A discussion on linearity

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Cishet dudebro
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I've had to defend both sides of the aisle of linearity for a while. So I thought I'd write an absurdly long editorial on the subject mostly to create a round table discussion about it. I am trying to include both level design and storytelling mostly because it's hard to include one without the other.

First off, linearity is in video games when the player more or less goes from point A to point B. Where there is usually very little going off the beaten path. There are numerous examples of games that are linear but have slightly more open levels to include things like secret areas.

Non-Linearity in video games is slightly harder to define. Some games have complete non-linearity and drop you in a world where you have objectives but are expected to do them in whatever order you like. Others might have a set path but completely let you get there any way you like through the level design. There are numerous examples of unique interpretations on non-linearity and I'll list just a few that come to mind later.

To streamline this sort of discussion I'm limiting it to shooters. Things like RPGs and plat formers tend to conform to different rules with regard to the player's objectives.

The case for linear levels and objectives

Linear game design has been around since games have been created, and it's by no means a bad design philosophy in practice. There are numerous games that benefit from linear design because they focus on things like complex set pieces and scripting. A great example is Half Life, where they streamlined the game to be linear to avoid confusing level testers and to showcase the skeleton animation and AI scripting. There are numerous games I have played that I still replay to this day with linear game design. Great examples are the aforementioned Half Life, Quake 4, Condemned Criminal Origins, Star Wars Jedi Outcast and Red Faction.

You can have a very traditional storyline that focuses on the player going from A to B and subvert the player's expectations at the same time. Bioshock in terms of storyline is very linear but in terms of gameplay is very non-linear due to how the levels are hub based. It's very much an anomaly and the great aspect of linear design is it's usually more flexible and more modular than non-linear.

The case against linear levels and objectives


fpsdesign.jpg


One thing you might notice about all those games I mentioned above is they're all from years ago. The latest game on that list is from 2005.

Well one thing that is noticeable with games recently is linearity is a necessary evil you expect from shooters. It's to the point where I've had debates with players of games where they equate linearity with "more story focus".

Most games that are linear do so for a specific reason. Mostly because it's significantly easier to test a game if they know exactly how strong the player could potentially be, and adding scripted sequences/cutscenes just streamlines production even further. I should probably stress this point but lots of cutscenes does not equate a more complex storyline or a better told story. Rather it creates a storyline that the player does not control but merely watches.
I'll bring up an example of games telling storylines that aren't directly told to the player. In Deus Ex (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't played it yet), the player kills his partner Anna Navarre fairly early in the game. Another agent Gunther Hermann then swears vengeance on the player and regularly threatens him throughout the game. The important thing to note about him is that Gunther Hermann isn't seen till many levels later. But the player is aware Gunther is following him regularly through optional NPC conversations. Many NPCs regularly tell the player of a "cyborg asking questions" and the player is taunted numerous times in his infolink that Gunther is following him. This tells a story completely without having the action stopped or the player's control wrestled from him.

Why am I sperging about Deus Ex? Well Deus Ex does something in terms of it's writing that most modern games do not do. It implies significantly more than it could ever show or tell.

This is more or less leading up to where I introduce a linear game that annoyed me more than any else. That game is Tomb Raider 2013. A game I was very bored by due to it's linearity.

In Tomb Raider 2013 the game is given the illusion of sandbox game design. When in reality it simply lets the player backtrack through prior levels to obtain collectables. TR2013 is plagued regularly by QTEs, it stops the action regularly to tell the player a cutscene to progress the story, the storyline itself portrays the player character as a weak defenseless girl who is growing more confident while the gameplay portrays the player as a murderer who massacres hundreds of people every time you pull the trigger of your gun. All of this sort of stuff I expected but the level design moves entirely in a straight line.

By that I mean in prior games in the series you were more or less expected to find an item to open a door in a prior area, this usually involved you branching out and viewing other parts of a level from where you started. In TR2013 you go in a straight line at all times. Traps the player triggers are predetermined to trigger no matter what you want to do, and all these scripted sequences do is lead you toward the next shooting gallery where you kill more people.

