No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Decisions, decisions...


"What's that? You still have the illusion of freedom? Nope! Go take a long walk down a straight hallway for forty hours!"

Just as a gamemaster in a tabletop game may create artificial rules, boundaries and obstacles to keep his players on the game track that he has designated (a procedure known as Railroading), so too a video game may employ such tactics in order to force the player down a specific path or method toward the goal. And one of the easiest ways to keep a player from wandering off is, quite simply, to give the player nowhere to wander to.

Technically, No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom is the polar opposite of the Quicksand Box; it describes level architecture which forces the player down a singular path. This trope is most common in First- or Third Person Shooters (except, usually, tactical shooters) and platform games, wherein the challenge is generally supposed to be the enemies and/or obstacles, not in figuring out which way to go. It can also crop up in RPGs as a very visual form of Railroading. The trope is forgivable in 2D Platform Games such as Super Mario Bros., which allow only forward progression due entirely to the limitations of the geometry; not everything is a Metroidvania. It only applies in situations where, intuitively, you'd think there might be other areas of a place to explore, but these are not implemented because they are not plot-important.

The most common incarnation is to simply have several rooms chained, each with a single entrance and a single exit, or to have long corridors with no side branches and few if any side rooms. The only options for progress are "forward" or "backward." This applies even when the rooms are tightly packed together and should have (you'd think) some degree of interconnectivity; imagine living in a New Orleans shotgun house, where you have to travel from the front porch into the living room, then through the kitchen, to the dining room, through the spare bedroom, and finally into the den, just to get to the bathroom. Every time you wanted to go to the bathroom. No shortcuts.

Note that these layouts do not necessarily preclude entirely the presence of side rooms or hidey holes. However, these are usually just little culs-de-sac with a weapon, power-up or treasure chest, or maybe a switch to allow continuation down the main path.

This is becoming much more common these days, what with the enormous graphical detail of modern level design limiting the number of paths that can be made at the required quality. Also, story is much easier to place in a game that is linear as opposed to one that involves heavy exploration. A popular method for enforcing this type of level architecture these days is by the use of Locked Doors, which adds a bit of verisimilitude by suggesting that, yes, other areas do normally exist in this location, but due to game constraints you won't be going in there; this can still be jarring if you're armed with powerful explosives or weapons designed for breaching doors and still can't get by a flimsy door, and more so if you destroy some such doors during the game but can't do anything to others.

In the 3D shooter genre, games that prominently feature this kind of architecture are sometimes called "Corridor Shooters".

In terms of Sliding Scale of Linearity vs. Openness, most examples of this trope are actually level 2, due to most level 1 games not even providing any freedom of movement to attempt exploration in the first place.

Please keep in mind that this trope is about level architecture, not the linearity or specificity of objectives.

Railroading is the Super-Trope.

Not to be confused with scripted games such as Adventure Games or Action Adventure which use more subtle techniques to keep the player from going Off the Rails of the game's plot. Some of them do have levels that resemble this—Compare Maze—or a Closed Circle series of rooms; but it's generally frowned upon in Interactive Fiction unless it's essentially a Cutscene.

See also Broken Bridge, The Law of Conservation of Detail, Space-Filling Path, One True Sequence, Rail Shooter, Master of Unlocking, and Quicksand Box for when developers go too far in the other direction.

