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, and is characterized by there being no "right way"
of playing the game. Whether intentional or not, a common
consequence of open-ended gameplay is emergent gameplay.
1.1 Branching storylines
1.1.1 Visual novels
1.1.2 Role-playing games
2 Level design
2.1 Open worlds and sandbox modes
3 Early examples
4 See also
See also: Interactive narrative
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.
More recently[when?], some games have begun offering multiple endings
to increase the dramatic effect of moral choices within the game,
although early examples also exist. 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. 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.
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. For example, several games
from the Wing Commander series offered a branching storyline, but
eventually they were abandoned as too expensive. Nonlinear stories
increase the chances for bugs or absurdities if they are not tested
properly, although they do provide greater player freedom. 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. 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.
A truly nonlinear story would be written entirely by the actions of
the player, and thus remains a difficult design challenge. As such,
there is often little or no story in video games with a truly
nonlinear gameplay. 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.
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. Visual novels are popular in East
Asia, especially in
Japan where they account for nearly 70% of
personal computer games released there. 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.
It is not uncommon for visual novels to have morality systems. A
well-known example is the 2005 title School Days, an animated visual
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"
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.
Fate/stay night is another example that features multiple
Chunsoft sound novels such as Machi (1998) and 428:
Fūsa Sareta Shibuya de (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.
428 in particular
features up to 85 different possible endings.
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. 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.
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 the 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 himself/herself.
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. Star Ocean:
The Second Story in particular offers as many as 86 different
endings with hundreds of permutations, setting a benchmark for the
number of possible outcomes of a video game. 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. A similar type
of conversation system later appeared in a more recent action
role-playing game also published by Sega, Alpha Protocol.
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) and ELF's visual novel
YU-NO: A girl who chants love at the bound of this world (1996).
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.
The player can also travel back and forth between two parallel
timelines, and can obtain many possible parallel endings.
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. Final
Fantasy XIII-2 also
features a similar non-linear time travel system to Radiant
Map recreation of E1M7: Computer Station from the action shooter Doom
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
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.
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
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, or "sandbox game", though this term is often
used incorrectly.[clarification needed]
designs have existed in some form since the 1980s, such as the space
trading game Elite, and often make use of procedurally generated
In a game with a sandbox mode, a player may turn off or ignore game
objectives, or have unlimited access to items. 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, and Garry's Mod.
Early examples (pre-1983) of nonlinear gameplay include:
Colossal Cave Adventure
Colossal Cave Adventure (1976)
Star Raiders (1979)
Temple of Apshai
Temple of Apshai (1979)
Computer Bismarck (1980)
Flight Simulator (1979/1980)
Mystery House (1980)
The Prisoner (1980)
Castle Wolfenstein (1981)
Crush, Crumble and Chomp!
Crush, Crumble and Chomp! (1981)
Star Warrior (1981)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Haunted House (1982)
The Hobbit (1982)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982)
Time Pilot (1982)
Ultima II (1982)
Massively multiplayer online games
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gaming". Ars Technica. Retrieved October 6, 2017. Amazingly,
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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
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MUD is very much like
the classic game Zork, as well as any of the hundreds of text-based
adventure video games that have flourished on personal computers . . .
Your job is to explore the room and its objects and discover treasures
hidden in the labyrinth of other rooms connected to it. You'll
probably need to find a small collection of treasures and clues along
the way to win the mother-lode booty, a search that may involve
breaking a spell, becoming a wizard, slaying a dragon, or escaping
from a dungeon.
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series) was arguably first...
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Temple of Apshai
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structure, the quest merely being to plunder the temple and get filthy
rich. So all the levels are accessible from the very beginning,
although a fresh, uncheated character is likely to get slaughtered
fast in the higher levels.
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into tight corridors. With no room to weave around, bats were helpless
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^ Derboo, Sam (December 17, 2010). "Dunjonquest". Hardcore Gaming 101.
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from, like killing as much civilians as possible or destroying the
whole city . . . When [the monster] finally succumbs to its hunters or
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your wanderings through villages, towns, dungeons, and empty
countryside in search of a time machine that would allow you to travel
back in time a thousand years to kill an evil wizard.
^ Derboo, Sam (December 17, 2010). "Dunjonquest". Hardcore Gaming 101.
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much wanton destruction as possible while proceeding to the far north.
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the beginning of each scenario comes the choice between three combat
suits, which differ in attack strength, shield power, special options
and the like.
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Retrieved 4 April 2018.
Video game genres (List)
Beat 'em up
Hack and slash
Shoot 'em up
Grand Theft Auto clone
Escape the room
Point n' click
Construction and management
Multiplayer online battle arena
Multiplayer video game
Nonviolent video game
Multiplayer online game
Social network game