In essence the game plays more like a movie than an actual game where the player does something that is different than someone else might do. To quote a Jontron video: "The game is playing itself".

The case for non-linear levels and objectives

Non-linearity is a state where the player does not generally go from point A to point B. An example is Doom, where the player is expected to get to the exit of the level, but there are usually dozens of different routes the player can take. Not to mention hidden areas where the player can find more powerful weapons and/or secret levels. Doom is an example at it's most extreme of non-linearity. At the other end of the extreme is something like Bioshock. Where the player is shown a quest marker and you're given a general sense of where to go. But the levels are large hubs and you regularly get distracted by something else. Likewise you usually backtrack through these hubs to get to different areas.

Non-linear level design does have it's faults but it is in my opinion a superior way to tell a story and engage the player. The example I'm going to sperg about right now is Thief: The Dark Project.

The third level to Thief is called "Down in the Bonehoard". It involves the main character Garrett, attempting to search a local crypt for buried treasure. The most notable aspect of this level is how it is built vertically. When the player enters the level, he starts from the very bottom of it in a series of tunnels created by creatures called "Burricks". Inside these tunnels the player can find other crypts, and several corpses of other thieves. Many of these thieves mention they came to the crypt in a group and later split up, and they mention they saw signs of a prior thief earlier. Not only can you find all the corpses of these thieves in the level, but you can find their journals that mention solutions to some of the puzzles. Once you do worm your way through the labyrinth-like burrick tunnels you find the crypt, and it's infested with zombies. What's notable about Thief's gameplay is the player is not able to kill the zombies conventionally. Rather the player is expected to use disposable holy water, or alternatively run away from them. Indeed much of the level at this point is a lot more claustrophobic and really adds to the player's tension, without saying a word of exposition the player is told a story and he/she never has to stop the action.

I could go on from here but a non-linear approach to the player's objectives I feel adds to the experience more than stopping the action with a cutscene. In essence, less is usually more.

The case against non-linear map design

Now not all games benefit from non-linear map design. A lot of games actually get really confusing and don't really tell the player very much. The example I am going to cite is Deus Ex Invisible War.

In the original Deus Ex, the map design was familiar enough that players could intuitively know weaknesses they could exploit. A good example is very early on in the game in the 'Ton hotel hostage situation. The player is told there are hostages in a hotel, and while they could charge in through the front. They could also double back outside the hotel and find a fire escape, which will lead the player inside one of the hotel rooms and flank the terrorists inside much faster.

In Deus Ex Invisible War, the world the player explores could be easily compared to something like the Jetsons. The architecture is foreign and "futuristic". While the player might be able to find a second way through an objective, it is through something convoluted like the building looping in on itself. The game doesn't usually reward the player for finding creative outlets through their objectives either, and for the most part the world is confusing to navigate. There is no real "straight line" the player is expected to traverse and it's easy enough to get lost in the world or lose sight of the objective.

Open World titles
Like most people, I love an open world game. I think they're awesome and combine the best bits of both systems.

The reason open world games have become more popular in recent years is entirely due to how they last longer. A linear FPS might last you 10 hours, and will turn into trade in credit so you can buy something else. Wheras an open world game can last you significantly more. I know many people, myself included, that have clocked more than 300 hours into Skyrim.

I think people might get burnt out on open world games and developers might shirk away from them in a few years, mostly due to costs. I do love a good sandbox game and I hope they stay around.

