Nonlinear gameplay

A video game with nonlinear gameplay presents players with challenges that can be completed in a number of different sequences. Each player may take on (or even encounter) only some of the challenges possible, and the same challenges may be played in a different order. Conversely, a video game with linear gameplay will confront a player with a fixed sequence of challenges: every player faces every challenge and has to overcome them in the same order.

A nonlinear game will allow greater player freedom than a linear game. For example, a nonlinear game may permit multiple sequences to finish the game, a choice between paths to victory, different types of victory, or optional side-quests and subplots. Some games feature both linear and nonlinear elements, and some games offer a sandbox mode that allows players to explore an open-world game environment independently from the game's main objectives, if any objectives are provided at all.

A game that is significantly nonlinear is sometimes described as being open-ended or a sandbox, though that term is used incorrectly in those cases,[1][2][3][4] and is characterized by there being no "right way" of playing the game.[5] Whether intentional or not, a common consequence of open-ended gameplay is emergent gameplay.[4]

001 Punishment, Thy Name is Ruin
The "Pure Dark" pathway in Shadow the Hedgehog.


Branching storylines

Games that employ linear stories are those where the player cannot change the story line or ending of the story. Many video games use a linear structure, thus making them more similar to other fiction. However, it is common for such games to use interactive narration in which a player needs to interact with something before the plot will advance, or nonlinear narratives in which events are portrayed in a non-chronological order. Many games have offered premature endings should the player fail to meet an objective, but these are usually just interruptions in a player's progress rather than actual endings. Even in games with a linear story, players interact with the game world by performing a variety of actions along the way.[6]

More recently, some games have begun offering multiple endings to increase the dramatic effect of moral choices within the game, although early examples also exist.[6] Still, some games have gone beyond small choices or special endings, offering a branching storyline, known as an interactive narrative, that players may control at critical points in the game. Sometimes the player is given a choice of which branch of the plot to follow, while sometimes the path will be based on the player's success or failure at a specific challenge.[6] For example, Black Isle Studios' Fallout series of role-playing video games features numerous quests where player actions dictate the outcome of the story behind the objectives. Players can eliminate in-game characters permanently from the virtual world should they choose to do so, and by doing so may actually alter the number and type of quests that become available to them as the game progresses. The effects of such decisions may not be immediate. Branches of the story may merge or split at different points in the game, but seldom allow backtracking. Some games even allow for different starting points, and one way this is done is through a character selection screen.[6]

Despite experimenting with several nonlinear storytelling mechanisms in the 1990s, the game industry has largely returned to the practice of linear storytelling. Linear stories cost less time and money to develop, since there is only one fixed sequence of events and no major decisions to keep track of.[6] For example, several games from the Wing Commander series offered a branching storyline,[7] but eventually they were abandoned as too expensive.[6] Nonlinear stories increase the chances for bugs or absurdities if they are not tested properly, although they do provide greater player freedom.[6] Some players have also responded negatively to branching stories because it is hard and tedious for them to experience the "full value" of all the game's content.[6] As a compromise between linear and branching stories, there are also games where stories split into branches and then fold back into a single storyline. In these stories, the plot will branch, but then converge upon some inevitable event, giving the impression of a Nonlinear gameplay through the use of nonlinear narrative, without the use of interactive narratives. This is typically used in many graphic adventure games.[6]

A truly nonlinear story would be written entirely by the actions of the player, and thus remains a difficult design challenge.[8] As such, there is often little or no story in video games with a truly nonlinear gameplay.[8] Facade, a video game often categorized as an interactive drama, features many branching paths that are dictated by the user's text input based on the current situation, but there is still a set number of outcomes as a result of the inherent limitations of programming, and as such, is non-linear, but not entirely so.

