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Non/linearity in Level Design

Alright, I’m changing this post a bit because I don’t want to make Smike mad (for real, that is) and I also think it has more value as a quaint little putting-the-obvious-into-words(-and-redundant-diagrams) than a failed jab at one of my 4 regular commenters.

Level design primarily has two purposes: Gameplay and aesthetics. Levels in games can either need to look pleasing or realistic – often both, but an equally important and somewhat more fundamental purpose is to make sure the game is fun to play. Depending on the game you’re working on, there can be various different demands the levels need to fulfil. What I perceive as the most basic of these demands is whether or not the level should be linear or non-linear. In my opinion, either can work really well, it simply depends on the nature of your game. Games with linear level design sometimes appeal to different players than games with nonlinear level design, but in my case (and in many others’ I’m sure) a linear game simply provides a different sort of experience.

I have created two simple diagrams to illustrate how significant the difference between linearity and nonlinearity in level design is. If you’ve ever spent any time actually thinking about this, I’m sure it’ll seem extremely self-evident, but it was nice for me to put these concepts into words and illustrate them even though they’re pretty easy to grasp. First of all, here is a level as it might appear in Half-Life – picture a set of corridors and rooms, perhaps a door leading into a courtyard with another building with a conveniently open door on the other side, and more corridors and rooms beyond:


Note how the level channels directly from the entrance to the exit. There may be some optional rooms to explore along the way, but they will be dead ends, you will pretty much be forced to go in a specific direction through the level. If there is a branch in the road, it will invariably be blocked by a locked door or a pile of rubble.

Now regard this non-linear level as it might appear in Deus Ex – picture a part of a city, cordoned-off streets leading to a small plaza around a warehouse. The warehouse has an objective, it could be a generator that must be destroyed (my creativity knows no bounds!), and once you are done you may be extracted from the roof or you may simply be expected to go back the way you came. Also, there may be more than one way to enter this level in the first place, as pictured, and generally there will be several ways to enter the building or room with the objective):


This is clearly a non-linear level, but what’s important to keep in mind is that the level can be linear or nonlinear independently of the narrative. Deus Ex is a great example of a game with nonlinear level design (what I like to refer to as micro-level nonlinearity) but a mostly linear plot (linearity on the macro-level). Here’s a diagram showing selected parts of the plot in Deus Ex:


As you can see, the early plot in Deus Ex is actually fairly nonlinear, as you are given several choices that change people’s perceptions of and reactions to you. You even get to choose when you kill specific characters. However, these plot-critical characters must be killed (and even if you manage to exploit what Harvey Smith calls “undesirable emergence” to avoid killing Anna Navarre, the game will still assume she’s dead after a specific point), and no matter what you do in Deus Ex, you will always travel through the missions in the order intended by the developers. I don’t mean to criticize this, since it has allowed for a pleasingly structured and satisfying narrative. I simply mean to point out the difference between micro- and macro-level linearity, which I think is very interesting.

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25 Responses

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  1. Smike says

    Jonas, I was referencing narrative. The whole time I was referencing narrative. But I love what you’ve done here, very nice and organized, clear diagrams and such. Well done. Would calling you wrong ruin the joke? I can’t tell.

  2. Smike says

    Oh and the response you are looking for is “Oh, right. In that case, nevermind.”

  3. Jonas says

    Hahah no I don’t think so. Because I’ve been talking about level design from the get go, and you’ve been insisting linearity or nonlinearity pertains entirely to narrative. That’s what you said, Smike, “something can’t be linear if it doesn’t have a story”. Well it can. And I’m glad you admit it, because clearly that means I win.

    Or I guess it more correctly means that it was a misunderstanding and we’ve cleared it up now and apparently we agreed all along. Still, I’m happy with my diagrams. I made one of the DX story structure too, but I’m saving it for a later post :P

  4. Shacker says

    The level design in Jonas’s blog is pretty linear, just one post after another but the story seems pretty nonlinear, I’m guessing I’ll convince Jonas to be a dog person my second time through.

  5. Jonas says

    I’m sorry but that option was never implemented in the blog. Too many conflicts during testing. Maybe you can find a mod that’ll re-introduce that storyline.

  6. Shacker says

    The NAG-Jonas toolset isn’t entirely user friendly, so probably not.

  7. EER says

    I’ll just add value by posting a more accurate version of Jonas’ schematics:
    http://img98.imageshack.us/my.php?image=linearitylh8.png

  8. Jonas says

    Hahah that’s true, EER. The thing is though that Sim City HAS no levels. Nor any story. Nor any goddamn structure in the first place. Sim City is nonlinear in the same way that LEGO is. MY DESK is non-linear. Oh joy.

