s actions have meaningful consequences to the game state. Hence, a linear game can contain elements of nonlinearity within its overall sequential structure, which is the main factor that invokes player agency in The Last of Us.

Straley also mentions the role of character development in these interesting decisions. The game’s linear narrative plunges players into an unfamiliar world through a new lens. Such structure forces players out of their preconceived notion of the world, yet pertains to relatable human struggles. Mateas states, “By reasoning about the other characters' thoughts, the player can take actions to influence these characters, either to change their thoughts or actively help or hinder them in their goals and plans” (4). Joel acts as an anti-hero, committing various inhumane actions such as making selfish sacrifices and cruelly feigning mercy towards torture victims before killing them. However, as players perform Joel’s actions and witness both his internal and external struggles, they start to realize the reasons for his actions and recognize the prevalent cruelty in both the game world and reality. Games scholar Jan Simons notes, ”...characters in a story do not act the way they act because of who, what or how they are, but they are who, what and how they are because of what they do” (1). Similarly, by employing Joel’s actions as the main vehicle for understanding his character, The Last of Us allows the player to empathize with Joel to a great extent. Therefore, The Last of Us employs procedural rhetoric to a great extent by authoring “strong, persuasive arguments about the world through rules and processes” (Bogost 125). The game is worth playing because it addresses the human struggle with morality through an innovative way: experiencing and empathizing with Joel’s radical processes.

Joel torturing a bandit for information


Through empathy, the game creates the illusion that the player completely controls what happens to Joel. Simons notes, “How a particular game will end may be unknown to the players but for most games it is quite clear in advance which outcomes are possible and which are not” (1). Although in-game events remain bounded and linear, players “become one” with Joel by easily predicting and recognizing the motives behind his actions. By identifying with Joel, players fall under the impression that Joel’s decisions are their own. Furthermore, this empathy may act as both a material and formal constraint of gameplay. It is both a tool and motivator for exploring Joel’s world (internally and externally), eventually leading to the player’s final decision of whether to accept or condemn the claims suggested by the game’s processes. Thus, The Last of Us represents player agency through empathetic relationships between players and characters.

Joel’s actions are controversial yet understandable, keeping in mind the cruelty in the way the world treated him


Pokémon games achieve player agency in a different manner. There is a lack of empathy between the player and the main character compared to The Last of Us. In fact, aside from exceedingly rare exceptions, the main character remains silent. The main character is always customizable; the player decides the character’s name, gender, and, starting in Pokémon: X and Pokémon: Y, clothes. Thus, the main character acts as a full extension of the player rather than an entirely different persona, as with The Last of Us. Both the storyline and the path towards completing the game remain linear; the player must become the game region’s champion by defeating, in consecutive order, the eight bosses (i.e. gym leaders), the final four bosses (i.e. the Elite Four), and the champion, alongside completing various side quests.

Clothing customization in Pokémon: X and Pokémon: Y


The ability to customize Pokémon teams provides a variety of material constraints for the player to utilize. Each Pokémon possesses a unique typing (fire, water, psychic, etc.),  a combination of four moves from its diverse move pool, and a certain distribution of statistics (Attack, Defense, etc.). Players may further customize a Pokémon’s strength by maximizing the potential of its statistics through selective breeding or repeatedly battling certain Pokémon to control its statistics distribution. All of these factors lead to an astronomically large number of possible Pokémon, teams, and battle strategies, allowing individual players to feel unique even though they all face the same linear challenges throughout the game. Additionally, Pokémon not only provides formal constraints through its linear structure but also through its community of competitive battlers, in which members are motivated by each other to be the best trainers and loyally abide by official rules. Pokémon worlds strongly resemble Lisbeth Klastrup’s online virtual world, EverQuest, where ”...many variations of the game rules can be carried out, however many in-world activities actually have finite goals with predetermined methods of completion, such as quests…[EverQuest] can be described as a game of emergence with minor ‘games of progression’ embedded” (4). Defeating the champion and fulfilling the side quests serve as the embedded games of progression, while the customization features serve as the games of emergence. The games of progression provide the formal constraints to keep players directed towards the goal of becoming the champion, while the games of emergence serve as material resources that distinguish competing players. This is similar to The Last of Us, where players reserve the right to find, craft, and utilize resources to their choosing, establishing different ways in which the same conclusion is reached. As Mateas notes, “A dramatic world supporting this total experience could provide actively structuring the player experience such that each run-through of the story has a clean, unitary plot structure, but multiple run-throughs have different, unitary plot structures” (6). Both games achieve unitary plot structures through linearity, yet accommodate for numerous possible decisions on the subsurface of these plots, giving rise to unique gameplay experiences for different players.