Examples of No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom include:
  • Most of Makeruna! Makendou Z, with the exception of the jungle towards the end (where you could end up going in circles). Only one item pickup in the game, and you can't even revisit old areas. It's even mentioned in the review
  • In Final Fantasy, beginning with the first game it's traditional to start with a nearly linear path, and either ease up over the course of the game or just dump you into a 'sandbox with a story' after a few hours. Once you get the ship or airship, the world opens up and Sequence Breaking is sometimes possible.
    • Final Fantasy II is the only one that gives you total freedom of exploration at the start, and even then, accomplishing that is a feat in itself.
    • Final Fantasy X, the first game in the series not to feature a World Map, had very tube-like pathways, even in places like forests, with strictly controlled camerawork, featured a disturbingly linear path through the vast bulk of the game's landmass. Even villages are corridor-like, and the game features a minimap that literally tells you which way down the one giant path to go to finish the game. The temples you have to stop at are also just rest stops along the predetermined path. There is, however, one notable wide-open field near the end of the game/long corridor... which turns out to have only one entrance and exit again.
    • Final Fantasy XII fixed this: there's no overworld, but starting at about an hour into the game, you can go pretty much anywhere. Visit massive underground dungeons, map out the entire desert and explore new cities, find hidden Espers in the high-level caverns, romp around a bit in the south, take three entirely different routes to the north, explore the zombie marshlands and the Brutal Bonus Level while you're supposed to be playing hide and seek with moogles in a rope bridge forest...
      • Also, unlike FFX, the areas themselves aren't very linear. The plains are expansive (and believe me, you'll get to see a lot of plains), the dungeons are maze-y, and the cities (well, three of them) are complex enough to get lost in. So trope averted.
    • The bulk of Final Fantasy XIII is this. There are occasional minor branches, but it's usually for treasure. Out of the 13 chapters, Chapter 11 (Gran Pulse) is the only one that does not follow this rule, but ironically, it's more of a Quicksand Box. Shopping is done at save points, and while there are towns, they're no more interactive or open than any other area.
      • Word of God states that the linearity was a story-writing decision and had nothing to do with fanbase opinion or development issues, but fans tend to think it had more to do with complaints over XII being "too open."
      • And even if there were no Word of God, it should be pointed that XIII was in production well before XII hit the streets, let alone received any criticism.
  • Grandia II is so linear that there are times that your compass can point either forward or back.
  • Every level in Soul Calibur Legends is one of two scenarios:
    • Scenario 1: Start at Point A, then run to Point B while killing everything that gets in your way.
    • Scenario 2: Stand in one room and finish a Boss Fight.
  • Surprisingly common in games based on the Star Wars franchise:
    • Shadows of the Empire was notorious for this; its depiction of Echo Base on Hoth was literally a long hallway leading from the starting point to the ending point, with only a couple of side rooms at the beginning (admittedly, there is one alternate corridor early on, but it quickly loops back in and joins the main path forthwith). And the other levels in that game fared no better.
  • The Jedi Knight series often uses the Locked Door / Door to Before method of forcing you to take the long way around. Lampshaded in Jedi Academy.
    • Jedi Power Battles, in classic platformer style.
    • Knights of the Old Republic averts this, however, even though compared to previous Bioware titles like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights each area is very spartan and compact, there's a single path through each one, and planets (the only major choice the player has) are completely self-contained.
    • The somewhat dubious on-foot and in-walker sections of the Rogue Squadron sequels feature this - on levels like Jabba's sail barge, it's reasonably forgivable given that they're fairly limited environments. But on the various levels where you're progressing through large facilities or ships (like Hoth Station, or Yavin Base) or planets like Dagobah or the Hoth exterior level, it's a bit more irksome. Part of the walker sections become literal on-rails shooters, too. A few of the ship-based levels are similar.
  • Mass Effect 2. In Mass Effect 1, sidequests were done in wide-open tank sections where you could explore an implausibly rough square mile of terrain, and occasionally, you'd get out to shoot some guys in the same three buildings on every planet. They've been replaced with linear corridors filled with guys to shoot. Whether or not this is an improvement...
  • No More Heroes features a long, grey, linear corridor in one of the levels. However, that level and the following boss are both like that just to screw with the player.
  • This criticism has also been leveled at both Star Trek Elite Force games.
  • Half Life, like the Jedi Knight games, usually justifies this with such things as collapsed ceilings, Broken Bridges and Locked Doors. The justification loses any credibility after the Nth invocation.
