Non-Linearity: Past Meets Future

by Joseph Witham

It all started on paper. And the only limitation was one's imagination. Pencil and paper RPGs began it all, virtually anything was possible in the role-playing games of yore, like Dungeons and Dragons. If the Dungeon Master was creative, nothing would stop a player from taking on one role or another, whether it be through eyes of a crusading Paladin or stealthy thief, no adventure would ever be the same from role-player to role-player. It has always been the goal of developers to one day attain this kind of interactivity, and now, over 20 years since the first computer-based RPGs emerged, we are beginning to see a glimpse of that freedom.

Were it not for the pencil and paper roots of role-playing games, we would likely not see our beloved Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, or Ultima games today. But now that technology has advanced to the point where creative options seem almost limitless, will developers ever escape the plot-driven, linear worlds that they have come so accustomed to in today's gaming market? I believe some people, both gamers and developers, will have more trouble than others with the idea of tapping into the power of infinite imagination used in the fore-fathers of modern RPGs.

With previously-unimaginably non-linear games on the market today like the recently-released Elder Scrolls III Morrowind by Bethesda Softworks and Bioware's unforgettable Baldur's Gate, or the huge community-driven worlds of massively multiplayer games like Funcom's Anarchy Online and Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest, it is apparent that many developers are trying their hardest to bring to life the awe-inspiring interactivity of pencil and paper RPGs. These mostly-American developers are constantly pushing the creative limit and bringing to life what was never thought possible on a computer entertainment system.

However, the reluctance of developer's and gamer's on the other side of the Pacific is readily visible in console games past and present. Few Japanese RPG developers are able to embrace the free-willed roots of their role-playing games' ancestors. Even though the original Final Fantasy's game mechanics were basically cut-and-paste from a D&D manual, we are still seeing the strict follow-the-plot-and-don't-go-astray systems that have been key elements in console RPGs, and the future doesn't look much brighter.

Nonetheless, we can thank Square, ever the innovator, for taking the first step towards non-linearity. Though jeopardizing its Final Fantasy name, and planting itself in the most risky situation since The Spitits Within, the company has chosen to take the interactive route and release a game with free will, Final Fantasy XI Online. However, the general close-minded public in the budding online community in Asia is not responding with the enthusiasm necessary to put a non-linear revolution into full swing. Final Fantasy XI is selling only a fraction of what its predecessors usually rack up, even ranking in well below the original Final Fantasy as far as total unit sales go. The game's community has yet to break 100,000 users, despite Square's ambitious goal to have rack up 200,000 registered users by the end of the summer. While other Japanese companies, like Namco and Enix, have followed the early example of Square and have shown an interest in producing online, non-linear RPGs like Square's multi-million dollar experiment, one can only expect that these companies will feel like backing off after reviewing the low initial sales and hearing criticism and discouragement from software giants like Nintendo.

It's up to both the developers and gamers to decide how far they want to push their imagination. Will Japanese and American console gamers alike continue to sloth about in the narrow, single-pathed worlds of their beloved console RPGs? Or will they demand freedom and interactivity? Will companies like Nintendo ever give up their stance against innovation on the non-linear level? Will console RPGs ever really become true role-playing simulations, or will they continue be the interactive movies that we can't seem to separate ourselves with? Only time will tell, but with the current state of the industry, we can kiss the prospect of seeing many non-linear console RPGs in the near future goodbye.

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