Once upon a time, linearity was a good thing. "You took the direct route from A to B?" overlords of culture would say. "Fantastic. You've maximised efficiency in your sector and guaranteed a strong Q3. Won't the shareholders be pleased!"
Thanks to videogames, however, travelling as the crow flies has become a great way to get yourself kicked out of the internet's treehouse. "You mean I can't 'stop to smell the roses'?" scream outraged fans. "And I can't 'head off the beaten track'? What is this, some kind of godforsaken feature film? Come back when you've installed an overworld and some branching dialogue, you hateful little man."
Also once upon a time, I'd have agreed that linear games could go suck a fat one. After all, the lineariest linear game ever is Call of Duty, and everybody hates Call of Duty except the millions of people who buy and enjoy it every year. But this winter has been a rough one for those who like their playable environments thin and to the point. Open world and sandbox games are rife, drifting overhead like enormous bubbles full of scalding hot immersion. In the past few weeks, I've played Far Cry 3, Hitman: Absolution, Darksiders 2, Sleeping Dogs, Dishonored and Assassin's Creed 3, and you know what? I don't want to play non-linear games anymore.
Their capacity for trivial distraction (fox pelts, anyone?) is a blight upon my recreation hours, depriving me of sleep that could be otherwise sacrificed to noble pursuits like sext messaging, West Wing re-runs and the laundry. And besides, I'm not convinced the choreography-heavy campaign style made infamous by Call of Duty is quite the crime against interactivity some claim.
Bioshock and Portal are among the stand-out "corridor shooters" this gen, but the game I'm going to trumpet today is Metro 2033, which I tackled for the first time over the weekend after gazing upon the majesty of its sequel (look out for an extensive write-up later this month). A quick recap: the charge most commonly laid against the corridor-game is that it denies the player "real" choice, forcing us simply to facilitate the tale the game wants to tell. The worst examples won't even content themselves with limiting the navigable parameters - they'll actually intervene directly via devices like the QTE, imposing simple reaction-tests in what amounts to a glorification of the pause button on a DVD remote.
Metro's premise acknowledges the limitations of the model, to a degree - it takes place in post-nuke Russia, with the remains of humanity doomed to live out miserable on-rails lives, trundling through the wreckage of an underground public transport system. But it's also a reminder that choice only matters when you're choosing between meaningful options.
Trading structure for breadth, open worlds are often just jumbles of objects, waiting to be picked up and brooded over by players for whom "100% completion" is its own reward. A linear game cuts all that out not necessarily because the designers despise your independence of mind, and covet your brain for their Robot Drone Army. The idea, in theory, is that the choices you do get to make are worth more than all those you don't. Hence the rhythm Metro 2033 establishes between blistering man-shoot sequences and sweaty survival horror, and how this pays into equipment customisation.
Anything could wait down the tunnel - a base full of Nazis, swaddled in Kevlar, a flaming abattoir overrun by mutants, a tangle with evil spirits. Which gear to bring is thus a more than usually haunting question. Is it worth spending those precious military-grade bullets on a badass shotgun with a Gears-esque knife on the end? Or do you load up on ball bearings for your pneumatic sniper rifle? Is armour the best policy, or should you swap in an expensive pair of night-vision goggles?