Part gamer/geek/redneck, prone to blowing up one of my hands some day. Got into gaming with a "Turbogame", a console made by CCE that kinda resembled an Atari. Grew up playing both SNES and Mega Drive (or "Sega Genesis"). First videogame to be owned through "own funds" was a Nintendo 64. Currently own a 360 and a PC.
Also, I think arguing over which is better: Xbox, PS3 or PC is a complete waste of time. I intend to have all of them, so there I can ignore this whole "exclusive" banter.
I also like beer and "Churrasco", a traditional Gaucho barbeque.
Freedom in games. Like pretty much every topic regarding games, one that I consider to be worthy of study. On the other hand, as a videogame aficionado, you shouldn't trust my word on that, since I consider pretty much every aspect of gaming worthy of study. But let’s get to the matter at hand, and let me explain my vision about freedom in gaming.
Basically, you could approach games with two different, let’s say, “philosophies”: either you let the player have an extreme liberty, a true sandbox experience, like Minecraft (that lacks any narrative whatsoever) for instance, or you limit the choices available to the player, with many cutscenes, scripted events, and a linear storyline, but then achieving a greater control over the narrative, and enabling you to either “control the emotions” of the player, as MGS4: Guns of the Patriots does (examples of what I mean with this can be found here, here, here, here, and here), or even including this lack of liberty on the storyline, as was the case with Bioshock, where the “would you kindly” element plays a vital role in the story (and who didn’t get surprised when you discovered everything you, the player, had been doing thus far, was really forced because of some pre-conditioning of the character?). But this freedom can also happen in the storyline itself, so let’s briefly evaluate two different games: Fallout: New Vegas and MGS4: Guns of the Patriots. The former, one who boasts a completely non-linear storyline, and another with a storyline as straight as an arrow, but notwithstanding, both memorable experiences.
Freedom, give it to me, that's what I want now
In Fallout: New Vegas, we have a narrative-focused game which presents us with unprecedented levels of freedom, especially for storytelling (even more than with Fallout 2). You craft your own tale. Ok, there are limitations: it will[b] be a tale of revenge and overcoming of odds, you [b]will be “The Courier”, and your origin story will be getting shot in the head. There are expected limitations not only in these few (nevertheless important) characteristics of the story, and a few more on gameplay. However, within these boundaries, several different tales can be woven. One could, for instance, be the relentless vindicator who goes straight after the man who shot you, not straying much from your path and killing anyone (or anything) that dares cross your path, or a suave smooth talker, who goes with the flow and leaves revenge for a more appropriate moment.
In Fallout 3, you had contrasting options: you could be either good or bad, and that’s pretty much it. New Vegas gives you the option of “I don’t like these guys, so I’m gonna go side with those other ones, or maybe blow them to smithereens”. Your relationship with that faction would degrade, of course, but it wouldn’t affect, let’s say, the Legion, if you help the bandits in Goodsprings. Aside from these choices, there is also the way quests are able to be solved. You can go in guns blazing and go through the whole game as if it were Borderlands with less color and “mama’s girly parts” jokes. Or you can try and talk your way out of any mess, or even resolve things in a rather diplomatic way. I may be mistaken, but I think there is even the possibility of letting people fight for you in a few cases, convincing someone else to do the dirty work. All of these options, regardless of moral alignment. And these will generate lots of different results for the ending of the game. And New Vegas is a game with only a narrative example of freedom, there are other great examples out there, as I’m sure some of you will point out. And then, there’s the other side of the coin.
Because you’re mine, I walk the line
And then, there’s the evil tyranny of linear storyline. But every now and then, somebody presents us with a compelling interactive experience. Great examples are Bioshock and MGS4: Guns of the Patriots, as I’ve commented (and linked) above. Bioshock plays with your lack of choice in the game, by using that as a plot device, wonderfully might I add. That little scene where you are forced to kill Andrew Ryan right after discovering he is your father - and, surprise, not as evil as you thought at first – is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had with videogames. As is Metal Gear Solid 4.
Now, I know some of you dislike the series. The criticism about lengthy cutscenes is not gratuitous. But still, I can’t tell of one fan of the Metal Gear Solid series who wasn’t touched by countless moments in the game. I myself can name almost a dozen. I’m not ashamed to admit that, as a fan of the series since its PSX roots (or, should I say, “second comig”? Nah, too religious), I’ve shed a few tears in key moments… especially in Shadow Moses Island. Hideo Kojima achieved something I’ve never seen up until then (and since, to be sincere): he connected me to the game [b]emotionally[/n]. He actually managed to make player feel the same as the character, and through a complex (and rather specific) method: memories. As Chad said on his article about the return to Shadow Moses, the graphics played a big part. You see, it’s not about the game itself. The melancholy felt in that time was because, as a great deal of players, I played Metal Gear Solid in my teen years, and seeing all that, Snake wistfully remembering his earlier years, the weight of the world on his shoulders… I myself remembered much of that time of my life. Many experiences came to mind, good and bad things that happened then, which made me who I am.
However, this is not a “Memory Card” moment, thus there must be some reason behind my explanation of how I felt. And there is: this would never be achieved through non-linear gameplay. Freedom, in this case, would preclude Kojima from causing these feelings on fans. MGS4 is clearly a game made not to [b]please]/b] fans. It was specifically tailored to touch fans in their innermost memories, those fond ones of afternoons spent in front of a tube TV, in how they felt like they grew with Snake, being shaped by these experiences just as he was. But to achieve this, freedom had to be sacrificed: the player couldn’t have taken a different road. He couldn’t have done anything in the game in a different order, because every scene leads up to the feeling of the ones that come after. When it comes to the ending, the exact sequence unveils into a beautiful, yet sad ending. You have gone exactly through where was planned, and felt the exact range of emotions that was expected when the game was written.
The best is yet to come
So, where does this all comes in relation to freedom? That freedom, in games, is key. Not necessarily having freedom, neither not having it. But when developing it, either gameplay or storyline, freedom must be kept in mind. It becomes an important feature: if it is sacrificed, why is it sacrificed? Is it worth it? Will the gamer get something of equal or greater value in exchange for not being able to do as he pleases? In games like MGS4 or Bioshock, it is worth it indeed, for in exchange for going anywhere they please, they get a great experience, like watching a wonderful movie but with the feeling that you’re part of it. Should the focus be another: will it be worth it to give freedom to the player, and maybe having a weaker storyline like, say, Borderlands, where you have a fine gameplay, but a weak narrative? Were I to say something definite about freedom, I would not take sides between having it or not. I would say that, whether you give it to the player, or restrict it completely, you should know why you did it. And whatever the option, there should be a good reason to, in the end, give us what is more important: a good game.