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Hitting the invisible wall.


"'You are leaving the mission area,' is a failure of games design." This wasn't a sentiment I'd openly expressed myself, but when I heard it voiced during one of GCN's Gaming Sins videos, it certainly struck a chord.

On many occasions I've been playing a game, submerged in the artificial world the developers have created, when I've hit a virtual barrier. The barrier in question may have been the aforementioned "You are leaving the mission area" warning, an invisible wall that my character stumbled into, or some other kind of obstacle. Regardless, the overall effect has always been the same – to yank me right out of the action, driving home the fact that I'm playing a video game.

This issue has existed in one form or another some time now, although it's become more noticeable of late, with more creators taking an open-world approach to games design. One title that I hoped would address this issue was Avalanche's Mad Max, the game's designers stating in one interview that  “There are no finite limits to the map… in other words, there is no ‘one side’. You can continue driving into The Big Nothing until you get bored or killed."

But when I finally got my hands on the game,  I discovered that venturing beyond the main map resulted in Max's death. Again, this made me acutely aware of the fact that I was playing a video game, hardly a desirable sensation, Undertale aside. In truth, I would have rather hit a mountain range or some less obvious barrier than just have my character killed at a designer's whim.

Yet while I find the concept of a truly open play area to be rather appealing, it's not entirely practical. Forthcoming space and exploration sim 'No Man's Sky' claims to feature procedurally generated alien worlds, though I would question how engaging those worlds would be when they are constructed using finite assets.  Creating an infinite world would also likely necessitate generating additional objectives to keep the player occupied.

This too has pitfalls, as anyone who has played Fallout 4 can attest. Each of the factions in this post-apocalyptic RPG merrily dole out quest after randomly generated quest, apparently ignorant of the pure tedium they can engender. I certainly felt like administering my own form of wasteland justice every time the Brotherhood of Steel sent me off to collect a piece of technology from an arbitrarily selected location.  

There are other reasons why an infinite play area may not particularly feasible, including a whole range of technical ones. For example, Bethesda's Gamebryo engine had a problem whereby saved games would grow in size, the longer you played one of their RPGs. This was apparently due to the fact that the game needed to keep track of where individual objects were. So the more you played the game and moved objects from their original locations, the more data needed to be added to the save file. Now imagine having to keep track of the position of every object that could grew in size whenever the player wandered further afield. It would be problematic to say the least.

So what, then, is the solution to the invisible walls, on-screen messages and their ilk that serve to drive a wedge between the player and their gaming experience?  I believe that it's down to how the developer handles the limitations of their world, making it as transparent to the player as possible or at least, in keeping with the feel of the game.

Take Fallout: New Vegas, a game that's set in the Mojave Desert and surrounding areas. There are indeed areas where the game actively tells you that you're at the edge of the map,  which I actually  found less intrusive than just having me slam into the  wall without warning.  But for the most part you're constrained by geography, the edges of the map being bordered by canyons and mountains. These barriers seem entirely natural and while Fallout: New Vegas may be based on a real area, similar techniques have been used in other games which featured fictional locales.

Scarface, a video-game follow up to the Brian De Palma film, reigns in the player using a somewhat startling but absolutely brilliant approach. Should you, as Tony Montana, swim far enough out from the coastline, you are devoured by a Great White Shark, after which you respawn back on land. Shocking and utterly ridiculous as this is, it's entirely in keeping with the over the top spirit of the game and provides a clear if somewhat silly incentive to stay within the play area.  

As for Mad Max, vehicles in the game require fuel, a finite resource, so a far less glaring way of addressing the issue would have been to have your character run out of fuel and gradually lose health as he roamed the desert. Anything would have been a preferably alternative to the 'WARNING: You are entering the Big Nothing' message and the subsequent insta-demise that followed.

 Do I agree with GCN's assertion? In essence, yes, and I'd broaden the statement to encompass all obviously artificial barriers to player progress.  Games designers seek to immerse players in their digital creations and yet these occurrences can undermine their efforts.  It's not something that occurs in all games, but there are far subtler ways to impose restrictions on players. We all know our limits, we just don't need to be bashed over the head with them.

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About ChrisHannardone of us since 4:27 PM on 09.03.2015