When I was in my third year of university my friends and I spent an inordinate amount of time crammed into my living room, staring intently at the biggest TV my meager student funds allowed me to purchase, as we took turns playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Officially we had a “two quests, then switch” rule, but in practice that rarely worked. It wasn't much fun just mechanically completing quests then handing the controller over. So nobody cared if one of us went and just messed about and explored. In general we played until someone started to bitch. It was fun to watch everyone play differently, but I had one friend who used to infuriate me. Every limitation pissed him off.
I'd say to him, “You see that massive mountain way off in the distance? You can go check it out now, then climb it, and you'll be able to see the entire route you took. How cool is that?” but he'd be too busy trying to kill everyone in every single village. Then he'd start bitching about how most of them would just get knocked out.
In the end he finished the game and loved it, but he constantly moaned about not being able to kill whoever he wanted. I found out that this was his “thing”. Just after he started playing Fallout: New Vegas I asked him if he sided with Goodsprings or the Gangers. He just looked at me, confused. He didn't have a clue what I was talking about. He explained that upon entering the bar he got tired of the barmaid talking, so he killed the whole town. He was rather pleased with himself.
Even though murdering an entire town of quest givers meant that he didn't have a clue what he was doing or where he was meant to go, he appreciated that he was still able to do it. In Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind you could stop yourself from being able to complete the game by killing any number of important characters. You wouldn't even know until you'd already done the deed.
While I don't tend to go on psychopathic rampages in most games, I do appreciate it when developers give players more freedom. Now, this has nothing to do with open worlds, morality systems or playing gay, straight, bisexual or transsexual characters. I mean when developers give us the choice on how we want to progress in the game, or opening the lid to the toy box and letting us use the developer tools.
Open worlds can certainly offer players a lot of freedom, especially in terms of being able to choose when we access the various content and how we approach that content. But that is far from being something only open world games do. It's probably an overused example, but that's only because it's a great one: Deus Ex. While the game was fairly linear, within the missions you had a ridiculous number of options. Between the various routes, and variety of options available when it came to any given confrontation, each mission had tons of replayability and encouraged players to to think more tactically. I still remember my final confrontation with Gunther. I know your self destruct code, bitch.
Linear games don't have to sacrifice freedom. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that it never happens. I avoided Final Fantasy XIII for some time. What I read in reviews or heard from friends didn't make it sound like my cup of tea. However, I was a bit confused about why so many of the complaints included criticisms of it's linearity. Sure, the franchise tends to be fairly open, but I didn't see anything wrong with the formula being mixed up a bit. It was more the poor story, annoying characters and automatic combat that put me off.
I did eventually pick it up and I was rather surprised. The characters were no more annoying than most JRPG heroes. I even grew fond of Vanille. I grew so sick of the miserable bastards, that made up most of the group, crying at the drop of a hat, that seeing her skip about or laugh was like a breath of fresh air. The story didn't blow me away, but it was serviceable. I even enjoyed some of the combat, I liked the class and paradigm system quite a lot, actually.
Not even nearly the worst thing in FFXIII
What surprised me the most was that it was, as I had been warned, the linearity of the game (at least for the first ten chapters) which was to games most glaring fault. It was completely linear. The level up system looked flexible, but it wasn't, for the first ten chapters you tend to just have two people in a group at once, so the combat didn't have much variety and you literally walked down a single path. Occasionally you could avoid a battle. I was on auto pilot the whole time. If something cool happened it was in a cut scene. I felt like a passive viewer, I might as well have watched a movie, at least it would have been shorter.
When a developer wants to create a tight narrative and needs to put some limitations on the player, it's not necessarily a bad thing, Final Fantasy XIII could have told the same story without leading the player down one, continuous route.. Lots of developers let us get our hands on the very tools used to craft the game in the first place. I can't think of any games that haven't been improved by mods. So many continue to be enjoyable, long after their competition has been forgotten, because of good communities and lots of user made content.
I play a lot of Total War and one of the reasons I keep reinstalling them is the user created content. I've probably played more of Third Age, the Middle Earth total conversion for Total War: Medieval II, than the core game. The character models are sport on, the map is fantastic and there's nothing quite like ordering a horde of orcs from Isengard to slaughter a village of silly Dale folk. Strategy games in general are great for mods, I'm always blown away when I see some of the total conversions, especially the ones that aren't even in the same genre as the original game.
Bethesda is also great at providing players with the tools to alter their games and even make games of their own. Sometimes it's as simple as making some new items or adding a few tweaks here or there. Sometimes it's aesthetic, like a complete graphics overhaul.
I recently started to replay Fallout: New Vegas, I'm using a lot of mods this time and it's like playing a different game. From the terrifying sheer darkness at night where I have to flee from near invisible foes, to wandering down a peaceful highway at night, feeling safe under the protective glow of the street lamps or finding a cache of completely new weapons, it all still feels fun because it's all new, but in a game I already love.
Bioware's Neverwinter Nights is another game where players got to tinker. The core game was great, but it's nothing without the plethora of mods. From persistent worlds to brand new games, the content was near endless and it's still being played today. Bioware let us build mini MMORPGs, and I certainly had more fun in them than I do in most AAA ones released now.
Earlier I wrote that this was like the developers opening the lid of the toy box. For me, that's exactly what it's like. When I was a kid I didn't use a script when I played with my action figures, I didn't try to take part in some complex narrative (although, I confess, I did sometimes make my toys act out issues of comics, especially my X-Men ones), I just used my imagination. While there's nothing wrong with developers taking things seriously, whether they are trying to send a message, or debate issues, make a technical masterpiece or tell a wonderful story, sometimes I just want to play.
My go to place for this is currently Minecraft. I just do what I want. If I want a scripted adventure there are plenty of mods for that, but normally I just like to build shit. Nice and simple. I spend most of my time on one MP server and since February I've been building my City of Tomorrow. So far I've got my central plaza and skyway, a nice bio dome forest and right now I'm building a space port. I've already finished my Imperial shuttle. We've got some pvp war zones for relieving tension and a survival world linked by a stargate for when we feel like manning up and playing the game in a frightfully hardcore manner.
I don't mind when games lead me down a scripted path, but sometimes I want to be able to entertain myself. That was the great thing about being a kid. We were annoying little shits that sane adults wanted nothing to do with, so we were given some toys, used our naturally splendid imaginations and then we went to town.
Being able to get my hands on developer tools; or just being able to play a game which encourages me to use my imagination more, is like a godsend to me. I'm too self conscious to pick up a stick and pretend it's a sword or sit on the floor and play with toys, so it's superb that I can enjoy an outlet like Minecraft and still feel like an adult. That's important to me, because I'm still living like I'm eighteen, so I need to at least sometimes pretend I'm a grownup. I'm not a kid playing with virtual Lego, I'm a fucking architect and master builder all rolled into one.