So, I got a comment on my post about linearization that brought up some issues I'd like to discuss. These are issues of flow and narrative.
Oldschool RPGs tended to have a very specific kind of play style, and that play style was "play for an hour, realize you built your party wrong, restart, play for two hours, realize you built your party wrong, restart, play for five hours, realize you built..."
Of course, during the play you also tended to do a lot of random wandering around, essentially meaning that there was some downtime.
These days, all those "dead ends" have been polished off.
I say that's a bad move.
I say those dead ends are part of the enjoyment of the game for a substantial number of games. A game designer can't think of a player restarting the game as failure, because the player isn't actually starting from the beginning. The player is starting with a lot more knowledge than they originally possessed.
They have, in essence, just cleared level one of the "party building" game, and are now moving on to level two.
Perhaps it can be taken too far, sure, but there's a lot to be said for it. The best ten hours of Oblivion are the first ten hours, and I've played them more than a dozen times. That's where all the play density is.
Now, Greg's comment pointed out that it is often in everyone's best interests to prevent the player from make bad narrative decisions (such as, say, wandering off into the middle of nowhere instead of doing something cool).
I say this thinking is what is wrong with so many of today's games. There is an inherent arrogance in this kind of narrativist thinking, a kind of "play the game like I tell you" vibe. It's become so common that it's hard to see because we're in the thick of it.
The essence of my argument is that if you have to limit a player in order to insure they have the best experience, you're not designing a game. You're designing a movie.
Games, by their nature, have limits. You can't create a game where the player can do anything, because it would be (A) boring very quickly and (B) impossible to program. But limits come in a lot of different varieties.
Some limits make the game deeper. For example, in Daggerfall you can equip shoes, pants, a shirt, and a cloak (if I remember right). You can't equip eighteen pairs of shoes.
These limits make the gameplay denser, because they make you have to choose between the options you are faced with. If you have shoes that let you walk on water and shoes that give you an armor bonus, which will you wear? It really matters, unlike the choices between shoes that give you 2% better armor or shoes that give you 2% better mana regen. Why bother making a choice with such boring and inconsequential results?
These gameplay decisions allow (or prevent) you to express yourself as a player. I doubt any two people ever played Daggerfall and ended up with the same character. There are just so many ways to express your preferences and choose your path... even if the plot is linear. The limits on the gameplay are designed to make the gameplay deeper.
But there are other kinds of limits, and we're seeing them more and more these days. Every RPG these days features fewer components, fewer choices, more "carefully balanced" so that you can't possibly make a WRONG choice. We're seeing the glorification of time - your power level depends 99% on how long you spend grinding. Sure, you can spend all that time and end up with a shitty character, but only if you have the brain of an eight year old with severe head trauma. The path to normalcy is quite clear.
So the fact that old games had linear stories and some modern games don't is irrelevant. The amount of freedom and agency you get by being able to choose good or evil in the last ten minutes of the game pales in comparison to having to balance eight pieces of equipment for each of your four party members. That it can even be considered a step up shows that mainstream designers have a pathetic lack of understanding as to what a game is.
There is certainly room for games of physical skill, where you're jumping and aiming and so forth. In those games, it is less important to have this kind of deeper statistical gameplay.
But why is it that even Fallout 3 has shitty statistical gameplay? Even Fallout 3 is dumbed down to the point where you can't express yourself because the dominant strategies are so clear. This, the "paragon" of "open world games", with all the gameplay of a buried ET cartridge. Carefully dumbed down so you won't ever feel TOO challenged.
That's crap! It's crap! You don't PLAY modern games, you EXPERIENCE them. That's worthless! Why am I watching this 45-hour-long movie where I have to push buttons?
Is it any wonder that I've begun to hate RPGs in favor of action titles? Because action titles put that shitty complexity on top of a skill challenge, while RPGs just have the shitty complexity?
Give me back my paintbrush. Let me excel. Let me fail. I don't even care if your story is as linear and nonsensical as a marmoset fired from a cannon.