Linearity in RPGs: An Exploration

DualShockers has written up a piece that examines the linearity differences between Western and Japanese RPGs, though their conclusions about the former seem to only be based on a handful of recent titles. Can you guess which?
While there have been numerous situations and characters in JRPGs that I could personally relate to and numerous events in those games that have triggered an emotional response in me, never once has any of that happened in a Western RPG. This tells me that a linear story, told as the writers and developers see fit, is more poignant than a haphazardly thrown together conglomeration of do-anything-you-want-and-you-might-stumble-upon-the-main-story style game play (hello Oblivion). Each RPG I play of each style solidifies this thought in my mind because, unfortunately, no matter how hard they try, Western developers just can't match the focus, the connection, the emotional highs that come from telling a story - instead they always want you to make up your own story as you go along. Giving the player a huge amount of choice, to me, seems to negate any emotional reaction you might have to certain story points, especially if you can influence the outcome of major events, much like you can in Dragon Age: Origins.

The next time you read or watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy, consider this: The part of the story where Gandalf falls through the depths of Moria after the fellowship's encounter with the balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, we see Frodo and the others thinking he's dead and the emotional reaction that comes with it. How much of an impact do you think that part of the story would have if you could say, (Oh, wait, hold on, I don't want Gandalf to fall, if I choose [insert action here] instead of him stopping to attempt to block the path of the balrog, we'll all be one big happy family again and the fellowship can continue on unscathed. Yeah, cool, that sounds good!) See, introducing a large amount of choice, or less linearity, would likely lessen the emotional impact of the scene. And that, I feel, is what Western RPGs do to an almost extreme extent sometimes.


Our lives are also defined by emotional highs and lows, they're defined by the good times and bad. While we certainly never wish for anything bad to happen to us or our loved ones, when they do, there is no choice, there is no decision, they just happen. Those events in our linear travel through time define us, who we are, what we believe and what direction our path will take. If we could decide for ourselves how the outcome of certain choices and certain events in our lives would take place, unfortunately the world would be a much more boring, predictable place, where our lives aren't defined by what happens TO us, but what we CHOOSE to happen to us.3

Japanese RPGs are our books, our movies, our lives. Western RPGs are that fantasy we always dream of having, where we can choose the outcome for ourselves and make informed decisions about our future. It's true, both genres have their pros and cons. I'm not trying to condemn Western RPGs because I do enjoy them, too. Sometimes it's nice to dream, but, when morning comes, we must wake up and join the real world once more. Yes, I am a JRPG fan. But, I don't discriminate and I am rather open-minded. You like what you like. All I'm saying is that the linearity of a game should be a non-issue, because there is room for both genres of RPGs and you should play the one you want to play, don't play one and then complain about it because you feel it should be something it inherently is not.
This guy continually suggests that a vast majority of Western RPGs are sandbox-oriented. The most memorable RPGs of the last three decades are usually those that have struck a near perfect balance of non-linearity and great storytelling.