Video games have come quite a long way since their beginnings. Thanks to advances in computing, graphics and acoustics technology; they are far more cinematic, engaging and immersive than ever before. But is this all that there is to games? How good they look, sound or play? And is it the only thing to be considered when designing and developing games?
With the previously mentioned advances, new ways to interact with games have also been created. As such, they offer players a greater amount of choices on how to play the game and a greater sense of freedom within the games themselves. In this little dissertation, I aim to exemplify the ways in which freedom is expressed within video games independently of other, more technical aspects of gaming; such as graphics, sound, story and such. As well as show how these freedoms might be abused if taken a little too far.
As I see it, there are three fundamental ways in which the concept of freedom is explored within games. Which are the following:
The Freedom to Explore
It can be said that this aspect of video games has risen in popularity drastically in recent years, as game franchises that were once limited in their ability to let the player explore have suddenly become free, open worlds that allow players to roam within them at their leisure. As is evident from the name given to this particular freedom, it is the one that is associated mostly with the space within the game takes place. In some way, every game provides this kind of freedom, albeit to varying degrees. This is especially prevalent in most Role Playing Games and those games defined within the ambiguous genre known as "action adventure", in which the freedom to explore the world that is present before the player tends to be a focal point of their design.
Developers nowadays tend to exemplify this freedom as much as possible within their games given that they have far more resources at their disposal to create spaces that allow for a greater sense of exploration, but this is not without its caveats. If players are presented with the freedom to roam about the world and explore, they must also be given an incentive to do so, as well as the necessary tools that allow for such exploration to be fun, entertaining and rewarding.
As an example, though I dislike having to criticize the Elder Scrolls series, Daggerfall was a huge game. It is the second entry into the series and the game world that it presented was nothing short of staggeringly large. According to Bethesda, the entire world was roughly twice the size of Great Britain or 147,000 kilometers squared. Not to mention that it was littered with 15,000 towns, dungeons, cities and other locations to find and explore. By comparison, the next game in the series, Morrowind, gave players an area that was roughly 12 miles squared with a much lesser amount of locations to explore. As you can probably imagine, trying to explore the entirety of Daggerfall was a little bit overwhelming. This would not be so bad, but coupled with the fact that players were not really given adequate tools with which to explore this place, it just wasn't that added value to the game as a whole. The map was a bitch to navigate, towns and dungeons were presented as little dots on a massive map of each of the provinces in Daggerfall differentiated only by subtle changes in color, there was no index of places to speak of, trying to find that one little place you wanted to go to in that veritable ocean of little dots was nearly impossible. All in all, it wasn't something that lent itself to be explored as it should be.
That's the complete map of the entire region...
And that's the map of that little "province" called Daggerfall on the bottom left corner of that peninsula on the north of the map. Now imagine that for each and every one of those other provinces on the map of the region.
There might have been incentives for people to explore this massive world, such as finding witch covens, hidden shrines, wondrous loot and additional quests. But the fact remains that it was just too absurdly large and players did not have the helpful tools in order to explore this colossal place, even if there was fast travel and such, it was still difficult to get a sense of direction.
Morrowind (and for that matter Oblivion), however, did lend itself to be explored a bit more by compressing the world and by making each location within it far more interesting and fleshed out. As such, it gave players even more incentive to explore and it more importantly, it made it fun. Of course, that's a matter of opinion, but it can be said that it made it a lot better and easier for players to find themselves immersed within the game world constructed.
This, however, is only one example. Many other games give players the ability to explore to varying degrees. Games such as Batman: Arkham Asylum, Psychonauts, the Metroid series, Castlevania: SOTN and its derivatives, The Legend of Zelda series and others like them allow you to explore a contained world to a limited degree at first, but as you unlock new abilities the world begins to gain a far greater sense of openness as you grow more powerful, giving players an incentive to keep discovering new things within the game world.
Most FPS games give a limited degree of freedom to explore within each of the "stages" that the player must go through. While they don't usually allow players to go from place to place within the entire game world freely, they allow players to find new routes, hidden items and new challenges through exploration of every stage they go through. Good examples of this might be games such as Deus Ex, Thief, Bioshock, Duke Nukem 3D, the original Doom titles and such.
Some games simply give you free reign to explore the entire game world as it is presented, scattering challenges and objectives throughout the map while trying to maintain a good pacing for players to follow in order to achieve the most out of the experience, whilst a the same time giving them the freedom to just do as they wish if it is their desire, as is seen in most sandbox games.
