Many believe an RPG must be open-world and non-linear to provide an authentic role-playing experience. Persona 4 Golden used selective linearity (yes, I’m very pretentious) to craft a powerful linear narrative while allowing enough non-linear decisions to role-play your character as you see fit.
Since coming late to the Vita party in 2016, I’ve been surprised at how well P4G holds up today. Although the dungeons lack visual variety amongst floors, the interlocking mechanics are engaging and the writing is phenomenal.
It’s a murder mystery, high school simulator, and JRPG dungeon crawler rolled into one delicious sushi. The mystery segment benefits most from linearity. If the writer knows how the player will experience the story, they can properly plan a long and complex arc. P4G excels by drip-feeding enough information to engage, satisfy, and entice.
The non-linear elements are still there and allow for effective role-playing within the epic story. Which extra-curricular activities to take, whom to spend time with and romance, which NPCs to help, and how to answer many conversational questions are just a few of the open choices players will make.
The genius is linking these mechanics together. Your choice of activities between dungeons can drastically improve your chances in battle. Toss in a time limit pressuring you to complete the dungeon before the next murder takes place and Atlus created a near perfect gameplay loop.
AAA games that fully embrace open-world non-linearity have to account for players completing the main and side quests however they see fit. The common solution is to design the side-missions as short standalone ‘episodes’. This cleverly allows them to fit whenever the player chooses to do them, but can feel shallow and disconnected.
I’ve often heard of Elder Scrolls/Fallout players ignoring the main quest entirely and focusing on side missions and emergent gameplay. This presents a problem to the designer. How can you write a primary story that is equally compelling when experienced at vastly different speeds?
Game design has grown to blend genres (RPG elements in every genre) and the use of linearity/non-linearity should be the same. Developers have a vast history of mechanics to draw from when crafting an experience, and I’m glad to see Atlus set a great example of how to shake up the toy box.