    • According to some Epileptic Trees, the strictly linear gameplay of the game is an actual story theme, representing Gordon's powerlessness as he is forced to take the path the G-Man has planned for him. Also, note the ubiquity of trains and other rail vehicles throughout the series.
      • Maybe not so epileptic, seeing as how it's lampshaded with varying degrees of subtlety and blatancy throughout the franchise.
        • This is probably giving the series a LITTLE too much credit. After all, there are numerous instances where our hero is out of G-Man's control, and is still forced along a single path where there is only Forward and Back. G-Man's interference is, however, one of many convenient excuses used with varying degrees of success to justify an on rails level design philosophy.
      • In Opposing Force, you can actually see the G-Man closing the door or otherwise impeding your progress (though at one point he kindly unlocks a door for you). Also, on the topic of Railroading, note that the only game that doesn't begin on a train thus far, Half-Life 2 Episode 1, is the one in which the G-Man loses control of Gordon.
        • However it ends on the train (and next one starts) - just when G-Man starts controlling Freeman again and Alyx, who was also on the train.
    • According to Valve, they did this because they found that given two (or more) paths, play testers would go down one path, turn around, and then go down the other path(s), presumably to make sure they saw everything. Thus they decided to give the player just one path so that the player could proceed with the story.
  • Halo.
    • Assault on the Control Room: Hallway, bridge, hallway, nondescript circular room, hallway, canyon, hallway, underground room, hallway, canyon, ad nauseum. Complete with the usual Copy and Paste Environments. It doesn't help that it's the longest level.
    • The Library. A series of long, identical, Flood-infested, albeit spacious, hallways.
    • Halo 3: In the final battle against the Prophet, you have one long hallway to the battle, one long hallway back.
      • Although it was as chaotic as a long walkway can ever be.
    • Sacred Icon/Quarantine Zone, especially the vehicle sections, is one big gauntlet, ie sticking around to fight the enemies will just get you killed repeatedly.
    • Crow's Nest is somewhat this, but has an unusual amount of Back Tracking.
    • In a subversion, Cortana, the Scrappy Level of Halo 3, is somewhat more maze-like, but still has one general path.
  • The original Super Mario Bros., full-stop. You couldn't even backtrack. At most there were the three maze levels, each one a total Guide Dang It, where if you pass the point where the level registers that you took the wrong path (easy to do accidentally), you get forced along it even if you backtrack.
    • The Angry Video Game Nerd once pointed out in a review that 2D games can actually avert this to a point, mostly by giving the player multiple ways through an obstacle: the SMB screenshot he used as an example allowed the player to take a safer upper platform, or brave the enemies on the ground to be able to hit a ? block. The game he was reviewing (Wayne's World for the NES) showed just how bad the absence of this was, giving the player nothing but flat ground to traverse with some token platforms visibly leading nowhere useful.
    • Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel were noticeably more linear in design than Super Mario 64 and Sunshine. However, both included some exploration-based levels like the Honeyhive Galaxy, Sea Slide Galaxy, and Beach Bowl Galaxy.
    • Averted in nearly all sequels, other than The Lost Levels and the original Super Mario Land.
  • The Temple of Time from The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess, which is rather jarring considering the more open-endedness of the other dungeons, and the series as a whole.
    • This was done to accommodate the dungeon's "gimmick": you have to direct a giant statue all the way back down to the bottom of the dungeon from the top. So you have to go through every puzzle in the dungeon twice. It was an interesting break in style, at least.
    • Twilight Princess as a whole can fit here. It departs from its predecessors by enforcing linearity with the plot and broken Bridges rather than through implication and obstacles, and making Sequence Breaking nearly impossible.
    • The Legend of Zelda Phantom Hourglass has mostly extremely linear dungeons that fit to a T, although the world is a little less linear.
    • The Legend of Zelda Spirit Tracks literally railroaded you through the overworld, giving you almost no ability to explore anything. Even the sidequests that unlock parts of the map are themselves linear, and the only thing that they allow you to explore are a handful of bonus dungeons (which are again very linear). It's kind of hard to avoid restriction when you're driving a train, but it's still one of the biggest complaints about the game.
    • The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword ditches the vast overworlds of other games, instead making them feel more like dungeons. While there's definitely sidepaths, minigames and sidequests, the world is overall a lot more linear.
  • Most games made by Treasure, to name one entire company, follow the trope.
