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Darren Nakamura avatar 6:01 PM on 05.07.2009  (server time)
Flight in games: giving us a false sense of freedom

Throughout history, humans have watched bird soaring, insects buzzing, and even some mammals navigating the open air, and they thought, "Man, I wish I could do that..." And indeed, many flying contraptions were devised and built, but none succeeded until the historic flight of the Wright brothers in 1903. Since then, we have been taking to the skies for travel, combat, and simple recreation.

The power of flight is awe-inspiring to us humans, bound as we are to the earth, incapable of surmounting gravity without some sort of mechanical aid. The gift of flight instills the same feeling I imagine a sailor has when he owns his own boat, a feeling of limitless freedom.

It should be no surprise that so many games have simulated flight, so the average person can feel what it's like to be a fighter pilot, or a space explorer, or mosquito, without having to go through years of training (or in the latter case, some poor karmic reincarnation). Unfortunately, given the medium's limitations, most games involving flight only allow the illusion of freedom, severely stifling what it truly feels like to fly.

Simply put, a game's world is usually either finite, or infinitely barren and uninteresting. So designers of games featuring flight have had to limit the player's freedom; good designers do so without letting the player know.

The game
Pilotwings for the Super NES is the first of two games in the series, focused on relatively non-traditional human flight.

The gift of flight...
Players have the ability to achieve in three aerial activities: skydiving, light plane flying, and (my favorite) jetpacking.

...and the lack of freedom
Infinite nothingness. The game takes place on several different air bases, in different locations such as "in the middle of a huge green expanse" and "in the middle of a huge brown expanse." In other words, all that exists in the world of Pilotwings are the air bases where you practice and mountains in the distance that never get any closer no matter how long the player could fly toward them. Couple that with the fact that both the jetpack and the light plane have fuel gauges, and there are exactly two places one could go: somewhere on the air base, or some solid color expanding infinitely in all directions off the air base.

The game
Super Mario 64 is Mario's first foray into the 3D world, and it is considered to be the first 3D platformer. Peach's castle acts as a hub world for the fifteen themed worlds to explore.

The gift of flight...
When Mario collects a winged cap from a red floating block, he can initiate flight with a simple triple jump.

...and the lack of freedom
Good old fashioned player death. The levels in Super Mario 64 are finite, and should the player attempt to leave the play area with his newly acquired hat wings, he is treated to the classic Charles Martinet "Waaaaaahhhhh!" and is kicked out of the level's painting. Take that for trying to explore the great beyond.

The game
Final Fantasy VII is the seventh installment of the long running series, and the first to be in full 3D. As a classic JRPG, it features a world map that isn't going to traverse itself.

The gift of flight...
Around halfway through the story, the party commandeers the Highwind, an airship that allows them to fly around the world map with ease.

...and the lack of freedom
Severely impaired landing capability. To solve the problem of players wanting to fly further and further away, Final Fantasy VII employs a common RPG trope: the wrapping world map. Once the player flies across the western edge of the map, he reappears on the eastern edge. But the bigger offender here is that the game tells the player, "Yes, now you can fly anywhere you want. You just can't land there." The Highwind can't land on mountains or forests, and there just so happens to be a remote island made up entirely of mountains and forests. How do you get there? By riding a flightless bird, of course.

The game
Grand Theft Auto III is the first game in the famous get-points-for-killing-hookers series to take place in a fully 3D world (only now as I am writing this am I noticing a pattern...). Its sandbox gameplay advertises the ability to "go anywhere, do anything."

The gift of flight...
On the third island of Liberty City, there exists an airport, and in this airport, there exists a single plane that protagonist Claude can enter: the Dodo.

...and the lack of freedom
It's really friggin' difficult to fly. If the name weren't already any indication, it takes intense practice just to get the thing off the ground for more than a few seconds. Many players just assumed it was impossible to fly the Dodo, but a few intrepid souls found a technique that would allow them to reach the highest heights of Liberty City, as dull and as tedious as the journey up there would be. The later games in the series would go on to provide competent air vehicles, so to keep players around the cities, Rockstar used a more cheap and frustrating mechanic: invisible walls.

The game
Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is the third game in the Banjo series, and it takes a pretty substantial departure from classic 3D platforming to vehicle-based gameplay.

The gift of flight...
Not long into the game, the player is allowed to build vehicles using propellers and wings. Given the right configuration, Banjo's car can be turned into a plane.

...and the lack of freedom
Walls. Plain old walls. Each of the game worlds are completely enclosed, all the way up to the ceiling. Even the Nutty Acres world, which appears to be outdoors, in encased in a giant sphere. The game gives no illusion that there is anything beyond what the designers specifically put in the game for the player to interact with. The hub world, on the other hand, is open, and the player can see areas in the distance that he could never get to. Why? Because the game does not allow custom modifications of the trolley Banjo uses to traverse the town, and none of the built-in upgrades allow flight.

The game
Flower is one of the headlining "zen games" that encourage the player to just kick back, relax, and go with the flow. Players control the wind itself, making flower petals flutter along with it.

The gift of flight...
You are the wind. You do what you want.

...and the lack of freedom
Other gusts of wind. While it is certainly more elegant than a blatant invisible wall, the game blows the player in the opposite direction should he try to fly anywhere he isn't supposed to. The lack of freedom is especially frustrating in Flower (and indeed, Flower is what inspired this whole topic), because the player can see grassy fields stretching far into the distance, and the whole point of the game is to relax and fly, but the player is forced to stay in bounds, by other asshole gusts of wind.

Have you noticed that flight in games tricks the player into thinking he can go everywhere, when he is actually still extremely limited? Or better yet, have I missed a game that actually gives the player limitless freedom to explore?

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