Visual novels

Branching storylines are a common trend in visual novels, a subgenre of interactive narrative and adventure games. Visual novels frequently use multiple branching storylines to achieve multiple different endings, allowing non-linear freedom of choice along the way. Decision points within a visual novel often present players with the option of altering the course of events during the game, leading to many different possible outcomes.[9][10] Visual novels are popular in East Asia, especially in Japan where they account for nearly 70% of personal computer games released there.[11] A recent acclaimed example is 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, where nearly every action and dialogue choice can lead to entirely new branching paths and endings. Each path only reveals certain aspects of the overall storyline and it is only after uncovering all the possible different paths and outcomes through multiple playthroughs that everything comes together to form a coherent well-written story.[12]

It is not uncommon for visual novels to have morality systems. A well-known example is the 2005 title School Days, an animated visual novel that Kotaku describes as going well beyond the usual "black and white choice systems" (referring to video games such as Mass Effect, Fallout 3 and BioShock) where you "pick a side and stick with it" while leaving "the expansive middle area between unexplored." School Days instead encourages players to explore the grey, neutral middle-ground in order to view the more interesting, "bad" endings.[13]

It is also not uncommon for visual novels to have multiple protagonists giving different perspectives on the story. C's Ware's EVE Burst Error (1995) introduced a unique twist to the system by allowing the player to switch between both protagonists at any time during the game, instead of finishing one protagonist's scenario before playing the other. EVE Burst Error often requires the player to have both protagonists co-operate with each other at various points during the game, with choices in one scenario affecting the other.[14] Fate/stay night is another example that features multiple perspectives.[15] Chunsoft sound novels such as Machi (1998) and 428: Shibuya Scramble (2008) develop this concept further, by allowing the player to alternate between the perspectives of several or more different characters, making choices with one character that have consequences for other characters.[16][17] 428 in particular features up to 85 different possible endings.[17]

Another approach to non-linear storytelling can be seen in Cosmology of Kyoto. The game lacks an overall plot, but it instead presents fragmented narratives and situations in a non-linear manner, as the player character encounters various non-player characters while wandering the city. These narratives are cross-referenced to an encyclopedia, providing background information as the narratives progress and as the player comes across various characters and locations, with various stories, situations and related information appearing at distinct locations.[18] It provides enough freedom to allow for the player to experiment with the game, such as using it as a resource for their own role-playing game campaign, for example.[19]

Role-playing games

Branching storylines are also often used in role-playing video games (RPGs) to an extent. An early example, published in 1999, is the fantasy role-playing game Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor, where players have to choose between Light and Dark. While the dark side wants to destroy the world of Enroth, the light side tries to save it. The choice determines which grandmaster levels the player characters can obtain and the quests they have to do in that part of the game. Earlier in the game, the player already has to choose sides in a border conflict between Elves and Humans, or remain neutral. This affects the flag in their Castle Harmondale and a few quests, but not the final outcome.

A second example is Obsidian Entertainment's Fallout: New Vegas, where the player's decisions influence whether one of three different factions gain control of the area surrounding post-apocalyptic Las Vegas. These factions include Caesar's Legion, a group of Roman-esque slavers; the New California Republic (NCR), an expansionist military government; and Mr. House, the enigmatic de facto ruler of New Vegas, in command of an army of robots that patrols the city. Each of the three sides aim to control Hoover Dam, which is still operational and supplying the American Southwest with power and clean, non-irradiated water; thus, control of the dam means effective control of the region. A fourth option, siding with a robot named Yes Man and prevailing upon or eliminating the other faction leaders, enables the player to go solo and take over the Hoover Dam for themselves.

