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  • Lars Kalthoff

Locked in Liberty

Aktualisiert: 27. Juni 2018

Modern video games promise to offer open worlds, multiple dialogue options and various endings based on the decisions made by the player. When pitching their game, few game developers miss the chance to stress the importance of freedom for their game even though the specific effects of it are rarely mentioned. Despite the importance of the word "freedom" for the marketting and advertising of games and the positive connotation of the term itself, there are many weaknesses of open worlds and game systems that authors and designers should be conscious of:

1. Freedom can be overwhelming and unsettling

Being forced to pick one option out of a multitude of available alternatives, leads to a state of lost control for many players. Just the thought of having to consider and evaluate all of the presented options, sometimes evokes a feeling of anxiety and frequently leads to players either choosing a provided default option or simply delegating the choice to fortune. This effects - that reminds of an "oversupply of opportunities" - occurs in many aspects of games, reaching from too detailed systems of character customization to navigating an open world.

Some editors to create a character confront the player with lots of different options.

In spite of the fact that certain types of players seem to be immune to this effect and even enjoy a great variety of options, game developers should take the danger of an umanageable amount of possible actions seriously and try their best to avoid it. For example you could solve this issue by establishing an easily identifiable default option or by specifically highlighting a minor group of recommended actions.

Players who actively search for freedom while playing are very likely to simply ignore the subtle hints of the developers and find their own way to enjoy the game.

Apart from being overwhelming, too much freedom - especially regarding to the design of levels and worlds - may cause a feeling of insecurity and a lack of clear goals. Most players will certainly remember a moment in which a question like "Am I even supposed to be here?" came to their mind. Games with massive open worlds are known for making the players think they got lost from time to time.

The upcoming sense of consuming the game the wrong way not only damages the player experience itself but also breaks the immersion of the game because the player is desparately looking for a way suggested by the developers, which might not even exist.

2. Freedom complicates storytelling

Being free to do whatever you want and experiencing the content in a self-chosen order, entails severe problems for telling a consistent and authentic story.

The fact that every story is - in its core - about conflict and that most characters pursue a specific goal leads to a sense of urgency that is almost impossible to portray in video games.

Frodo from "The Lord of the Rings" receives the task to destroy the Ring of Power before Sauron conquers the rest of Middle-earth. As a consequence, Frodo has exactly one task during the course of the plot, which defines his actions and additionally puts him under time pressure.

In open games, the player is rarely presented with a single goal. On the contrary, the protagonist is frequently depicted as a problem solver, who is constantly busy with completing multiple standalone quests.

The player pursues many unrelated missions at the same time. Most of them also contain a great number of subtasks.

Further, it is up to players to decide how much time they want to spend with the various virtual places and parts of the plot.

As we can see, evoking urgency seems to contradict the concept of freedom of action by its very nature. In the worst case, the actions of the player conflict with the goals of the protagonist, which leads to a massive divergence between the proposed story of the game and the interaction of the player.

As a result, the player is thrown out of the illusion of a believable world and will perceive the rest of the story on an unintentonally hilarious level at best.

Just imagine Frodo would have returned cheerfully to the Shire to drink some beers at "The Green Dragon" while Sauron were free to defeat and enslave the inhabitants of Middle-earth.

Handing over the development of the plot to the players without any limitations, bears the serious risk that the embedded story will be perceived as an insignificant, or even disturbing side issue while the players do the things that they evaluate as funny or important.

Apart from the problems concerning the specific plot, free game systems complicate the process of establishing and defining characters: Due to the fact that the actions and therefore the value systems and remarkable character traits are determined by the player, it is incredibly challenging to create a well-defined and consistently acting character.

Is Geralt of Rivia from the game series "The Witcher" a coldhearted mercenary, who will not intervene in any conflict unless it contains a substantial advantage for him, or is he a rather silent but kindhearted hero, who acts selflessly and meddles in political affairs to overthrow a cruel monarch?

The way Geralt of Rivia acts heavily depends on the choices made by the player. What that means for the traits of the witcher may differ greatly.

Who Geralt of Rivia really is and what makes him special, is up to the player to decide and even though this contributes to the player experience in a positive way, it explains why there are so few fascinating protagonists coming from video games.

Not only do characters defined by the player contradict the fundamental concept of a role playing game - which is playing to be someone else - they also restrict the possibilities of the authors: A developer who designs the course of the plot and therefore defines what each character does has to remember the fact that his perception of the characters might not correspond to the opinions of the players. Ultimately, there are hardly any options left to describe a story which does not cause at least a small group of players to complain that their characters would never act the way the developers chose.


3. Freedom destroys the pacing

What rhythm is to music, or dramaturgy to literature, is called "pacing" in games. The term describes the chronological arrangement of individual elements in the context of the whole game and how that affects the experience of the player. Game developers carefully plan out the pacing and constantly examine the game to see whether it feels right. Allowing for too much freedom, is likely to ruin the pacing because the designers no longer know about the order in which the player will deal with certain elements and what skills, items and companions he has already acquired so far.

