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knutaf avatar 12:51 PM on 07.07.2011  (server time)
Freedom: the Careful, Partial Restriction Thereof

Lately we've seen people talking about linear games, which are a type of restriction, and certain techniques that unshackle the player (say, from gravity). I'd like to pile on with a few ways in which the careful restriction of freedom adds much to a game concept or significantly alters it. I have three cases to look at (with you, of course).


Possibly just from that clever little genre name, I don't even need to say anything else. I will dwell on them only briefly, since others have also touched on them this week. Gamers now instantly associate it with some of the game design principles introduced by the eponymous Metroid and Castlevania series.

In a sense, the worlds in these games are fairly open. There's nothing really preventing you from going anywhere, except... that ledge is just a bit too high, or that gap is a little too far, or--well, okay--that white door won't open when you shoot it with your yellow gun.

There's a sort of symbiosis between upgrades and world openness. As the player navigates the world, they see areas they can't go to yet. These areas are enticing, holding excitement of the unknown. At the same time, the fact that they are closed off usually also reveals to the player that they will eventually get some shiny new gear (double jump, ice beam, screw attack, whatever) that enables them to go there--the dual promise of new loot and new areas. In this way, temporarily limiting the player's freedom gives them many things to look forward to.

Not too big, not too small... just right

As I was playing the ridiculously good Xbox Live Indie game Blocks That Matter (which I discovered from a recent Buy It/Avoid It Report), it got me thinking about a peculiar design choice the developers made.

The central gameplay mechanic in this puzzle platformer is that you collect blocks of various materials, then can lay them back out again to create structures to climb on. The design choice I'm talking about is that you can only place tetrominoes (i.e. exactly four connected blocks at a time).

The reason this is even something I thought about is probably because at first glance I saw this game as simply a platformer with Minecraft elements. Whereas in Minecraft you can put whatever blocks anywhere, in Blocks That Matter your freedom is severely restricted. For instance, if you only have three blocks in your inventory, you cannot lay any blocks until you've found a fourth. Or if you are in a somewhat tight space, you may not have the space to lay all four requisite blocks. I was struck by the novelty of being restricted from both directions--too many and too few. The level design devilishly exploits this restriction in some of the harder puzzles, forcing you to be very careful about the number and types of blocks you have on hand.

Just, you know, shove it in a box or something

I started thinking about this blog when inspired by manasteel88's look at jetpacks. I thought, "well, jetpacks are cool, but space sims just let you fly wherever the heck you want, right?" It's true: old games like Wing Commander, X-Wing, and TIE Fighter had in some sense the ultimate in freedom of movement--three axes and 360 degrees of freedom.

And then I thought: wait, another game claimed that same freedom of movement as a novel idea, and got away with it, despite it not being the first by a long shot. Of course, I'm talking about Descent, which I hold near and dear to my heart. What did Descent do differently? Well... two things.

Firstly, it added a little thing called strafing (side to side and up and down) to your ship's toolset, which allowed for a whole new set of maneuvers such as corkscrews, vertical circle-strafing, and triple-chording. Previous space combat games did not have this, and it enabled fundamentally different gameplay.

And the other novel idea? It put six walls around you. And that changed everything. The feel of freedom, flying in any direction feels completely different when totally unrestricted in space than in a cramped tunnel system. Actually, Descent 3 opened up a little with brief outdoor segments, but you couldn't just fly off into space there, so it wasn't really outdoor.

Giving the player roughly the controls of a space combat sim, but setting it indoors was a restriction on freedom of movement that worked to their advantage, creating a series with a wholly unique feel. The same can be said for the other examples: clever restrictions--but not complete eliminations--of overall freedom in gameplay that enhance our experience with the game significantly.

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