I need a break from open-world games. While I’ve had a blast with Breath of the Wild, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Ghost Recon: Wildlands, I’ve been craving something considerably more linear. In a happy coincidence, Electronic Arts’s Dead Space 2, one of my favourite games, recently showed up on Xbox One via backward compatibility.
Not only does this 2011 adventure still hold up today, it shows how strictly linear games can do things open worlds just can’t.
After Grand Theft Auto 3, it seemed like everyone wanted a piece of the nonlinear game design pie. If a video game is a series of “meaningful choices”, as goes the (possibly apocryphal) saying of Civilization creator Sid Meier, certainly open-world games have the most choices to offer. But how meaningful are they? Every time Fallout 4 tells you another settler needs help, or Breath of the Wild asks you for 30 bundles of wood, are you really better off? Is open-world game design inherently better than a linear approach?
You may be familiar with this image, which has been floating around the internet for quite a long time now:
The more boring sort of linear games — Resident Evil 6, for example — tend to follow this template exactly: Walk forward a few steps, watch a cutscene, walk a few more steps, watch another cutscene, and so on. But linear games can be much more interesting than that.
Dead Space 2 starts with one of the best game openings of all time. You wake up in a medical facility, trapped in a straight jacket. Someone named Franco explains that you’re in “terrible, terrible dang-” but before he can finish, a monster kills him and transforms his body into another monster. Franco grows new limbs out of his back while his face practically flays itself. You shove him away, and a voice on the radio screams, “Isaac Clarke! If you can hear me, run!”
As you run, monsters called Necromorphs break through the walls. One takes a wild swing at you. Another starts converting a corpse into another Necromorph. All you can do is run, and you do, until you find relative safety with a clearly unhinged man who says, “We’re all gonna burn for what we did to you,” and then slits his own throat.
The best video game introductions create momentum, giving you good reasons for taking action. Some games attempt this by telling you your own backstory in the hopes of making you want to get revenge on someone who wronged you. Dead Space 2 achieves this by piquing your curiosity and capitalising on your sense of helplessness. What did they do to you? How will you survive? Your health is low, so you need to find a healing item, and if you want to survive, you’ll need a weapon.
Open-world games can’t force this sense of momentum. This year’s Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn both trap players in a small, open training area at their onsets, but even within these spaces you can spend hours just wandering if you want to. Any impulse to progress is subverted by the game’s onslaught of distractions. Dead Space 2 empowers you to play along, spawning enemies in your path, pushing you to run.
Some open world games, like Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, feature linear sequences. But if the promise of open-world design is the ability to play how you want, then the inclusion of these sequences constitutes a betrayal of that promise: How bad could linearity be if even open-world games feel the need to provide linear gameplay?
In Breath of the Wild, whenever I felt outmatched, I could simply run in any direction I chose, avoiding the problem entirely. By forcing you to confront situations with no means of escape other than success, Dead Space 2 creates a kind of tension you’re not likely to find in other games. When you overcome the seemingly impossible, you feel a sense of accomplishment that’s quite different from what you feel when you flee and come back when you’re more powerful.
Because most open-world games are content to let you play at your own pace, you’re welcome to stop doing whatever you’re doing to resupply or grind until you’re powerful enough to take on your foe. Sure, the Big Bad might be holding a gun to the head of the galaxy, but if you need to go stock up on ammunition, he’ll be perfectly content to wait for you until you’re ready.
This empowerment comes at a cost. An open-world game will rarely give you the thrill of defeating an enemy with the worst gun available at your disposal because it was the only thing you had ammo for. Because open-world games are immensely forgiving, they can lose the powerful emotional impetus that fuels more linear games.
One of the arguments for open-world games over linear games is that the open-world game gives players the freedom to tackle encounters their own way, approaching objectives from any angle, using any item they find. At the best of times, this can create amazing, memorable experiences. But more often than not, it doesn’t work out that way.