The same problem applies to so called interest curves, which illustrate the current excitement of the player over the course of the whole game. According to Jesse Schell, a known game designer and author, the interest curve of a good game should look something like this:

Though the exact look of the graph is up for discussion, it cannot be denied that an interesting game consists of well-placed highlights that are mixed up with periods of rest and periods of rising action. Allowing the players to experience the different phases in their own order and duration, will frequently lead to a total loss of interest because periods of rest are extended or optional highlights - like an exceptionally exciting quest - are simply missed.

Aside from pacing and interest curves, game designers often discuss the so called "flow" that is closely related to the aforementioned elements. The flow could be described as an almost meditative mental state that is triggered when the difficulty of the game and the abilities of the player rise evenly.

Like before, liberty causes a problem here: The skill of the player is at least related to the playing time to a certain degree but to correctly estimate the difficulty of a game with an open world is a different matter entirely.

That is because the chosen enemies as well as the applied strategies are determined by the player and sometimes even depend on what enemies were met before or which skills and items are available. For the difficulty of the game, we end up with an equation that contains too many variables for any developer to solve.

You could assume that the players know about this circumstance and therefore try to create their own flow experience by consciously picking the fights matching their current level of skill. In real life, that is almost never the case, which leads to one of two possible issues:

The player either chooses the easy way and starts fighting the types of enemies that promise a safe victory or he tries to face too difficult challenges, which ultimately results in frustration or motivates the player to find holes in the code of the game to defeat the superior enemies with all means.

4. Freedom is an illusion

Especially when referring to conversation options that exclude each other, freedom of choice in video games is rarely more than an illusion.

Despite the fact that games do their best to hide this truth displaying messages like "X likes that" or "Y will remember that...", very few decisions of this type have actual consequences.

The narrative adventure games of the developer "Telltales Games" are famous for making the players feel like their choices really matter.

And it should not even be a surprise if we have a look at the complexity of game development and the concept of exponential growth. Even if they were only two options for every decision in the game, there would already be 1024 different lines of action after just ten decisions.

To cope with numbers of that size, the promised real consequences turn into slightly varied lines of dialogue. But is it even a problem per se that the players are deceived to feel like they have control over the development of the plot?

No, actually it is not. After all, every game is just a massive illusion: A bunch of connected triangles turn into characters that pretend to be alive. Differently coloured pixels create the impression of wide landscapes or crowded cities.

Games - like every other type of art - are like a magic trick in that regard:

Everyone knows that it is no more than an illusion and still we expect a good magician to make us forget this fact for a short moment and leave us behind puzzled and delighted. If a trick fails, however, or if it is obvious how it was done, we are thrown out of this magical moment and are made aware again that after all it was just an illusion.

Identifying the trick of conversation options is way too easy because real consequences rarely appear at all or because different lines of action are forced onto a unified way too quickly and obviously.

At the latest, when playing the game for a second time, you will notice that the decisions you made barely had any impact at all and the illusion collapses like a house of cards. With this thought in mind, it seems almost ironical that the games pretending to allow freedom of choice and extensive consequences are promoted with their alleged replay value.

The problem with magic tricks is that someone who figured out the trick once will never be able to see it the same way he did before and will be even more critical about future performances.

5. Freedom generates different experiences

What sounds like a benefit at first, turns out to be a weakness in some cases:

Strongly differing player experiences hamper any kind of debate about the game because players are lacking a common base for discussion.

If two player of the role playing game "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" were to talk about it, it could be helpful to first clarify which locations, missions, characters and items came up during the course of the game. Otherwise, there is a lot of room for misunderstandings because the importance of freedom in Skyrim leads to varying experiences when playing the game.

Some projects even benefit hugely from a public discussion on a common basis: The game "Life is Strange", which puts its focus on telling a touching story, was split up into five different episodes that were released with a delay of some months between every episode. Additionally, the player was presented with very constrained areas to explore.

Most of "Life is Strange" takes place in the geographically limited "Blackwell Academy".

That way, the developers were able to build common ground for discussions about their project and inspired the many theories of fans speculating about how the plot and characters were going to develop.

Granting the players a lot of freedom for their movement and actions, also means that every player will only ever see a small part of the whole content of the game. Even though this might not be a problem for giant studios, it is even bigger for small independent developers:

To expose the efforts of the team and to justify the demanded price, it is extremely important for smaller game studios to present as much of their content to the player as possible. Due to the fact that most indie games are not known for their amount of content but for their uniqueness, interesting mechanics or unusual graphic stlye, it is very unlikely that players will be bothered about pieces of content that are presented to them in an obvious way.

To sum it up, you can say that freedom in games complicates many aspects of game development: This includes the creation of consistent stories and characters, which might contrast the actions of the player, and the design of the pacing and difficulty. Further, too many options sometimes cause an oversupply that feels overwhelming and unsettling to many players. Even though open worlds and game system entail certain risks, there are many benefits to them that are underlined in the advertising of video games every day.

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