Pokémon team building and customization on Showdown


However, the simplicity of Pokémon’s narrative and gameplay structure compared to The Last of Us gives birth to another phenomenon: game modifications. Klastrup notes, ”The act of decoding the rules and learning to competently master them is an essential part of what gaming is, and ‘playing with’ or ‘playing against’ the world rules, is essentially a gaming activity…” (4). One may argue that the strict structure of Pokémon urges players to explore ways in which they can work around this rigidity, setting their own rules from outside the scope of the game. Multiple hacks of the Pokémon franchise have been released by fans, including Pokémon: Chaos Black and Pokémon: Uranium. Various smaller hacks that modify the storylines and battle rules within the main games have also been made, and there exists an entire community of Pokémon hackers who share their modifications on YouTube. Players who modify game rules develop their own formal and material constraints, thereby allowing themselves to take charge over a game’s player agency. Furthermore, these external game communities open wide channels for player interaction and provide both the material (open source tools for modifications) and formal (the pressure to impress an audience) constraints of player agency. Klastrup notes that, in such an interactive environment, “...the way multiple players inhabit such a huge system is unpredictable and might give rise to ways of exploiting the system or a need for new tools to interact with it” (3). In other words, Pokémon provides player agency because players are able to make decisions that are external to the game’s narrative and gameplay, yet directly affect its inner state.

Similarly, The Last of Us provokes the decision, external to the game, of whether or not to accept Joel’s actions along with the arguments addressing the cruelty of human nature. While direct modifications to The Last of Us are not as easily achievable, the game tempts players to contemplate other possible ways that Joel could have acted. This gives rise to fan fictions, fan theories, debates, and other ways in which players can take charge of the game’s structure indirectly. In essence, Pokémon encourages direct exploration of game mechanics through creativity while The Last of Us encourages an indirect exploration of narrative via introspection. Both explorations provide outlets for player decisions, invoking agency outside of each respective game.

Fan-made Pokémon hacks


It is a mistake to say that all linear games lack player agency. The Last of Us provides agency through a unique and deep empathetic relationship with the main character, thus creating the impression that players are in control of what happens to the character. Pokémon, although linear in overall structure, provides players a strong sense of individuality through its customization features and promotion of external communities that establish their own means of control over the game. However, both games demonstrate that it is entirely possible for a linear game to allow for unique player decisions by providing balanced formal and material constraints. The game’s stages may be linear in its overall map of objectives, but the methods towards advancing past these stages may remain nonlinear without the game losing either its inherent linearity or the economic benefits of its linear architecture. It is highly important to realize that, while linear games should not be antagonized, they must contain a balance of structure and freedom in decision-making to reach the same level of engagement that fully nonlinear games showcase today.


Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games." The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games,

and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur

Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,

2008. 117–140. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.117

Costikyan, Greg. "I Have No Words and I Must Design: Toward a Critical Vocabulary for

Games." 1994. The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. By Eric

Zimmerman and Katie Salen. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. 192-210. Print.

Klastrup, Lisbeth (2003). ‘A poetics of virtual worlds’. MelbourneDAC 2003,

Mateas, Michael. “A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games.” Digital Creativity,

vol. 12, no. 3, Jan. 2001, pp. 140–152. doi:10.1076/digc.

Shreiber, Ian. "Game Design Concepts." Game Design Concepts. Creative Commons Attribution

3.0, 29 June 2009. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Simons, Jan. "Narrative, Games, and Theory." Game Studies 7.1 (2007): n. pag. Web. 25 Nov.


Takahashi, Dean. "What Inspired The Last of Us (interview)." VentureBeat. VentureBeat, 6 Aug.

2013. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.


Latest Jobs

Sucker Punch Productions

Hybrid (Bellevue, WA, USA)
Senior Programmer

The Pyramid Watch

Game Designer (RTS/MOBA)

Sucker Punch Productions

Hybrid (Bellevue, WA, USA)
Senior Technical Combat Designer

Digital Extremes

Lead AI Programmer
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more