There are an infinite number of ways to exemplify and limit this freedom in order to give players the intended play experience by the developers. As there are games in which this freedom is very limited (such as most puzzle, sports and fighting games), there are also games in which it is exercised to a far greater degree (such as the aforementioned games). Neither is better or worse so long as they are implemented in a way that allows the players to navigate the environment properly, making it fun and engaging to immerse themselves within the game. This ties itself integrally to the next freedom that I wish to describe within this dissertation, the Freedom to Choose.
The Freedom to Choose
This aspect of freedom within games has a lot more to do with the gameplay itself more than any other. It is what gives us our morality systems, our custom players, our renegade interruptions and more importantly, our choice of ways to interact with a game. The freedom to choose is often integrated deeply with the freedom to explore, given that if players are presented with a large degree of liberty to explore, they are usually also going to be given a greater degree of freedom on how to actually go about doing it.
However, this is not to say that they are directly proportional. Deus Ex is a game that perfectly exemplifies this. While every area in the game is a small contained space with a varying amount of routes to go through each level, the freedom of choice is prevalent throughout the entire game. Your actions and the way that you play the game have an overarching effect over the entire gameplay experience, be it as a little detail or as a pivotal part of the story. One is not necessarily penalized for making odd choices, but it makes for an interesting experience to see how you can affect the game with the choices that you make.
Strategy games, in which the freedom to explore might be severely limited, are good examples of how the freedom to choose is implemented to an extremely great degree. Famous examples such as Starcraft and Supreme Commander are games in which players are presented with an almost limitless wealth of options to play the game, formulating an infinite number of new strategies and ways in which one can win the game. It is within that liberty of choice that their gameplay value hinges and as such, it becomes a pivotal point in their design and development.
Developers must also take care in implementing this freedom. Returning to my Daggerfall example, not only did the game give players an unprecedentedly large world to explore, it also gave players a greater degree of character customization than any other of the Elder Scrolls games ever have. Your character had over 30 skills that could be trained and used, whereas Morrowind only had 27 skills. The thing is that in Daggerfall, most skills were hardly used or weren't really necessary. As such, most players neglected these skills given that it wasn't worth training them, such as many of the monster language skills and other miscellaneous skills. It wasn't worth arduously training these skills in order to received very meager benefits. It is generally a good idea to give players a greater degree of freedom to choose, but one must also make sure that those choices are worth making.
Given what consumers expect of their entertainment value nowadays, games have catered to greater audiences by offering more and more ways to interact with the game. Be it through customizable characters, greater amount of abilities to play with, morality systems, dialogue trees or the simple joy of messing around in a sandbox and blowing everything to kingdom come and coming up with increasingly humorous ways of murdering pedestrians. This is a fundamental freedom that most games need to exploit somehow in order to make the game far more relplayable and thus, more engaging to the players themselves. This also, in some ways, ties itself to the last aspect of freedom within video games, the Freedom to Create.
The Freedom to Create
It can be said that this aspect is the most open-ended of the freedoms allowed within games, given that it can extend itself beyond what the developers have done with the game itself. This freedom is often associated with god simulation games, such as Sim City, Populous, Spore, Minecraft and the like. But this is merely an example of the freedom to create within the game. The freedom to create lends itself to give players the chance to make their own stories with the tools offered by the games. Often, these games have no real "objective" or "victory condition" to speak of and instead give players the tools with which to make their own objectives.
But, like all the aspects of freedom that have been explained within this blog, there are also varying degrees to which this freedom is given. There are games that might allow for a crafting mechanism, making new weapons, armor and items with ingredients that the game gives you, such as Diablo II. There are games that allow you to edit maps to have new places in which to enjoy the game, such as the forging system made by Halo. There are games that give you an even greater degree to edit the ways in which the game itself is played, such as the map editor provided by Starcraft 2. Mind you, these are a very limited number of examples. Listing them all would probably take a lifetime.
Finally, there is simply the inherit freedom to create new games themselves with tools provided by developers. As evidenced by the innumerable mods and tweaks that exist for all sorts of games that have been released, players with sufficiently industrious imaginations and skills in programming and design will take it up to themselves to always make something new. This is the kind of freedom that should probably be most encouraged, as it allows for a wave of innovation to sweep through the video game industry itself, taking the concept of liberty and extending it far beyond the reach of what a single game can do by itself.
So truly, to what extent is it good to offer freedom to players within video games? Well, it all depends on what kind of experience developers wish to create. All three of these freedoms can be independent of each other as well as mutually benefit from one another to create a brilliant gaming experience that will stick with you far beyond from the game itself.
Video games have a unique opportunity to offer what no other entertainment medium can; through their interactivity and their ability to immerse the player within the worlds they create. As technology develops and games themselves are infused with a greater sense of creativity and imagination, they will give people access to a greater sense of freedom within their worlds than we ever thought possible.