Another RPG example is tri-Ace's Star Ocean series, where the storyline is not affected by moral alignments like in other role-playing games but, inspired by dating sims, by friendship and relationship points between each of the characters.[20] Star Ocean: The Second Story in particular offers as many as 86 different endings[21] with hundreds of permutations, setting a benchmark for the number of possible outcomes of a video game.[20] Another unique variation of this system is the Sakura Wars series, which features a real-time branching choice system where, during an event or conversation, the player must choose an action or dialogue choice within a time limit, or not to respond at all within that time; the player's choice, or lack thereof, affects the player character's relationship with other characters and in turn the direction and outcome of the storyline. Later games in the series added several variations, including an action gauge that can be raised up or down depending on the situation, and a gauge that the player can manipulate using the analog stick depending on the situation.[22] A similar type of conversation system later appeared in a more recent action role-playing game also published by Sega, Alpha Protocol.[23]

Another unique take on the concept is combining non-linear branching storytelling with the concepts of time travel and parallel universes. Early attempts at such an approach included Squaresoft's Chrono role-playing game series (1995–1999)[24] and ELF's visual novel YU-NO: A girl who chants love at the bound of this world (1996).[25] Radiant Historia takes it further by giving players the freedom to travel backwards and forwards through a timeline to alter the course of history, with each of their choices and actions significantly affect the timeline. The player can return to certain points in history and live through certain events again to make different choices and see different possible outcomes on the timeline.[24][26] The player can also travel back and forth between two parallel timelines,[27][28] and can obtain many possible parallel endings.[29] The PSP version of Tactics Ogre featured a "World" system that allows players to revisit key plot points and make different choices to see how the story unfolds differently.[30] Final Fantasy XIII-2 also features a similar non-linear time travel system to Radiant Historia.[31]

Level design

Map recreation of E1M7: Computer Station from the action shooter Doom
Oolite galactic map
Galactic trade map of the space trading and combat simulator, Oolite.

A game level or world can be linear, nonlinear or interactive. In a linear game, there is only one path that the player must take through the level, however, in games with nonlinear gameplay, players might have to revisit locations or choose from multiple paths to finish the level.

As with other game elements, linear level design is not absolute. While a nonlinear level can give the freedom to explore or backtrack, there can be a sequence of challenges that a player must solve to complete the level. If a player must confront the challenges in a fixed order nonlinear games will often give multiple approaches to achieve said objectives.

A more linear game requires a player to finish levels in a fixed sequence to win. The ability to skip, repeat, or choose between levels makes this type of game less linear. Super Mario Bros. is an early example of this, where the player had access to warp zones that skipped many levels of the game.

In some games, levels can change between linear design and free roaming depending on the objective of the stage. Super Mario 64 is an example where the main stages are free roam, while the levels where Bowser is encountered follow a straight path to the end.

Open worlds and sandbox modes

When a level is sufficiently large and open-ended, it may be described as an open world,[32] or "sandbox game", though this term is often used incorrectly.[33][34] Open-world game designs have existed in some form since the 1980s, such as the space trading game Elite, and often make use of procedurally generated environments.

In a game with a sandbox mode, a player may turn off or ignore game objectives, or have unlimited access to items.[35] This can open up possibilities that were not intended by the game designer. A sandbox mode is an option in otherwise goal-oriented games and is distinguished from open-ended games that have no objectives, such as SimCity,[35] and Garry's Mod.[36]

Early examples

Early examples (pre-1983) of nonlinear gameplay include:

See also


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  37. ^ Moss, Richard (March 25, 2017). "Roam free: A history of open-world gaming". Ars Technica. Retrieved October 6, 2017. Amazingly, open-world games can be traced back to the days of mainframes—namely, to the 1976 text-only game Colossal Cave Adventure for the PDP-10. Adventure at its core wasn't much different to the GTAs, Elites, and Minecrafts of today: you could explore, freely, in any direction, and your only goals were to find treasure (which is scattered throughout the cave) and to escape with your life.
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Castlevania () is an action-adventure gothic horror video game series created and developed by Konami. It has been released on various platforms, from early systems to modern consoles, as well as handheld devices such as mobile phones. The franchise has also expanded into other media, including comic books, an animated TV series and several spin-off video games.Castlevania is largely set in the eponymous castle of Count Dracula, the main antagonist of the Belmont clan of vampire hunters. It debuted with 1986's Castlevania for the Family Computer Disk System. The first entry and the majority of its sequels are side-scrolling action platformers, and were later succeeded by the 1997 game, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Originally released for the PlayStation, it returned to the nonlinear gameplay seen in Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, which introduced RPG elements and exploration. Several installments later adopted Symphony of the Night's gameplay, and along with Super Metroid, it has popularized the Metroidvania genre. 2010 saw the release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a 3D action-adventure reboot of the series developed by MercurySteam.It is one of Konami's most critically acclaimed franchises and also one of the best-selling of all time.