There are of course weaknesses to sandbox games. Many sandbox games don't really employ good health/ammo balance and usually have regenerating health to compensate. Other times the player gets impatient and ignores a great deal of the level design and simply wants to fast travel and skip a lot of it.

~~~

There are dozens of other examples of bad non-linearity, but Invisible War more so comes to mind simply because it doesn't really familiarize the player with it's world.

What about you guys? What are your opinions of linearity vs nonlinearity? I am by no means an expert on the subject. Like I've mentioned there are strengths to both systems and while I might prefer one over the other. I'd like to see other opinions.
 

exball

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Linearity has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. Things like COD and Tomb Raider play more like movies then games. I think it's popular because in recent years developers hold your hand a lot more.
 

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exball said:
Linearity has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. Things like COD and Tomb Raider play more like movies then games. I think it's popular because in recent years developers hold your hand a lot more.
It's largely to do with cost and mass appeal. You can get way more people from around the aisle if your game sort of plays a little like everything else.
 

caffeinated_wench

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Personally, I prefer non-linear both for the storytelling reasons you mentioned and the general freedom you get. It feels more like what you do matters. That said, I can still thoroughly enjoy a linear game if it tells an excellent story and doesn't give the illusion of a non-linear game.
 

Carlson

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the storyline itself portrays the player character as a weak defenseless girl who is growing more confident while the gameplay portrays the player as a murderer who massacres hundreds of people every time you pull the trigger of your gun. All of this sort of stuff I expected but the level design moves entirely in a straight line.

This was one of the worst things about that game, along with the almost exaggerated abuse Lara gets throughout the storyline. It was played up that it would be about Lara gradually finding it easier to kill and showing the kind of trauma it would take to turn a regular college student into a hardened warrior/archaeologist. And then you get exactly one QTE where Lara displays emotional distress over killing her first person, and then you launch straight into a cover shooter and kill another dozen or two people without a blink. There's a throwaway "It scares me how easy it was" line as you climb a ladder, and for the rest of it you're just slaughtering dozens of men at a time like a hardened SEAL.
 

Mauvman Shuffleboard

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I don't find that linearity is directly connected to quality in any way, in some cases I'd prefer linear map design or storyline but other games are suited to other things. I think games that give token options to make the story "non-linear" are all in all worse than not giving the options at all, like Fable and Mass Effect did. You did pretty much the same shit no matter how good or bad you were and gave you about one option in the end to give the coveted multiple endings everyone loves. I'm not a big fan of multiple endings if there aren't multiple paths leading to them, if it's all up to a button press at the end it's kind of fucking stupid and I don't give a shit, but a game can be interesting if the branching choices are made earlier and actually matter throughout the game.

As for level design, I'd prefer a straightforward path to having no idea where you're supposed to go, that doesn't give you a sense of exploring the world it just makes it a hassle to do anything. Morrowind was one of my least favorite games for many reasons (including but not limited to being dull, overly padded, and repetitive) but when the most clear directions I've ever received was "go to tree and rock and other rock" the only way to get anything done is to wander around aimlessly in a place where everything looks the same for a couple hours. The dungeons were pretty neat though and made almost 2% of the game enjoyable. An open world or non linear environment can be fun if you both a) have a destination and b) know roughly where it is (or is not), otherwise it's just balls.

Really what I'm trying to get across is I prefer linear things to poorly executed attempts at non-linearity.
 

Carlson

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Also, a linear storyline is sometimes necessary to actually get the point across. It's nice to have a sandbox or multiple paths and all, but sometimes a story simply can't be delivered except as a completely linear tale.

Think about The Last of Us, or Alan Wake. Both of these games rely on their storylines as a big draw, and both of them are nearly 100% linear. The Last of Us is a little less linear, as the levels themselves are more open and you have a lot of options with how to deal with the next scene, but you still go through the same events every time you play. But neither of them could have properly worked as an open world game, and I doubt they could have done well with multiple endings. The ending of The Last of Us is very specific, and is meant to show the kind of person Joel has become after the events of the game. Alan Wake is specifically set up to imitate a television miniseries, which wouldn't fit multiple paths at all.