  • The demo game that used to come with the RPG Toolkit Lampshaded this; doors were noted to be locked, and then commented that it was probably because the programmer was too lazy to make another room.
  • The regrettably forgettable Warhammer 40,000 FPS Fire Warrior.
  • Dungeon Siege is one of the worst offenders, mainly because the required path is very, very long. The game also has only one Door to Before, meaning that backtracking from the end of the game back to the very beginning could easily take over half an hour real time.
  • The weird, little known FPS You Are Empty is the epitome of this trope. Whenever it seems like you might have more than one choice (two paths, two corridors, two doors...) expect one of them to be blocked by collapsed walls and ceilings, fences, gates, locked doors and... furniture.
  • The Medal of Honor series, except for European Assault, Vanguard and Airborne, which occasionally let you pick your way through many of the levels. Mind you, they're still often rather structured.
  • Call of Duty from Modern Warfare onwards. The original Call of Duty, United Offensive, Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 3 actually averted this. On many missions, objectives could be completed in any order the player desired, and there were often many alternate paths to an objective, each with their own pros and cons.
    • This is what befell many current-generation FPS, as opposed to first-generation FPS (such as Doom) which took place in a maze and the player must shoot to survive and find the way and/or keys to the next level, the gameplay which resembles a simplified Dungeon Crawling (or The Legend of Zelda). Now, most single player FPS campaigns resembles rail shooters such as Time Crisis, the gameplay being 'shoot all the enemies and advance to the next area'. The gameplay difference in common is that you can move your character and (almost all) having no visible time limit.
    • This actually extends annoyingly into the multiplayer of Call of Duty 4. There are many areas that look like they would make for a great alternate route through the map, but as soon as you try to go there yourself you'll find that, at best, there's only one entrance or, at worst, there's more than one and none of them lead anywhere else. This is less of a problem in the multiplayer of later games, which is rather ironic considering Raven Software, the same team behind the later Jedi Knight games above, helps with creating the multiplayer levels.
  • Red Faction, made even more tragic by the primary feature of its engine. The game allows backtracking, but this is rarely necessary.
  • Clive Barker's Jericho is perhaps the worst, with monochrome and identical layouts and shallow sidelets that are fruitless to explore. There are no pickups in the game and plot coupons are only delivered on the intended track.
  • Many levels in the Soldier of Fortune series, including Siberia, Sudan, Colombia, the Hospital, and the entirety of Payback's levels.
  • Most levels of Doom 3. A few levels, such as Alpha Labs 4, have branching paths.
  • Killer7 lives and breathes this trope. There are only two directions you can move: forward and backwards. This is on purpose. Granted, there are forks.
  • Kingdom Hearts:
    • Kingdom Hearts II has more than a few levels like this or close to it (i.e. not a lot of exploration). The most Egregious examples would probably be The World That Never Was and Disney Castle.
    • Allegedly done because the original was more in the opposite direction, to the consternation of many players. Arrgh, Deep Jungle!
    • Kingdom Hearts 358 Days Over 2 is even moreso of this trope. Since you play as Roxas going on specific missions assigned to you by Saix, it is largely linear and one-goal based. Because of this, in almost all missions, they even block off some of the paths of a world that "are not necessary for the mission." The only extras you really get are going around to find extra Heartless to fill up your Bonus Gauge.
  • In an extreme case of Tropes Are Not Bad, Painkiller: Resurrection attempted to avert this by giving a more open-ended level design compared to previous installments. This being Resurrection, it didn't work out that well.
  • The linearity of Tomb Raider: Legend was a frequent complaint amongst both reviewers and fans. While frequently linear the earlier games tended to at least provide a couple of choices of where to go at a given point, whereas all but a couple of Legend's levels were almost a straight line, which drew several complaints and some attempt at averting it in Anniversary and Underworld.
  • The earlier Crash Bandicoot games were notorious enough for this that Crash Bandicoot: The RPG is the alternate title for this trope in The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Cliches (number 78).
    • A good definition of Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot games (and possibly The Wrath of Cortex too) is that they're a mixture of forward and side scrolling.
  • Mega Man X Command Mission, very much so.
  • Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia has many levels that are very short and only have one path from left to right. It's a departure from the more recent Metroidvanias, but not too different from the 16-bit and earlier entries in the series.
  • While Portal's test chambers are deliberately designed as well, a test, once your character breaks free from them the paths are arguably more railroaded, especially in the office stages.

