Linearity. Emergence. Convergence pt.6
Monday, June 25, 2012 at 9:58PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Emergence, Language, Level Design, Rhythm Heaven

A Quick Recap




At this point, I have to introduce a new term to continue this discussion. What many call linear level design I'm going to call straightforward level design (straight design for short). With straightforward level design what you see is mostly what you get. Think Rhythm Heaven for the DS. Whether or not the gameplay is actually non-linear, straightforward level challenges appear to only offer one clear, "right" way to play. Straightforward design is like clean design in that the feedback and presentation of the level greatly informs the player of the challenge leaving few surprises or tricks for players to guess about or learn through blind trial-and-error. For these reasons, straightforward design tends to be less complex and feature linear gameplay. After all, if there are many complexities to a gameplay challenge and many options for the player to consider then it's less likely that the presentation of the challenge will be clearly conveyed. Straightforward level design sharply contrasts with open level design. As you might expect, open level design gives the player many options on where to go (free roaming/exploration of environments), what to do (mechanics), and when to act (sequence). 

For the following investigation I will specifically consider straightforward and open level design instead of linear and emergent level design. As categories linear level design is too specific and emergent level design is too broad. Instead straightforward and open level design work on a smoother spectrum and better match gamer expectations of these concepts. The following is an analyses of when the nature of such designs clash. 


Straightforward vs Gameplay Design

We'll start by analyzing what happens when the nature of gameplay meets a straightforward design. Straightforwardness and gameplay create a very stable and compatible combination. Such games present a clear challenge that says "can you do it this way?" and the player attempts to do it. If the player fails, the straightforward presentation gives excellent feedback to inform players of what they did wrong. The linearity associated with straightforward design provides a strong, ridged structure that's great for learning in the same way that a series of lessons can be highly instructional. When one needs to learn complex concepts that are built upon other concepts, learning in order becomes very important. Clear goals and clear feedback are also important qualities for learning that are inherent to straightforward level design (read more on goal-setting theory here); these qualities come naturally in straightforward games. With one clear way to go about winning players are not likely to drift from the core experience.


 Compare the image above with the image found here

There's not much of the squeeze in straightforward level design. It's hard to have a lot of expectations about the gameplay when there are typically few options to use and little to do outside of the presented challenge. Also due to the low complexity of straightforward level design, there's not much of a "new, unique world" that opens up after learning the system. Part of what makes straightforward level design straightforward is that the challenge is up front about what players need to do to win and what the experience will be like when they do. Straightforward level challenges comes "pre squeezed" so to speak. Because everything is so clearly presented, players sort of squeeze or apply themselves to the challenge right off the bat, which isn't such a significant undertaking because the challenge is mostly likely fairly simple. There are so few surprises in the gameplay of Rhythm Heaven, for example. 

With the kind of tight, guided control designers have using straightforward level design, gameplay challenges and ideas conveyed through gameplay can be spelled out. Just like the rhythm, flow, and grammar in literature, music, and film, the linear nature of straightforward level design gives video games the same kinds of expressive tools. With these tools designers can shape the player experience to a fine degree by controlling the order of the challenges. The most obvious application of straightforward level design is tutorial levels. By requiring players to prove they understand concepts by successfully completing level challenges, designers can be very confident that players have certain skills and experiences. But it's important to think of all gameplay challenges as a tutorial; or at least consider that all gameplay experiences aim to teach, illuminate, and convey ideas. With such strong control, the onus is on the developers to convey information in a context or in an order that is the most meaningful. 

The biggest downside to straightforward gameplay design is that players will eventually hit a wall in their learning/skill building process. These walls come up naturally and mostly require the player to rest to allow their brain to build the neuro-networks around the newly learned information. In straightforward game design, the player must "do it the right way" or fail. So, there isn't a lot of in-game activities or low skill challenges for players to do to "rest." This means that struggling players will either ram their head against the challenge (which doesn't speed up the learning process and perhaps only adds to the frustration) or they will put the game down to come back later. Put another way, straightforward level design may provide a great tutorial experience, but it can't answer the contextual questions of the player. The reason I bring this up is because many gamers may find this frustratingly inflexible.  


The intrinsic motivators of power and curiosity are at odds with each other. The more you are motivated by curiosity, the stronger the desire to test your new understanding becomes. And against increasingly difficult challenges, the more you fail, the more motivated you become to switch over to an learning playstyle to build your skills up. As this pendulum of motivation swings back and forth, it can be very stressful and dangerous to fun if the user is significantly restricted from freely moving between these motivations. Being forced to learn when one expects to flex or being prevented from learning when one desires to understand can cause players to lose motivation and therefore lose play and fun.  ~ From my series The Zero-Sum Funomaly



In conclusion Straightforward level design in its inflexible rigidity creates experiences players have to mold themselves around (it's not much of a squeeze). By greatly controlling the experience, straightforward design can most consistently and clearly convey rich, detailed, and complex ideas. This is exactly the kind of design that makes for great gameplay experiences. With straightforward design there are few surprises because what you see is what you get. But many players want more than this. Many gamers want more complexity and more options. 


In part 7 we'll look at what happens when an emergent nature meets game design.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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