by Bob Reinhard
Growing up, I was always a fairly “think outside the box” kind of person. One of my oft-stated strengths was my creativity and my ability to travel down avenues that weren’t always tread upon. That’s why, looking back, I was surprised at how many times that behavior was actually punished or considered bad in school and the like.
Take for instance a familiar concept in most math classes: Showing your work. I’m not sure how it was at your school, but most math classes I took required us to show our work in the margins for each problem on a test. Now, this would be fine, but the thing that always struck me as odd was that we could actually get points knocked off even if the answer was correct. Why? Because they would require us to follow one set way to find the solution. Even if multiple ways could work, we were required to use the one way they taught us and be punished otherwise.
(This image was taking from an excellent article on the notion of “Showing your work” written in a blog by a math teacher. You should read it if you have the time.)
To me, this seemed to put a lid on how far they were willing to let us explore alternative options to problem solving. It seemed to imply that every problem has only one “correct” way to solve it and all the other ways are “wrong”, even if that way still provides the desired outcome.
Gamers are no stranger to this mentality, considering most video games have one set path to becoming the “winner”. But recently, there has become a much heavier push to ditch that concept and open up to more freedom of choice in solving problems presented within the construct of a game. There are a few aspects of this I’d like to bring up and discuss.
Now, one can talk about the RPG-elements that are being pushed into most games, where you “choose” how to develop your character. While that is for sure one part of things, that’s not the kind of freedom of choice I’m talking about. I’ll mention it briefly, but I want to focus on some other concepts before I really talk about something as apparent as that.
The example that is most fresh in my mind right now is a game I just finished playing recently – Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
While the game does start off by offering a pretty basic Stealth-Meets-FPS style of gameplay, I was actually quite surprised by how free it felt when approaching certain missions. While it did indeed implement some rudimentary RPG elements in an ability tree and weapon customization, it offered a different kind of freedom I haven’t seen fully utilized in a lot of games: Freedom to do things your own way.
The world that the missions often took place in were fairly realistic feeling. Instead of each room feeling like it was designed with your shoot-out in mind, the world felt open and didn’t push you into the corridor of chest high walls like most games of it’s type. It allowed you the freedom to explore. Didn’t want to take the enemies head on? You have the ability to avoid conflicts entirely. You could also use your environment to get around the obstacles, or find places you could get to to help level the playing field.
This leads to what most people refer to as “Water Cooler Gaming”. Which is when your gaming experience is so different from someone else that plays the game, that you can discuss the game and actually talk about things that never happened in the other person’s playthrough.
The reason I use Deus Ex:HR in my example instead of obvious titles, such as Elder Scrolls:Skyrim and other open-world WRPGs, is because I am impressed at utilizing this in a different genre. One that usually suffers from being pretty “do this and win” with it’s tactics. The ability to look around you for a “better way” is something that a lot of games are afraid to pursue. And one of the reasons actually comes up in this very same game.
The problem with freedom is, you have to take into consideration everyone’s choices when it comes to delivering a story or getting people through the game. The biggest complaint most people throw at Deus Ex: HR is the boss fights. The boss fights are fairly punishing, especially if one is to have built their character for stealth as opposed to straight-up gun fights. The bosses have zero room to approach them in anything less than the only way they were designed to be approached. This provided a radical different experience than the core game, and many gamers felt that the boss fights were completely out of place because of it.
Perhaps the most notorious moment in the matter of “player choice being ignored” field of gaming comes from the ending of Mass Effect 3. While the story itself was under scrutiny by some, the most cited complaint came in the form of it not implementing your choices through the game very well, if even at all. For a game that’s often talked up because of it’s wide range of player choice and it’s shaping of the world around you, it’s quite disappointing when it ends with fully abandoning that large of a part of it.
This is where the allowance of “out of the box” thinking becomes quite difficult to balance. A game that heavily relies on story has to do just that: tell the story. So at what point is having TOO much choice and freedom hinder the writer’s ability to write the story in a functional way? This is perhaps the biggest challenge when going into developing a game that emphasizes freedom of choice.
One has to stop and look at the concept of “choice” in regards to a story. Think of it like one of those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels that most of us had as kids. When all is said and done, the story still has to go a certain direction. With every choice, we still end up finding ourselves meandering towards the same goal. This is the “illusion” of choice that most games have. Very few games really offer a total freedom, because of how hard it is to fit it into the framework of a solid story.
Now, this is in regards to how story and events progress, but what if we look at a game that’s completely built around freedom, such a Minecraft or Scribblenauts?
I’ll use Scribblenauts as my example, since it’s the one I’ve played. For those of you that don’t know, Scribblenauts is a game on the Nintendo DS that allows you to “Write” whatever you’d like into the game in order to solve environmental puzzles. You’re allowed to suspend basic logic and find your “own” logical solution to each level. However, I found this to be both a good way of approaching the game and a somewhat broken concept.
It was quite impressive the crazy collection of things you could call forth in the game. It no doubt offered you a wide array of tools at your disposal. The big issue is: It started to feel a bit novel after awhile.
The puzzles require you to get over certain obstacles or achieve certain small goals in order to acquire a star that exists in each level. And at first, your mind went wild with solutions to how to get over a pit or past a monster. But what ended up happening is I found myself using only a select few items on every level. Most things I could summon up were completely useless to me in every instance, rending a lot of that “freedom” into fluff and pointless distractions.
The biggest issue, however, came when my “logic” wasn’t logical enough for the game. There were instances where I’d call forth items that, for all intents and purposes when using the logic put forth by what the game was supposed to be about, should have worked. Only to find my idea dropped me flat on my face. What does this mean exactly? That your “Freedom” is still ultimately hindered by what the game creators considered. This leaves you with a sense that you’re not quite as free as you were told you were.
Now, that isn’t to knock the game. Offering that level of freedom in a game that has a fairly linear goal is pretty hard, if not near-impossible, and the game manages to do it well enough, but it does bring up the point of this example: How much freedom is TOO much freedom in certain genres?
While it’s obvious that not every game should, or can, have a high level of freedom, it does make you look differently at how difficult it is to implement the level of freedom gamers want into a lot of different games. I want you to think about freedom next time you play a game that is “open world” or “player choice” oriented. Do you really get a sense of freedom? Are you not free enough? Could it have been made with more or less freedom and still achieve the same goal?
I applaud the game industry for being brave enough to ditch that annoying “one path” concept that was pounded into our heads back in school. But I also urge both players and developers to look at freedom as a risk/benefit kind of thing. It may make your game infinitely more engaging, but it may also turn around and bite you in your ass. It’s an important aspect of modern gaming, but it’s one that deserves special attention because it can both make and break a great game.
Freedom is a double edged sword, a necessary one in my opinion, but we need to wield it with caution.
Edit: I was reminded of a crucial game in this discussion I forgot: Heavy Rain. The game implemented freedom of choice and cause/effect concepts really well. Just thought it was worth editing in a mention.