The criticisms for the linearity of games like Modern Warfare and the new Medal of Honor games isn't "They're linear", but rather how they go about being linear. These games are essentially interactive movies, where the player is forced to take the exact same specific actions every single time. Invisible walls and mysteriously locked doors block off every alternate path, you can never open a door until the game tells you to, and the entire plot will put itself on hold unless you follow the instructions: Dan Hardcastle demonstrated this in his Warfighter review, where at the beginning he was able to stand behind a bad guy with his pistol to the back of his head for eternity because the game refused to progress at all unless he pulled the trigger. If you try to stray off the path, you'll either hit an invisible wall or be instantly killed and reset. The storyline in these games has never been good enough to carry the game, as they're basically crappy excuse plots to have a lot of cool scripted setpieces happen and a lot of people play them for the multiplayer anyway.
 

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Mauvman Shuffleboard said:
As for level design, I'd prefer a straightforward path to having no idea where you're supposed to go, that doesn't give you a sense of exploring the world it just makes it a hassle to do anything. Morrowind was one of my least favorite games for many reasons (including but not limited to being dull, overly padded, and repetitive) but when the most clear directions I've ever received was "go to tree and rock and other rock" the only way to get anything done is to wander around aimlessly in a place where everything looks the same for a couple hours. The dungeons were pretty neat though and made almost 2% of the game enjoyable. An open world or non linear environment can be fun if you both a) have a destination and b) know roughly where it is (or is not), otherwise it's just balls.
I think this is where you and I differ in a lot of ways as I enjoyed Morrowind's non-linearity.

More so because of how it didn't really revolve around going from A to B as much as it did going to B and getting lost along the way. I enjoyed the game primarily because I would be told to go to a city and along the way I would have all these smaller adventures. The map was really detailed for how small it was, and it completely differed depending on what side of the island you were.

I mean it's not for everyone, my recommendation on Steam for it is primarily a warning. But I actually enjoy getting lost in non-linear games and finding the solution like an elaborate puzzle.
 

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Cuddlebug said:
Mauvman Shuffleboard said:
As for level design, I'd prefer a straightforward path to having no idea where you're supposed to go, that doesn't give you a sense of exploring the world it just makes it a hassle to do anything. Morrowind was one of my least favorite games for many reasons (including but not limited to being dull, overly padded, and repetitive) but when the most clear directions I've ever received was "go to tree and rock and other rock" the only way to get anything done is to wander around aimlessly in a place where everything looks the same for a couple hours. The dungeons were pretty neat though and made almost 2% of the game enjoyable. An open world or non linear environment can be fun if you both a) have a destination and b) know roughly where it is (or is not), otherwise it's just balls.
I think this is where you and I differ in a lot of ways as I enjoyed Morrowind's non-linearity.

More so because of how it didn't really revolve around going from A to B as much as it did going to B and getting lost along the way. I enjoyed the game primarily because I would be told to go to a city and along the way I would have all these smaller adventures. The map was really detailed for how small it was, and it completely differed depending on what side of the island you were.

I mean it's not for everyone, my recommendation on Steam for it is primarily a warning. But I actually enjoy getting lost in non-linear games and finding the solution like an elaborate puzzle.

Getting lost along the way would be fine for a big open world game like that, if there was enough variety in the environments. Morrowind is almost a great game, but I hate it because the world is too big for what they have to fill it with. I like a lot of things about the game, the magic is neat, the items are neat and there are a lot of ways to customize how you want to play with skills, birthsigns, races and all that jazz. Which unfortunately ends up meaning there are 200 unique and diverse ways to end up getting lost in similar looking environments fighting cliff racers.

I never played Skyrim so I can't talk about that one, but I did play Oblivion. Oblivion did a bunch of shit wrong (I didn't much care for the invincible NPCs, the stuff they took away from magic and skills for example), but it fixed a lot of issues I had with Morrowind. I knew where I was going, there was some more variety in environments, and the combat was less of a weird RPG/action blend. However, the quest markers pointing exactly where to go are a bit much, as long as the directions I'm given aren't vague and bullshit I'm happy with it.
 

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I like it when a game implies a story, or lets you infer it from clues you find. (I mean actual subtle world-building clues, not audiologs that give you dialogue without having to flesh out a character.) Things like that allow a player to build his own vision of the game world's story, and even find out different parts of it in a different order. So I would say I prefer non-linearity, since it facilitates this much more easily.