Cholo (video game)

Cholo is a wireframe 3D computer game with nonlinear gameplay originally released in 1986 for the BBC Micro. It was ported to the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and Commodore 64. Cholo's gameplay is similar to that of Paradroid, but with wireframe graphics.


Gameplay is the specific way in which players interact with a game, and in particular with video games. Gameplay is the pattern defined through the game rules, connection between player and the game, challenges and overcoming them, plot and player's connection with it. Video game gameplay is distinct from graphics and audio elements.


Illbleed is a survival horror video game developed by Crazy Games for the Sega Dreamcast. It was self-released in Japan in March 2001, and published by AIA in North America in April 2001.Despite being financially unsuccessful, Illbleed received a cult following for its notable combination of nonlinear gameplay elements and its "B-movie" style comedy horror theme, dialogue, and voice acting.

Mega Man (video game)

Mega Man, known as Rockman (ロックマン, Rokkuman) in Japan, is a 1987 action-platform video game developed and published by Capcom for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). It was directed by Akira Kitamura, with Nobuyuki Matsushima as lead programmer, and is the first game of the Mega Man franchise and the original video game series. Mega Man was produced by a small team specifically for the home console market, a first for Capcom, who previously focused on arcade titles.

The game begins the struggle of the humanoid robot and player-character Mega Man against the mad scientist Dr. Wily and the six Robot Masters under his control. Mega Man's nonlinear gameplay lets the player choose the order in which to complete its initial six stages. Each culminates in a "Robot Master" boss battle that awards the player-character a unique weapon.

Critics praised Mega Man for its overall design, though the game was not a commercial success. Mega Man established many of the gameplay, story, and graphical conventions that define the ensuing sequels, subseries, and spin-offs. The game has since been included in game compilations and rereleased on mobile phones, console emulation services. It received a full 3D remake titled Mega Man Powered Up in 2006.


Metroid is a science fiction action game franchise created by Nintendo. The series is primarily produced by the company's first-party developers Nintendo R&D1 and Retro Studios, although some games have been handled by other developers, including Fuse Games, Team Ninja, Next Level Games, and MercurySteam.

Metroid follows space-faring bounty hunter Samus Aran, who protects the galaxy from the Space Pirates and their attempts to harness the power of the parasitic Metroid creatures. Metroid combines the platforming of Super Mario Bros. and the adventure of The Legend of Zelda with a dark science fiction atmosphere and greater emphasis on nonlinear gameplay.

The series consists of fourteen games that were released on almost every Nintendo video game console. It is one of Nintendo's most successful franchises, and the games have received varying levels of critical acclaim. As of September 2012, the Metroid series had sold over 17.44 million copies. The series has been represented in other Nintendo media, including the Super Smash Bros. series. Additional media includes soundtracks, comic books, and manga.

Nonlinearity (disambiguation)

Nonlinear generally refers to a situation that has a disproportionate cause and effect.

Out Run

Out Run is an arcade game released by Sega in 1986. It was designed by Yu Suzuki. The game was a critical and commercial success, becoming one of the best-selling video games of its time. It is notable for its pioneering hardware and graphics, and innovative features such as a selectable soundtrack with music composed by Hiroshi Kawaguchi, along with nonlinear gameplay.

