I recently played the Professor Layton games while also making my way through Halo. At first, it appeared to me that the games were structured similarly: Whether it is vanquishing the Covenant or locating the mysterious golden apple, both games present players with objectives that must be accomplished in order for them to progress to the next scripted event.
However, I soon began to wonder if Master Chief was upstaging Layton in his attempt to give my brain a workout. At the same time, I found myself becoming disengaged with Layton's gameplay and simply looking forward to the next story bit or cutscene . How was it that a game about space marines was more mentally engaging than one about a puzzle-loving professor? The answer exemplifies the pedagogical strengths of video games and demonstrates that linearity in games is a layered concept.
At the most basic level, Halo is a game that leads the player through a predetermined story with a variety of mandatory plot points. The genius of the game lies in the way players move between those pre-determined plot points.
The level design and enemy AI make Halo's gameplay highly dynamic. Halo is structured around sequences comprised of what Steve Gaynor has called "the basics of effective first person shooter encounter design." Instead of maze-like hallways, most of Halo's fighting takes place in environments with a variety of cover clustered in a circular pattern, laid out in such a way that the player can observe the environment and get a good sense for what tactics will help them succeed. Additionally, Halo's enemies' AI exhibits a wide range of behavior. Enemies rarely stand still and allow you to exchange fire; they will duck behind cover, charge you with clusters, or even retreat in fear.
The varied combat environments and unpredictable enemies give rise to dynamic, chaotic, and rarely replicable gameplay. While the overall game's structure is linear on the macro level, there are dynamic zones in between scripted events that allow the player to exercise their creativity and experience unique events. When Jorge and I were playing the game on co-op, one errant-grenade throw could potentially scrap a carefully laid plan and force us to come up with a new solution on the fly. If we got stuck, a change of tactics would cause us to experience a the level differently than the first time we attempted it.
Although the game has specific waypoints, the space between those rigid structures offers a significant amount of flexibility. Halo's possesses an immutable structure on the macro level while simultaneously rewarding the player's creativity; moment-to-moment events are often determined and shaped by the player's choices. A visual representation of Halo's campaign might look something like this:
On the macro level, Layton's structure is reminiscent of Halo. While there are many optional puzzles, progression is tied to certain mandatory challenges that divide the game into sections. Layton diverges from Halo by retaining this linearity during the intervening gameplay spaces. Regardless of how creative or clever the player is, there is only one path to success in Layton: guessing one predetermined answer.
If someone wanted to tweak their Halo experience by only using the pistol or by relying largely on melee fighting, they could so so while simultaneously remaining tethered to the game's overarching path. With Layton, there is little room for experimentation; to quote the Professor "Every puzzle has an answer." And by "an" he means "exactly one:" regardless of whether the player can think of a different way to stack chairs, retrieve a ball from a hole, or exploit vague language, the only route through the game is unvarying adherence to a single path. The game becomes doubly linear, as both the game's overall structure and the player's path become one and the same.
While this may be a valid game structure, it can often undercut the medium's strengths. When forced to follow a rigid path, the player loses much of their agency and finds themselves at the mercy of the designer's thought process. This might not be a problem depending on the game's readability and feedback system, but if things do get vague, the player may find themselves compelled to brute-force their way through obscure, single-solution problems.
Additionally, in order to keep things interesting, the game must then compensate for this lack of interaction by relying on the strength of its story, characters, and art direction. The Monkey Island and Zelda series show that this is possible, albeit extremely difficult. While all games require a certain suspension of disbelief, even the best puzzle and adventure games sometimes parlay this into a demand for passive acceptance of arbitrary, limiting systems. In this sense, games featuring a dual-linear structure share much in common with books and films: the story, sequence of events, and presentation are predetermined and largely static. Change can only be effected by interpretation and analysis after fact.
Instead of getting bogged down in the minutia of a puzzle, Halo presents the player with a general problem along with the tools to solve it. Most of the game boils down to "get to that door," but because the environments, enemies, and player behavior create dynamic spaces, I found myself looking at each level like a puzzle comprised of many interconnected parts. While they are often clever, the problems and solutions in Layton can also be pedantic. The approach to puzzles is overwhelmingly traditional, and most of the game would remain relatively intact if converted into book form.
Video games allow us to create laboratories dedicated to actively exploring dynamic situations in which the environment and objects become a puzzle. Layton's brain teasers provide a mental workout, but they seem ill-suited to the medium's unique pedagogical potential. Both Halo and Layton follow largely in the tradition of author-controlled narratives. However, Halo offers the opportunity to stray off that well-warn path, thereby opening up the possibilities for unique challenges and unexpected lessons.
For example: I learned that a Spartan can be just as thought-provoking as a Professor.