The game that comes most quickly to mind is Dark Souls. Did the job perfectly.
 

Takayuki Yagami

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Alec Benson Leary said:
I like it when a game implies a story, or lets you infer it from clues you find. (I mean actual subtle world-building clues, not audiologs that give you dialogue without having to flesh out a character.) Things like that allow a player to build his own vision of the game world's story, and even find out different parts of it in a different order. So I would say I prefer non-linearity, since it facilitates this much more easily.

The game that comes most quickly to mind is Dark Souls. Did the job perfectly.
As far as the story for Dark Souls goes, there's a guy on Youtube called EpicNameBro that did a lot of very in depth videos on the lore of Dark Souls. If you're curious about that "implied story" his channel is a great place to look.
 

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Mauvman Shuffleboard said:
Getting lost along the way would be fine for a big open world game like that, if there was enough variety in the environments. Morrowind is almost a great game, but I hate it because the world is too big for what they have to fill it with. I like a lot of things about the game, the magic is neat, the items are neat and there are a lot of ways to customize how you want to play with skills, birthsigns, races and all that jazz. Which unfortunately ends up meaning there are 200 unique and diverse ways to end up getting lost in similar looking environments fighting cliff racers.

I never played Skyrim so I can't talk about that one, but I did play Oblivion. Oblivion did a bunch of shit wrong (I didn't much care for the invincible NPCs, the stuff they took away from magic and skills for example), but it fixed a lot of issues I had with Morrowind. I knew where I was going, there was some more variety in environments, and the combat was less of a weird RPG/action blend. However, the quest markers pointing exactly where to go are a bit much, as long as the directions I'm given aren't vague and bullshit I'm happy with it.

Ironically, Morrowind is a very small island compared to every other game before and after it. The reason it seems so huge and expansive is because they filled it with massive amounts of fog that keep you from seeing too far. With the fog removed, you can pretty much see the next city you're going to. Oblivion and Skyrim both upped the size of the environments, and thus made the fog less and less prominent in each so you could see the huge mountains in the distance or see cities miles away.

Grand Theft Auto did the same thing. I had San Andreas on the PC and eventually downloaded a mod that removed all of the fog. You could easily see the entire map from one corner, or see Las Venturas from Los Santos. During an argument on GTA Forums about Liberty City seeming too small, I actually did a timed run from one corner to its opposite in both aircraft and vehicles and found that San Andreas was smaller than GTA IV's Liberty City. They just covered it up with fog and much slower vehicles and winding roads that stretched the travel times.
 

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Carlson said:
Ironically, Morrowind is a very small island compared to every other game before and after it. The reason it seems so huge and expansive is because they filled it with massive amounts of fog that keep you from seeing too far. With the fog removed, you can pretty much see the next city you're going to. Oblivion and Skyrim both upped the size of the environments, and thus made the fog less and less prominent in each so you could see the huge mountains in the distance or see cities miles away.

Grand Theft Auto did the same thing. I had San Andreas on the PC and eventually downloaded a mod that removed all of the fog. You could easily see the entire map from one corner, or see Las Venturas from Los Santos. During an argument on GTA Forums about Liberty City seeming too small, I actually did a timed run from one corner to its opposite in both aircraft and vehicles and found that San Andreas was smaller than GTA IV's Liberty City. They just covered it up with fog and much slower vehicles and winding roads that stretched the travel times.
I think you can make a statement toward smaller worlds that portray seemingly larger environments.

Like with San Andreas a big reason people exaggerate the size of that game is because of how huge it felt. There were 3 cities and a large mountain range in the south west. With GTA4's Liberty City I didn't feel like the map design was nearly as good. I felt the size more so than with San Andreas.

I mentioned in the OP with Open Worlds, a lot of the time people skip through them simply because of how large they are. It takes so long to travel between locations, and the environments typically look so similar to one another people just use the game's fast travel option and miss out on a great deal of the content.
 

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Cuddlebug said:
Carlson said:
Ironically, Morrowind is a very small island compared to every other game before and after it. The reason it seems so huge and expansive is because they filled it with massive amounts of fog that keep you from seeing too far. With the fog removed, you can pretty much see the next city you're going to. Oblivion and Skyrim both upped the size of the environments, and thus made the fog less and less prominent in each so you could see the huge mountains in the distance or see cities miles away.

