Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
In perhaps a bit of self-reflection on his past work with Gears of War and Bulletstorm, Cliff Bleszinki shared his new thoughts on linear game design in an in-depth feature on Epic Games with The Verge:
I always refer to that .gif that went around [comparing the] first-person shooter design of Doom to where we’ve gotten to: straight hall, cutscenes, straight hall, cutscenes, straight hall, cutscene. So many games these days, with their campaigns, feel like the game designer is chasing you with a sharp pointed stick saying,’You will feel something at this moment.’
My favorite games lately are the ones when you come into a hallway and you are like, ‘Oh, how did that dungeon instance turn out for you?’ ‘Oh, well I went in as a mage and I did this or I snuck entirely through that one,’ or, ‘I haven’t even seen that, where is that.’ As opposed to, ‘Yes, I came around the exact same corner, and I saw the exact same tower fall, and I saw the exact same experience.’ And if you look at it from a production standpoint, the fancy falling tower in the scripted experience is actually much more expensive but it yields far less of the actual gameplay.
Now, this isn't to say that linear game design is purposeless—most open-world titles still have a linear story of some kind to anchor the experience—but more to say that game design is moving more and more toward what designer Chris Crawford calls storyworlds, a universe in which the rules don't restrict the player's experience as much as they bring forth unique experiences for each person. This is a concept that Bethesda thoroughly understand, a complement which Cliff echoes:
[I’m] really realizing that there is a direct correlation, bugs notwithstanding, between how good your game is and how many unique YouTube videos it can yield. And that is one of the mantras I am continuing to hammer.
The amount of viral videos we sent around of Skyrim of millions of wheels of cheese going down a mountain or a frozen bear that flies off into space -- it is just golden. You want a game where programmers are like, ‘How did that happen? Did I even code that?’ That is when things are great and we had that in many ways with Unreal Tournament [with] emerging gameplay [like] teleporting and the translocator. I want to get all of our games back towards that in the future.
I believe the combination of linear and nonlinear storytelling is where the game industry is heading and something that fans crave. Linear games won't be left behind in the slightest, but this is an area of innovation that's sustainable and gives video games more dimension. Cliff Bleszinksi has realized that the future of video games is more upon free will than it is on determinism. People want games where their destiny isn't predetermined now more than ever.
I'll let you ponder what that says about humanity's relationship with reality. (Heavy, I know.)