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Wide Linear Level Design in Solar Ash

Solar Ash is one of my favorite games of 2021, Heart Machine (creatures of indie classic Hyper Light Drifter) has created a game that ticks all the boxes for "a game that Alec would love". If you can get pass some instances of wonky cameras movement, it really delivers on its premise of Super Mario Galaxy meets Shadow of the Colossus. Plus unlike its predecessor, it has WORDS! Pretty neat. Another thing that it has is an open world…kinda? Maybe not?

Solar Ash Screenshot

The game I was playing before the release of Solar Ash was Ghost of Tsushima (I got probably half way though the story, but I can honestly say I probably will never finish it). Both these games have "open worlds", but they're designed very differently. Unlike Ghost of Tsushima (and every other AAA open world game) Solar Ash's world is really partitioned into smaller open levels which are unlocked in a linear order. It is not trying to fullfil the promise of "go anywhere and do anything". Instead it says "explore this sandbox, then I'll give you another one".

I think this type of level design is called "Wide Linear", and I love it. From what I can tell this term was coined by Uncharted 4 … which I should probably go play. Whats sad is the only other modern game like this that I've played is Super Mario Odyssey (another favorite). This wasnt always the case. There were tons of games I played from the PS1/N64 and PS2/Gamecube era that, honestly probably because of technical limitations, were built this way. Heres some that came to mind

  • Mario 64.. really all 3d mario games
  • Spyro 1-3
  • Banjo Kazooie / Banjo-Tooie
  • Thief 1-3 (I know these fit the description, but I have not played them yet)
  • Sly Cooper games
  • Crash Twin-sanity (who remembers this games??)
  • early Tony Hawk games

Come to think of it, I'd probably put most Zelda games in this category… makes sense why they're some of my favorite games. I think the biggest draw for me to this design is that I can keep a mental map of the whole play area. I don't get lost or overwhelmed. This design also probably encourages filling a small sandbox with lots of interesting things, instead of spreading them out to pump up the world size.

Solar Ash Screenshot

I'm sure there are many other wide linear games, they like to hide as fully open world games. Now however I finally know what I'm looking for.