Grand Theft Auto did the same thing. I had San Andreas on the PC and eventually downloaded a mod that removed all of the fog. You could easily see the entire map from one corner, or see Las Venturas from Los Santos. During an argument on GTA Forums about Liberty City seeming too small, I actually did a timed run from one corner to its opposite in both aircraft and vehicles and found that San Andreas was smaller than GTA IV's Liberty City. They just covered it up with fog and much slower vehicles and winding roads that stretched the travel times.
I think you can make a statement toward smaller worlds that portray seemingly larger environments.

Like with San Andreas a big reason people exaggerate the size of that game is because of how huge it felt. There were 3 cities and a large mountain range in the south west.

With GTA4's Liberty City I didn't feel like the map design was nearly as good. I felt the size more so than with San Andreas.

Thing is, the size ended up only being an illusion. It's almost literally smoke and mirrors: it was fog, slow vehicles, and randomly winding roads and highways. Liberty City is the same size or slightly larger (I can't remember the exact measurements), but you basically trick yourself into thinking that it's smaller because it's "one city."

GTA V and Red Dead Redemption succeeded far more in expansive environments, as they actually went and MADE the environments genuinely large. GTA V went even further and added a lot of content to what would ordinarily be nearly empty areas.
 

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Carlson said:
Thing is, the size ended up only being an illusion. It's almost literally smoke and mirrors: it was fog, slow vehicles, and randomly winding roads and highways. Liberty City is the same size or slightly larger (I can't remember the exact measurements), but you basically trick yourself into thinking that it's smaller because it's "one city."

GTA V and Red Dead Redemption succeeded far more in expansive environments, as they actually went and MADE the environments genuinely large. GTA V went even further and added a lot of content to what would ordinarily be nearly empty areas.
Games are generally filled with illusions. Map design in video games typically more often than not revolves around doing something that looks complex and tricks the player when it was done by doing something fairly simple.

GTA5's map for instance I can't really remember much about the world, and if you asked me to turn off the minimap and drive to a specific location it would take me a really long time. The same goes with GTA4 and RDR to a lesser extent.

I still do like open world games with larger maps, but when I think of the worlds in them I typically drift toward the smaller ones that give off a sense of scale as opposed to ones you know the size of going in.
 

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jharwel1 said:
As far as the story for Dark Souls goes, there's a guy on Youtube called EpicNameBro that did a lot of very in depth videos on the lore of Dark Souls. If you're curious about that "implied story" his channel is a great place to look.
Yeah, I've seen all his stuff. He's got a lot of interesting theories.

As far as GTA goes... I wonder if San Andreas felt larger because of the way the narrative unfolded. The way I played the story - and the way most people did, I think - was to not hop out of the boundaries that the story provided. You start in Los Santos, but then you're in the countryside... and you don't go back to Los Santos. Then San Fierro removes your desire to return to the country, and Las Venturas does the same thing. You're not constantly bouncing around the entire map for missions, mostly missions confine themselves to whatever area they take place in. It becomes easy to think of the world map's other regions as being far-removed from you when you don't visit them all every time you play the game.
 

Carlson

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Alec Benson Leary said:
jharwel1 said:
As far as the story for Dark Souls goes, there's a guy on Youtube called EpicNameBro that did a lot of very in depth videos on the lore of Dark Souls. If you're curious about that "implied story" his channel is a great place to look.
Yeah, I've seen all his stuff. He's got a lot of interesting theories.

As far as GTA goes... I wonder if San Andreas felt larger because of the way the narrative unfolded. The way I played the story - and the way most people did, I think - was to not hop out of the boundaries that the story provided. You start in Los Santos, but then you're in the countryside... and you don't go back to Los Santos. Then San Fierro removes your desire to return to the country, and Las Venturas does the same thing. You're not constantly bouncing around the entire map for missions, mostly missions confine themselves to whatever area they take place in. It becomes easy to think of the world map's other regions as being far-removed from you when you don't visit them all every time you play the game.

Though it takes only a few seconds to realize just how small the cities are; you regularly cross the entire town and end up practically on the verge of the countryside just from your morning commute. The very slow speed of the vehicles compared to the later games makes up for it a little by keeping you from crossing Los Santos in less than a minute, but it still takes only about 5 minutes by dirtbike to cross the entire state from one opposite corner to the other. After a few missions, it starts to feel a lot smaller than a real town.
 

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As long as its fun I really don't care.