Rolando 2

Rolando 2: Quest for the Golden Orchid is an adventure video game developed by HandCircus, published by ngmoco, and distributed by Apple Inc. for iPhone and iPod Touch. Rolando 2 was released on July 3, 2009. It is the sequel to Rolando, which was released in 2008. The game follows creatures called "Rolandos" who can be moved around the playing areas by players via the iPhone's accelerometer and the multi-touch features. The game features artwork by Mikko Walamies and music by Mr. Scruff. The game features nonlinear gameplay where players decide how the story plays out.

Saints Row

Saints Row is an action-adventure video game series created by Volition and published by Deep Silver, that tells the story of a gang called the Third Street Saints; the title comes from the name of the district of the gang's home territory. Typically, gameplay is presented in an open world format because of the mixture of nonlinear gameplay with action-adventure and racing sequences. The series is known for its comedic elements. The games' stories are written as comedies that feature popular culture homages and parodies, as well as self-referential humor.

After completing Red Faction II in late 2002, developer Volition began work on the original Saints Row game in mid-2003. The game was released in 2006 to critical acclaim and commercial success. The sequel, Saints Row 2, was released in 2008 to similar acclaim but greater commercial success. The series' third entry, Saints Row: The Third, was released on 15 November 2011. The series' fourth entry, Saints Row IV was released on 20 August 2013, with an expansion called Gat out of Hell released on 20 January 2015 in North America and 23 January 2015 in Europe. As of September 2013, the series has had unit sales in excess of 13 million, making it one of the best-selling video game franchises of all time.

Shadow the Hedgehog (video game)

Shadow the Hedgehog is a 2005 platform game developed by Sega Studios USA, the former United States division of Sonic Team, and published by Sega. It is a spin-off from the Sonic the Hedgehog series and follows Shadow the Hedgehog, a creation of Doctor Eggman's grandfather, Professor Gerald Robotnik, as he attempts to learn about his past while suffering from amnesia. Shadow the Hedgehog introduces third-person shooter elements and nonlinear gameplay to the Sonic franchise. To defeat enemies, Shadow can use various weapons and special attacks, and most levels have three possible missions that the player may choose to complete. The missions completed determine the game's plot and subsequently playable levels.

The development team wanted to make a game featuring Shadow to capitalize on the character's popularity and resolve plot mysteries that began with his introduction in Sonic Adventure 2. Director Takashi Iizuka, who targeted a younger audience with previous Sonic games, strove to attract an older audience with Shadow the Hedgehog; Shadow's darker character also allowed the team to use elements otherwise inappropriate for the series. The game was revealed at the March 2005 Walk of Game event, and was released for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox video game consoles in November 2005.

Shadow the Hedgehog received generally unfavorable reviews from critics, who disliked its controls, plot, and dark themes, and took particular issue with the addition of guns and other weapons to traditional Sonic gameplay. However, some praised its replay value and it went on to become a commercial success, selling 2.06 million copies by March 2007.


TX-1 is a 1983 racing arcade video game developed by Tatsumi. It was licensed to Namco, who in turn licensed it to Atari for release in the United States, thus the game is considered a successor to Pole Position II. It was also released in the United Kingdom, Ireland and mainland Europe via Atari Ireland.

TX-1 placed a greater emphasis on realistic simulation racing than previous games in the genre, with details such as forcing players to brake or downshift the gear during corners to avoid the risk of losing control, and let go of the accelerator when going into a skid in order to regain control of the steering. It was also the first car driving game to use force feedback technology, which caused the steering wheel to vibrate, and the game also featured a unique three-screen arcade display for a more three-dimensional perspective of the track. It also introduced nonlinear gameplay by allowing players to choose which path to drive through after each checkpoint, eventually leading to one of eight possible final destinations.A sequel game, TX-1 V8, was released by Tatsumi in 1984 and was licensed to Namco, however this game was not licensed by Atari and was extremely rare in North America.

