I am a huge proponent of player choice and agency, yet that does not mean that a game lacking in meaningful choice is a bad game. It is true, player agency and choice to affect the outcome of a game or the way it plays is the one thing that makes gaming distinct from every other medium. However, I still don't fully understand the criticism I have seen many gamers and reviewers give games for being "too linear."
To me, linearity is only a valid form of criticism when it affects the gameplay/experience undoubtedly. For example, it would not make sense to have a game about exploration where the player is forced from one area to the next, regardless of what "choices" they are given. Could you imagine Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag where you could only sail from one island to the next instead of open waters? That is an extreme example, but you get my point.
Then there are cases where some criticize games for being too linear in their level design, which is a valid form of criticism. If you are traversing through hallways to get from point A to point B, it is probably less fun to go along the one set path, rather than branch off at different intersections to explore. This was one of Final Fantasy XIII's main criticisms, which was completely valid. However, even in cases such as this one, the amount of weight given to the criticism of linearity seems too much - at least in my opinion.
While I can't defend the above examples, as I do see them as valid forms of linearity criticism, I think there are still places where linear games are not only good but make the greatest amount of sense to the kind of game a developer is making. Some of my favorite games of all time are linear.
The most obvious place to make a linear game is a story-driven game. Before I say anything else, of course there can be story-driven games that have a lot of player agency, but then they would be entirely different kinds of games. The best way to describe the difference is this: story-driven games that are linear are about experiencing the story developers have created, where story-driven games that emphasize player agency are about discovering/creating the story yourself. You may prefer one or the other, but both have their place I am sure we can all agree.
Red Dead Redemption is one of my favorite games, and I would argue easily near the top of the last generation. It would surprise many to say that this is a linear game. It is only surprising because most people don't think about games as linear and nonlinear. Just because a game is open world or sandbox doesn't mean that it facilitates any more nonlinear gameplay than something like Half-Life 2, which has set levels to progress through.
I think this helps to highlight one of the misconceptions that create this criticism towards linear games. A linear game is nothing more than this: every player will have to complete the same challenges to progress through the game. That means that there is a minimum required level, mission, quest, etc. to go through to progress in the game. Games can still have side missions and other things to do, much like Red Dead Redemption, but the fact remains that there are a set group of things to do before you can move on (more linear = more requirements for progression). That's it.
If people would start to think about it in that way, all of a sudden there are a bunch of games that should spring to mind that we would all consider linear, yet they hardly are ever criticized for being so. Those are games like the Mass Effect series (any Bioware game really), the Grand Theft Auto series, The Legend of Zelda series, pretty much any Ubisoft game like the Assassin's Creed series or Watch Dogs, and so many more.
The quality of those games is debatable to some people, but what was listed above includes some (definitely not all of them) of the most highly praised and critically acclaimed games/franchises ever. Would Mass Effect been better if it was nonlinear? Maybe, but would it still be Mass Effect? This is getting into some pedantry, but it just goes to show, at least to me, the lack of understanding in criticism of linearity (in many cases, not all).
It's okay that things like Mass Effect restrict player agency to deliver a more focused product. A blasphemous statement to gamers I know, but there are so many types of games out there to experience and create that some are better facilitated through a more linear approach, like Mass Effect I would argue.
And frankly, it is incredibly difficult to create a game that is completely nonlinear, or has very little linearity. I would almost go so far as to argue that there are zero games that are not in some way linear (though if anyone can think of one, please let me know).
Also, to the disservice of myself and all of you, I have incorrectly been framing this as linear vs. player agency. While player agency will have a more pronounced effect in nonlinear games, player agency still exists in linear games as well. For example, it is up to the player to decide which missions or set of missions to do first to reach the requirement of progression. But in the end, all players will experience the same content but maybe in a different order and maybe with some slight changes.
Player agency exists in other forms, like player choice, as well in games (no matter how poorly utilized). This can be seen in most of Telltale Games' games, like The Walking Dead. It is a completely linear story, but player agency still exists in the form of the many choices the games give you, like letting a character live or die.
I definitely think the criticism of linearity does come from a lack of understanding so I hope this may have illuminated some, and by all means let me know in the comment below if I got something wrong, left something out, or if you disagree with me completely. There is still a lot more to say about linear games and many other aspects where linearity plays a part, but I hope this helped (as it did me) understand what it means to call a game linear.