Wheatley: Look at this! No rail to tell us where to go! OH, this is brilliant. We can go where ever we want! Hold on, though, where are we going? Seriously. Hang on, let me just get my bearings. Hm. Just follow the rail actually."

  • Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is extremely linear in comparison to the rest of the series, with no sidequests to be had and very limited chances to backtrack. Fridge Brilliance sets in once you remember that 2/3 of your party members will die if you don't reach the surface in time. You do not have time to mess about.
  • Max Payne.
  • The Conduit is guilty of this in its single-player campaign. It's all the more noticeable because the first two-thirds of the game are set in locations with lots of corridors (office buildings, underground bunkers, etc.). The last few levels of the game offer significantly larger areas, but progression is still very linear.
    • Averted in Conduit 2; most of the levels are set in exotic outdoor environments such as the Himalayas and the Atlantic Ocean, and multiple paths are provided to reach the end of each stage.
  • The Xbox game Breakdown had one single path and instead focuses on immersing you into its Mind Screw storyline rather than exploration. You get a few dialogue choices from time to time, and get to make a big decision to determine which of the two ending sequences you get to see, but that's the extent of it.
  • Electronic Arts' PlayStation 2 Third-Person Shooter X-Squad.
  • Most of Winback, which often combines this with space filling paths for Fake Longevity.
  • In the Blades Of Avernum community, anything designed by Terror's Martyr. The Avernum series is known for its huge outdoors and nonlinear approach to play... meanwhile, Terror's Martyr designs tiny, tiny outdoor sections, and scripted blocks to your path everywhere, so that you don't wander off the correct order of completing his scenarios.
  • Descent 3. Gone are the vertigo-inducing maze maps of the first two games, replaced by Rail Shooter-style corridors. The outdoor sections only make it more jarring.
  • Many sub-levels of Turok 2 are like this, eg most of the Port of Adia. On the other end of the spectrum, some areas can be maze-like (:cough: Level 2 :cough:).
  • All the Blizzard RTSes are prone to this trope in the single-player campaigns, mainly on "expedition" missions where you are controlling a small group of units without a base. Less common in missions where you have a base to work from, and entirely averted on skirmish maps.
  • Metroid Fusion is far, far less open-ended than the other games, very near to this level. As a result, many consider it to be one of the weakest games in the series.
    • And It Got Worse in Metroid: Other M which which consists mostly of corridors with one entrance and one exit and leaves virtually no room for exploration at all except in the very end, after you have defeated the story mode. Many fans are not happy about this.
  • The earlier Modern Era Sonic the Hedgehog games are sometimes criticized for being a speedy game with some platforming rather than the other way around (i.e., too much running).
  • Power Pro Kun Pocket 7 (GBA) has its second success mode as a parody of RPG genre. All dungeons in it are narrow paths that you can only walk stright to bosses, or backward to retreat the missions.
  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Forgotten Sands, for most of the arcade sequences. One ledge, one ladder, one column to climb.
    • Justified somewhat in that the game is a story being told by the prince and he can't talk about hidden rooms he never found.
  • Enslaved: Odyssey to the West couples a really pretty looking world that you would like to explore with the only path you can take highlighted for the player.
  • Rayman 2, despite not being completely linear, is a notable example since it was one of the first 3D games that deliberately aimed to recreate the fast-paced, single-direction feel of 2D platformers from earlier times (in contrast with Super Mario 64 and its multitude of clones).
  • A variant is present in Silent Hill, which the protagonists themselves will usually attempt to justify with "I don't need to go that way" or something similar; however, since the town itself is (at least in 2) a proven Genius Loci, it's possible that the protagonists are being purposely railroaded into going where the town wants them to go, whether they're aware of it or not. You can backtrack to areas you've visited before (minus any plot-important ones, for obvious reasons), but there's usually no point in doing so.
  • Tales of Legendia has, for the most part, very linear dungeons. Almost any time there is a fork in the path, one way will lead to a dead end, so there is really only one path to the end of the dungeon. Even the world map tends to have constricted, corridor-like paths instead of allowing more open exploration. The first half of the game especially gives the impression of being ushered through a very pretty tunnel.
  • The first Xbox-Play Station 3 Ninja Gaiden, while mostly linear, still allows for a bit of exploration and you can return in previously visited areas for hidden items or challenges. Its sequel however, plays this trope totally straight: don't think, just go forward and slaughter everything that crosses your path! Points Of No Return are frequent not only between but also inside the chapters, and exploration elements are kept to the very minimum. Even the puzzles are never more complicated than opening a door with a key that you can find effortlessly. The first half of the last but one chapter consists litteraly in going through a straight line corridor; the Play Station 3 port Sigma 2 takes it Up to Eleven: not only are the already petty puzzles outright removed, but the doors open by themselves, so combat is pretty much the only thing you have to do.
  • Several levels in Dawn of War 2: Retribution. You notice this very quickly if you add Jump Infantry or teleport infantry to your squads, as they will magically—and for no reason whatsoever—be unable to use their abilities outside the one true path through the level. This gets especially bad during the Exterminatus level, which teases you with multiple alternate paths that all get blown up immediately when you get close to them.
    • Space Marine follows through with linearity on par with the original Super Mario Bros (i.e. you can only go forward).
  • While many dungeons and raids in World of Warcraft have somewhat branched hallways and options on choosing the bosses you fight, others are simply long corridors leading to a final boss in a set procession of other bosses. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Deadmines, which is really little more than a long hallway with a boat at the end.
  • While Skyrim's larger world is the polar opposite of this, its dungeons are almost uniformly single-path affairs with only one way to proceed and no meaningful branches. There are exceptions, but very few.
  • Splinter Cell is a particularly bad example of this. The main character is acrobatic and skilled in making stealthy entrances but is blocked by cleaning equipment and "jammed" locks that make the game extremely linear.
  1. And guns that can dissolve matter