Linear vs Open RPGs

Still in the ME vein of things, given that it’s the series I’m waist deep in. A reminder that the games came out in 2007, 2010, 2012 and then 2017. Why do those dates matter?

  • 2007 had Bioshock and The Witcher
  • 2010 had Dragon Age and Fallout New Vegas
  • 2012 had XCOM, Dragon’s Dogma (Skyrim was 2011)
  • 2017 had Divinity 2, Breath of the Wild, and Horizon


Those are potential markers for what the gaming landscape was at the time. ME1 didn’t have much competition, starting a new genre at the time. Also explains why the game was linear, and the options were really lower quality than the main line. Bioshock was a better game in nearly all aspects.

ME2 is different. Dragon Age and FO:NV were open games. ME2 could not take a linear approach in the larger context, it lined up better with Dragon Age in the sense of solid side quests and regular priority quests for major beats. ME2 worked because is was way less buggy than New Vegas, and mechanically a whole lot tighter than Dragon Age.

ME3 went the buffet route, with a journal chocked full of things to do and map markers to cover it all. It’s not Ubisoft’s map-icon-palooza but it’s the least directed of all the storylines. The result of this is that may of the quests are not bound into the larger story, which is much different than ME2. It’s further ironic as the quests in ME3 actually keep track of choices in ME2, but the results of these quests don’t matter other than a magical number. While there’s plenty to do (and it’s often great quality), it doesn’t tell a cohesive story.

ME: Andromeda… that doubled down on the buffet and open world. It’s really hard to draw a straight line through that game and see where the story goes. The other games listed all have this similar issue, where there’s just so much to do that it’s hard to see why it even matters. Divinity 2 has the joy of interconnected quests, though lacks a larger narrative pressure. BotW pretty much ignores the quest for the sake of exploration. Horizon actually has only a few core quests (which are inconsistent), then a hundred+ icons to fill out. In my personal take of ME:A, I struggled to see the purpose of the game. There are what appears to be meaningful quests, yet they don’t go anywhere (the AI quest is a highlight of this).


I think this bears mention in that the mechanics affect the storytelling mechanic. If the story is directed, and somewhat linear, then the action itself is often reflective. Bioshock is focused, one room at a time. ME1 is the same, where it’s mostly narrow corridors. ME2 is also quite narrow, with a few side rooms for extra loot.

ME3 is where things start to change. Now you’re regularly facing waves of enemies in larger battle arenas. There are multiple paths everywhere and most zones are outside. While this looks amazing (truly), it compounds the lack of story focus. Progress is a blob, where you survive a way rather than reaching an objective. Sure, you get some war points to help a weird progress bar (who is counting, the Reapers?!) but there’s no story element that binds it.

ME: Andromeda just looks like it gave up. You’re flying everywhere, battles are almost entirely in extremely large environments, making it impractical to have close combat fights. The crappy planet quests of ME1 in the exact same small rooms at least had you move from one room to another. ME:Andromeda has no bounds, no real checkpoints. You just get a popup (or holster weapons automatically) when battle is over. I have to assume that BioWare took the ME3 criticism to heart and just avoided all the hard parts (coherent story) and opted for diving on the good stuff (combat).

I have to point out that ME:Andromeda is fundamentally the same as Anthem, in terms of combat mechanics. Given that game had no story and focused on exploration… well that worked.

What Is Mass Effect ?

My personal thought is that Mass Effect is KOTOR without lightsabers. Aliens, super powers, planets, ships, epic journey… that’s Star Wars. KOTOR is good because of the story, the combat isn’t exactly stellar. Mass Effect 1 was an interesting attempt to create a new complex story in a sci-fi setting, with generally poor combat (the queuing of 4 abilities is straight outta D&D). It resonates because at the time, the choices in the dialogue were novel and appeared impactful.

Mass Effect 2 tightened up the combat and added more meat to the story. It’s only a handful of mandatory quests, and a plethora of loyalty missions. It works even more because the story choices are more varied. The trigger events is a great touch, and allows for a nuanced playthrough. The final suicide mission is still a standout 11 years later. The world grew here.

Mass Effect 3 has a challenge when it comes to the impacts of decisions. Rather than the story being impacted you have a number in a menu that goes up – a menu that is only accessible in one place in the game. The quests are really quite good, full of great beats. The punchlines just don’t land. Which I can see why this would have been so hard, there were dozens of loose ends at the end of ME2 that players expected to close. The world ends here.

Story, choice, impact. The combat is the context. That’s Mass Effect to me.

Future Mass Effect

I doubt that ME4 could ever reproduce the game of the moment that ME2/3 had. Legendary really does a bang up job of showcasing yesteryear’s design choices and how they do or do not compare to today. ME works with a fundamental sense of exploration, of new, of today’s problems in a different setting. Why have a sci-fi setting if not for this reason?

It could try to follow God of War’s more linear approach, but that would require a crazy narrowing of focus which I don’t think BioWare knows how to do. It could try something closer to Baldur’s Gate 3 (which interestingly is not them) where it’s an open and complex work. I don’t think it has the capacity to tell complex intertwined stories like it once did. And it would be nice for them to tell a story that wasn’t based on some ancient race and a galactic threat.

It clearly doesn’t have the ability to deliver mechanically complex games. Sorry, let me rephrase that as the distinction is important. The management team at BioWare is not able to manage their project schedules to ensure the developers have sufficient time to apply the necessary polish.

I have truly no idea what type of game Mass Effect 4 would be.

2 thoughts on “Linear vs Open RPGs

  1. I meant to comment in yesterday’s post, but yeah, BioWare either has a totally ineffective Project Management Office or one that is constantly overruled by executives (which makes them ineffective again, I guess). In case you haven’t seen the Kotaku reporting, the gist is that ME:A was originally developed towards a No Man’s Sky direction (explore hundreds of planets!), then scrapped, and then recreated in 18 months. It was also supposed to have story DLC, but after spending so much time fixing the multitude of post-release bugs – which happens when you build a game in 18 months of crunch – the leadership decided to pull everyone over to… Anthem. Where pretty much exactly the same thing happened all over again.

    It’s truly a shame at what could have been.


    • I recall reading that story a while back. To your point, the same thing happened with Anthem,

      I did see this video recently, another take on this (the 10m marker is depressing) –

      I dislike casting stones here because I know how hard it is to manage extremely complex projects that take years and hundreds of people to launch. I’ve seen those fail outside of gaming, and the root cause is nearly always the same. And that when they do succeed, it’s often at a significant mental cost. It’s a really tough balance to find freedom and accountability.

      Ship of Theseus paradox and all that…


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