The Forest (video game)

The Forest is a survival video game developed and published by Canadian studio Endnight Games. The game takes place on a remote, heavily forested peninsula where the player character Eric Leblanc and his son Timmy are survivors of a plane crash. The game features nonlinear gameplay in an open world environment played from a first-person perspective, with no set missions or quests, empowering the player to make their own decisions for survival. The game was released for Microsoft Windows in April 2018 following a three-year long early access beta phase, as well as for the PlayStation 4 in November 2018. By the end of 2018, The Forest had sold over five million copies.

The Portopia Serial Murder Case

Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (Japanese: ポートピア連続殺人事件), often translated to The Portopia Serial Murder Case in English, is an adventure game designed by Yuji Horii and published by Enix. It was first released on the NEC PC-6001 in June 1983, and has since been ported to other personal computers, the Nintendo Famicom, and mobile phone services.

In the game, the player must resolve a murder mystery by searching for clues, exploring different areas, interacting with characters, and solving item-based puzzles. The game features first-person graphics, nonlinear gameplay, an open world, conversations with non-player characters, branching dialogue choices, suspect interrogations, nonlinear storytelling, and plot twists. The Famicom version also features a command menu system, point-and-click interface, and 3D dungeon maze. Upon its release, The Portopia Serial Murder Case was well received in Japan. It became an influential title and helped define the visual novel genre.


VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (also sometimes written as Valhalla) is an indie bartender simulation video game with visual novel elements as well as cyberpunk, PC-98 and anime-inspired visuals, developed by Venezuelan studio Sukeban Games and published by Ysbryd Games for Microsoft Windows, OS X, and Linux on June 21, 2016. The PlayStation Vita port was developed by Wolfgame and published by Limited Run Games. The game puts the player in the role of a bartender at the eponymous VA-11 HALL-A, a small bar in a dystopian downtown which is said to attract the "most fascinating" of people. The gameplay consists of players making and serving drinks to bar attendees whilst listening to the stories and experiences of these said characters.

VA-11 HALL-A contains nonlinear gameplay, with the game's plotline being influenced by the drinks the player makes and how the customers react to them. There are no dialogue options within the game, with making different drinks being the sole way to influence the direction of the story. VA-11 HALL-A features a diverse range of characters that have been described as "average non-heroes", with developers noting how they were based on side characters that were never truly fleshed out in movies. Over time, the player begins to know the characters well enough to infer what drinks they want, resulting in an intimate experience.

VA-11 HALL-A was originally developed for the Cyberpunk Game Jam of 2014; however, Sukeban Games liked the game so much that they eventually turned it into a full game. The original planned release date of December 2014 has since been moved back multiple times due to delays, including when the developers changed the game engine. VA-11 HALL-A draws heavy influences from old PC-98 games, resulting in a retro yet futuristic look, as well as the developers' own experiences of living in a poorer country. The game's original prototype is downloadable for free on the game's official website, and players who pre-order gain access to a playable yet separate prologue. VA-11 HALL-A has garnered pre-release critical acclaim, while post-game reception was mostly favourable, with positive reception directed at its premise, cast of characters, and music. However, occasional reviewers perceived the game's dialogue as unrealistic and the gameplay as repetitive. A sequel, N1RV Ann-A, is scheduled for a 2020 release.

Yu Suzuki

Yu Suzuki (鈴木 裕, Suzuki Yū, born June 10, 1958) is a Japanese game designer, producer, programmer, and engineer, who headed Sega's AM2 team for 18 years. He has been responsible for several of Sega's arcade hits, including three-dimensional sprite/texture-scaling games such as Hang-On, Space Harrier, Out Run, and After Burner, and pioneering polygonal 3D games such as Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter, which are credited with popularizing 3D graphics in video games, as well as the critically acclaimed Shenmue series of open world adventure games. As a hardware engineer, he led the development of various arcade system boards, including the Sega Space Harrier, Model 1, Model 2, and Model 3, and was involved in the development of the Dreamcast console and its corresponding NAOMI arcade hardware.In 2003, Suzuki became the sixth person to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame. IGN listed him at #9 in their Top 100 Game Creators of All Time list. In 2011, he received the Pioneer Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards.

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