  9. EER says

    Exactly! Sheer brilliance!

  10. fox says

    Do you guys know that there’s the already an addon for DESK? It’s called CHAIR. Pretty solid from what I’ve seen. COUCH plays in the same world but focuses on the multiplayer part.

  11. Jonas says

    Psscht, I had Chair since the beta. They’ve ironed out most of the bugs, so I’m pretty happy with it now, but I still think Desk is too linear. I use it every day and it never changes. I even tried spilling some coffee on it or scratching it, but the changes are only aesthetic, it still doesn’t change the fundamental way Desk plays. So pretty disappointing all-around.

  12. Smike says

    At the top of this post you say that I said something that I never said. You’ve taken it out of context and twisted it to mean something I never intended. Then you quoted me. I definitely don’t give you permission to use that quote, and I definitely find what you’ve done here to be wrong and entirely reprehensible. And it’s not funny to me. I’ve not claimed that anything that I have said here is wrong when kept in context, and certainly there is nothing for you to “win” here, except my contempt for your actions. You certainly win that.

  13. Shacker says

    Your diagram implies that Sim City has some kind of end, EER. LIES, LIES AND SLANDER.

    Also Smike, Jonas’s quote, within context, does not look any different to me. After Jonas was clearly talking about gameplay you brought up narrative as if it was the only context in which linearity could be used. If that was not intentional then that’s fine, you can chalk it up to miscommunication but what you can’t do is claim that Jonas somehow misrepresented your verbiage, because he didn’t.

  14. EER says

    @Shacker: If you play Sim City for 65537 days straight, it WILL end in a flaming firebolt. Try it.

  15. Jonas says

    Alright Smike, keep your hair on. I’ve re-written the post, hopefully this’ll make it more interesting too.

  16. EER says

    In battery park, you can also choose to say ‘screw you anna’ and go directly to Hell’s kitchen. I saw it in some speed run video, typically something you’d only do to save time.

  17. Jonas says

    Oh yeah, you can do that too. DX is really surprisingly nonlinear in the beginning. But it still doesn’t change the order of the levels. Oh! Except you can completely skip the sewers where Ford Shick is held, can’t you? Maybe not the best example of a linear plot, perhaps Oblivion would’ve been better – 95% nonlinear world, 95% linear plot :P

  18. EER says

    I would just call them the main quest and side quests. Not only can you skip that, you can also skip Smuggler, the main quest is still fairly linear (as is each of the side quests).

    Al the different quest lines in Oblivion are very linear storywise, but because of the fact there are about 6 main quest lines and a vast amount of sidequests, which can be completed in any random order, it doesn’t feel linear. So while you can’t change the order in which you perform the sequence of things in the main quest, you CAN wander off from it, and come back 40 hrs later to continue where you’ve left off, or not. Beautiful freedom (though not for everyone) :)

  19. Smike says

    Jonas, thank you, this is fine.

  20. Jonas says

    EER: Yeah that’s what my paper from last semester, The Simulated Story, was about, actually. I’m sure I’ll get around to translating that eventually. Or not. I know you’re all just faking interest anyway ;)

  21. fox says

    I loved the freedom of Oblivion and I liked the way how the game shows the path for main story very clear and makes it easy to follow/resume contrary to Morrowind. The game had issues wit other things like interface and the auto-leveling of the enemies but the freedom, graphics design and sound (although they used some voice actors too often) were brilliant. I hope they continue to develope games with this amount of freedom but minus the issues and with fresher settings.

  22. Jonas says

    I had a really hard time figuring out why I didn’t love Oblivion, why it wasn’t the perfect game when it came to narrative freedom. Unfortunately it turned out to be a very complex understanding to achieve, and it’s not very easy to summarize. It’s all in my paper :P

  23. EER says

    You should have included a management summary ;)

    I did read a large part of it though, but I kind of lost interest because I was getting tired and could understand less and less of it. I will complete reading it one day though. But first a beginners course in Danish is in order ;)

  24. Smike says

    Hey, you have three times less words to worry about. Although I don’t know what the deal with Dutch is.

    But hey, Jonas, if you translated it I’d read it in a night. Really. And EER would too. And uh, you could post a link on OTP! And PDX. And TNM’s comments sections… I’m sure there’d be some folks interested.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Difficult Dynamic Difficulty Adjustments | Designosis.Net linked to this post on November 5, 2008

    [...] But for a fairly good overview (recommending the non-linear way) you can take a look at Jonas post here. I will write about the subject [...]

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