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Non-linear progression and what it is used for
August 30, 2009
4 Min Read
Shadow Complex is a game that truly highlights the nature of non-linear progression (NLP). NLP is just player-determined progression. There is no set course to play the game other than “Find the Backpack” and “Defeat Final Boss”. More importantly, it isn’t a direct course from start to finish There are multiple ways in which to reach the ending. Despite this NLP, the player does not feel like a mouse trapped in a maze unable to plan ahead, nor does the player wander aimlessly in order to somehow discover by divine intervention which way to go. All actions still remain goal directed, and certainly not boring. Ultimately, NLP is all about exploration. Without NLP, exploration is a waste of time that is unnecessary.
Does exploration really require something open ended as NLP? Can NLP only be limited to purposes of exploration? Shadow Complex shows that the answer to both is a definitive yes. It even shows the potential harm of linear progression when the game encourages a player to explore. The early portion of Shadow Complex begins with linear progression. There is a definitive and single path to take. It is simply not possible to veer off the pre-selected path, since all that the player can do is jump and shoot with a pistol. Simply put, at this early point in the game, exploration has little purpose. It is clear that exploration is one of the goals of the game given the obvious passageways the player cannot access yet as well as curiosity about why there is an underground military facility in the middle of a forest. The early linearity does nothing more than prevent a player from exploring. It is not any fun for a player to see what they can do but not be allowed to do it.
To have an exploration based game, NLP is a requirement. Exploration is inherently open-ended, so anything that increases open-endedness is necessary to produce the strongest effect. It is also important to recognize that NLP’s only purpose is for exploration. The first time NLP becomes noticeable is when the player is asked to make decisions where one choice isn’t any more right than another. When the player acquires the grenade, they’re able to choose to backtrack to get upgrades that they missed, keep progressing in the most direct manner or just take a look at other paths that may have been overlooked. It is pretty self-evident that NLP will only be noticed when NLP comes into effect, but the important question is why does the NLP only get noticed at this particular point? It is because this is when exploration actually matters. If there wasn’t a need for exploration, NLP wouldn’t matter. Why say “the direction you choose is your decision only” if exploring has trivial consequences?
Even with NLP, goal directed action is maintained. The number of potential goals increase as the game goes on. As the player acquires more items, they can access more areas. Few areas are actually required. This makes it necessary for the player to set intermediate goals, all while the only ultimate goal is to defeat the final boss. To reach an ultimate goal in a game as open-ended as Shadow Complex requires intermediate goals to be set, otherwise the player will feel like they’re trapped in a labyrinth. If a player wants to be super-powerful, they’ll want to find as many upgrades as possible. This in turn requires exploring every corner. If the player just wants to complete the game, they’ll want to limit exploring to survival needs. More upgrades allow a player to fight more efficiently. Even after completing the game, different ultimate goals can be set, such as completing the game to beat a fastest time or completing the game with as few items as possible. A modified ultimate goal necessarily modifies all intermediate goals. Open-endedness does not imply limiting goals, only limiting pre-determined goals.
NLP is effective when used in games when exploration and discovery are key game components. It allows the player to determine what is important, while the designer only has to provide a bare minimum of requirements. Since exploration implies a spatial element, the most crucial aspect of developing a game based on NLP is spatial design, or in other words, level design. A well defined game-world is required for NLP to work, but the player has control over how the game will be explored.
(from my blog http://wlwords.blogspot.com/ )
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