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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Freedom in games - World space

I've been talking a lot with a friend recently about what makes games fun, or what makes the kinds of stories they tell different from other stories, or what the ideal "Gaminess" of a game might look like - and how many lack it. This is an interesting discussion but also kind of a headache; I'd like to come at this problem sideways, maybe over the course of a few posts.

One thing, maybe the main thing, that makes a game different from other media is choice on the part of the audience. This, too, is kind of a big topic - choice in games is about risk, reward, consequence, and discovery. So we'll break that down further, into the kinds of freedoms a player is afforded: the kinds of choices they can make. And I'll go ahead and narrow it down even more. So! Today we're going to be talking about choice and player freedom as a function of the world - the space the player's virtual avatar occupies in a game.

World space and freedom are pretty strongly linked in the mind of many players. Most of what we think of as "Sandbox games" are games with large worlds that don't restrict your travel, allowing you to use all the actions of your character anywhere in a large gamespace, and limiting your travel between parts of the gamespace in relatively few ways. The best recent example is Skyrim, where, upon completing the game's introduction, you're free to more or less go anywhere in the world and do whatever you like. So, when we think of a space as offering freedom, we tend to think of that space as:


This doesn't need to hold in every space within the game - dungeons in Skyrim are usually quite linear, with relatively little exploration - but if the world, the highest-level gamespace, has these qualities, we tend to feel that we've been given freedom in that game. 

In all gameplay elements, freedom is about finding a balance between too little and too much freedom. When a game space fails at providing freedom, it is because moving through the game space no longer feels meaningful. If our choices about exploring a space are very few - we can move forward, but not backward, through world 1-1 in Super Mario Bros., and can jump along the way - this won't necessarily make us feel constricted. However, it limits the developer's ability to use space as a means of granting the players freedom. (This particular game has a powerful counterexample in world 1-2, where you can jump up above the top of the level to bypass the level's hazards and reach a special warp zone to take you later in the game - in this case, the earlier limitations imposed cause this moment to feel intensely freeing/gratifying.) 

We all felt so clever the first time we figured this out.
Conversely, if we have many opportunities to explore, but little reason to go one way or another, the player can lose interest; if there's no evident advantage to going one way or another, players start to wonder why they're exploring at all. FEZ, for all its delightfulness, feels this way a little bit at the beginning; with a vast web of rooms to explore, and little benefit to selecting one over another (each one containing mostly self-contained puzzles and rewarding you with the keys needed to unlock other areas), it's hard to know why you're going in any particular direction.

Don't worry, we'll come back to the stuff FEZ does right with space in a minute.
As a game world gets bigger, the requirement that choices be meaningful becomes weightier; if you're going down one path instead of any of seven others - each of which has its own four paths away from it - you're going to want to feel like your choice served some purpose, and preferably that it was distinct in meaningful ways from the other choices. 

The right amount of freedom in space is incredibly local to the specific game experience. Some games don't need much; like Super Mario Bros., they're not interested in using game space to create a sense of freedom. Half-Life creates a game space that's large and feels natural, but whose linearity and cramped quarters limit freedom in a way that contributes to its horror atmosphere. Some games need to vary the amount of freedom based on the part of the game you're in; Wind Waker's dungeons, which are fairly linear and directly goal-oriented, create a more challenging contrast to the free sailing that takes up much of the game.

In which we could be any-damn-where.
Wind Waker and Skyrim are both games that afford the player a great deal of freedom. To keep this freedom from being paralyzing, they both:

-Make the player's path clear, so a player pursuing the a particular objective doesn't get lost in the vast world;

-Make side objectives and exploration rewarding enough to feel meaningful and worthwhile

In combination, these aspects create worlds that seem larger than they are because at any point, the player can detour from their primary objective, go on some side adventures, and easily pick up the main thread again, usually better off for their dallying. In Wind Waker and Skyrim, this creates an enormous feeling of freedom and helps the world feel huge, continuous, and immersive. FEZ, meanwhile, never gives you a path through its world that's especially clear. However, whatever path you choose allows for progress, and ultimately all or most of the game must be explored, so choices made rarely feel frustrated. Combined with the fact that the game is gorgeous, and exploring and learning about the world is a puzzle unto itself, FEZ turns the wandering exploration into its own reward, letting you slowly discover and claim the various levels.

Owls creep me out.
So! If you want to have a big, open game, you've got to find a way to structure it such that players never feel lost, and always feel like there's meaning in the decisions they make about where they go. If you've got a narrow, linear game, then you don't have to think about it as much! It does mean you need to find other ways to keep your game engaging, though. Used improperly, open space and freedom of movement muddies the experience and makes your game feel overambitious or padded or simply boring; used correctly, it can create a lush, memorable world that acts as a backdrop for emergent stories players write themselves.

Here the player controlling the ball gets to explore an exciting world of numbers, lines, and other lines.

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