Open-world games are expensive to make because developers have to create large, interesting spaces that are flexible enough to allow players to play the way they want. As a result, most open-world games tend to repeat activities all around their maps. Create a dozen different “test of strength” dungeons for Zelda, plop them around the map, and blam, you’ve just added a few hours of gameplay to your game. How many times have I done the “move the cube” Korok puzzle now? How many settlements needed my help in Fallout 4? How many telekinesis minigames did I play in Saints Row 4?
Dead Space 2 is brilliant because it avoids repetitive play. I’m playing on the highest difficulty right now, and at one point, I had only seven rounds left. My favourite weapons were out of ammo entirely, so I had to use some guns I wasn’t comfortable with. With its randomised item spawn system, Dead Space 2 can give you items you didn’t know you needed and maybe you didn’t even want. It isn’t always the optimal way to play, but it guarantees variation.
Another big problem that open-world games suffer from is “Rule of Three”, a surplus of missions that require you to do something three times. Go here, press a button; go there, press a button; go somewhere else, press a button. It isn’t surprising or interesting. If The Empire Strikes Back was an open-world game, Luke would have had to take down three AT-ATs before he got to the next scene, killing the story’s momentum.
In Dead Space 2 I have never once had to repeat an action three times in a row. Every objective is different from the last. I began Chapter 7 by prepping an elevator for launch. After that, I rode the elevator up to the power plant high above Titan Station, fighting off monsters that clawed at me through the walls. In the power plant, I had to figure out how to get through a tricky set of doors, and after that, I found myself trapped between two tripmines that, when detonated by an unassuming Necromorph, threatened to blast me out into space.
It may be a linear game, but it can feel a lot less repetitive than an open-world game because, over the course of the game’s 12 hours, you’re never required to perform the same task twice. Every single encounter in Dead Space 2 is different than the one that came before.
Linear games also allow designers to create much more focused encounters with enemies. One encounter in Dead Space 2 funnels you towards a locked door. While you wait for a friend to unlock it, enemies spawn behind you, ready to attack. These enemies, called stalkers, sneak around cover, then rush you. That particular arena is built to complement their design. Not only that, but the ammo the designers placed in that arena is for the detonator mine, a perfect foil to stalkers. You can use any of the guns you have to face them, but the arena allows you to take advantage of the detonator mine in a way that other arenas don’t.
One encounter in Dead Space 2 sees the player dangling upside down from a wrecked train car. The enemies that spawn there are enemies that make that encounter fun; fighting stalkers while dangling upside down would not be nearly as enjoyable. By creating specific encounters, the Dead Space 2 designers can create fights that are way more engaging than the simplistic encounters you’ll find in games like Grand Theft Auto 5.
Despite my criticism of them here, I still find open-world games to be fascinating experiences. Open world games offer amazing opportunities to explore. They’re brilliant in the ways they pique curiosity, and I love the way they allow unplanned interactions to create awesome stories. But with the recent glut of open-world releases, I’ve craved something different.
Sure, once you’ve played a linear game you’ve played all the encounters, and it might seem like there’s no reason to go back. But by enforcing something different with every objective, a great linear game like Dead Space 2 can feel a lot more exciting than solving a metal cube puzzle for the 85th time. I’m rewatching Lost right now, a piece of entertainment even more linear than Dead Space 2. The series hasn’t changed from when I watched it the first time, but there’s a lot I’ve forgotten. The same holds true for the best linear games — playing them once doesn’t exhaust the entertainment value.
Dead Space 2 is the game for me right now. It’s tight, it’s focused, and it’s wonderful at generating awesome emotions. A month from now, I might find myself craving an open-world game and finally jump back into Mafia 3. Who knows? Picking between games is a lot like finding the right car. When you want to help a friend move, you want a truck. When you want to drive for the sheer fun of it, a sports car is the better choice. No one game can excel at everything, and that’s OK. There’s no right way to make a game, only the right game for the experience you want to have.