Gamer's (illusion of) freedom
First posted on 01 July 2008. Last updated on 31 October 2008.
About the author
Igor Hardy is a philosophy student at the University of Warsaw. Besides his deep interest in adventure games, he is also a great movie buff and has co-created a few short animated films using traditional techniques. Currently, he is set to create his own indie adventure game titled Tales of Horror.
The qualities of a computer game that capture a gamer's attention cannot just be as a simple list of ingredients worthy of inclusion. It is not necessarily that the more you add to a dish, the richer the dish will taste. Adding more of something often means taking away from something else. Many gamers desire for an unattainable mix of conflicting qualities when they imagine a perfect gaming experience. They want the game developers to constantly push the boundaries of how close a game can get to simulating total reality and freedom in a virtual world. At the same time, they do not wish the gameplay to get clogged by the boredom of everyday life activities and complications. Both desires are understandable. Books and movies can entertain on the basis of retelling some determined, linear but larger than life events. Games, however, have to entertain by incorporating their audience's decisions into the action. The only solution to meet these involved opposing needs at the same time is to create an illusion of freedom in the players' minds without allowing it to be actually true.
It can be said that such a solution ultimately comes down to how the player's imagination can be best stimulated and deceived in order to identify with events inside the game, while making the player oblivious to the rigid patterns built by the machinery behind it. In this article, we shall study how gamers act under game designers' created illusions and how they seek self-deception when playing these games.
Computer games and beyond
Sometimes, the sensations of having a liberty of choice amount simply to small added features, neat little compensations for the limitations in actual choices allowed in the game. Nevertheless, the fundamental illusions are found in certain qualities of the core game mechanics. Here, the adventure games genre gives an excellent illustration of this aspect. The basic elements that provide a sense of freedom may include the use of fair amounts of hotspots (and possible interface based interactions) or the use of rich descriptions of items. Additionally, there are plenty of non vital, dispensable sources of illusion. For example, there may be extra actions that a player can perform just for fun and reasonable extra commentaries a player may receive in response to different approaches to solving a puzzle. Moreover, a game designer can incorporate selective or random parameters into the game to make each single game session more interesting. However, in some cases, too many unessential additions can turn to detriments and make the whole experience feel forced and artificial. Poorly fitted puzzles, never-ending dialogs, and overlong cinematics can too make the players feel that they are annoyingly limited in their actions by the game's rigid design. Ultimately, balance and appropriateness must dictate how much is too much and what needs to be avoided all together.
The scope of such analyses is not limited solely to computer games, but it also applies to games in general. What counts the most is a solid notion of possibilities given to the player and the impression that the player can influence the game step by step in the direction of a desired outcome. Without those qualities there will be hardly any motivation to play any kind of game. A good basic example is the popular child card game War. The rules are very simple. The shuffled deck is divided evenly between the players and kept facedown. Every player takes out a top card from each divided deck, and the card with the largest value ascribed by the rules wins. The winner takes the beaten cards to beneath the divided deck, and the next round begins. The reason why the game is aimed at kids is evident: grown-ups will get bored quickly by the game's lack of variety and apparent dependency on chance rather than consequences of choices. On the other hand, children who cannot right away see through the limited merit of these card battles may get very excited about their wins and losses. An interesting corollary to this observation is that the act of betting money can also make some adults think in similarly childish way, in that they believe they can exert some kind of special additional influence on the game's outcomes, even in cases when it is obvious the results are completely unpredictable. It can be said that both cases demonstrate the absence or disturbance of sufficient analytical judgment. Yet, it is what a gamer may want, if the goal is to be fooled for entertainment.
To achieve simple but effective illusions of freedom the player must stop noticing the patterns to which the player has been confined to and loose oneself in the game by acting through the perceived free choices. Of course, this state of mind may not be constant and may be influenced by the specific person's subjective view. There is, however, a strictly objective measure of such illusions as well, especially for games that are based on simple rules. In these games, the gamer's experience depends largely on the logical elegance of the rules and the complexity potential of the sessions. So, in tic-tac-toe, the player can reach the permanent conviction of being narrowly limited by the available choices long before trying out all possible combinations. By contrast, in chess, it only seems that the direct choices are limited to which piece and where to move it in accordance to the rules of the game. In reality, the player can hide astonishingly complex plans of attack behind each move. Interestingly, for the reason that chess is not in the least bit a game based on chance, professional chess players are supposed to be disillusioned and learn to not act on instinct but to focus solely on the battle of skills. Thus, they deny themselves the joy of succumbing to illusions of freedom but still remain content with the awareness of their boundaries while playing the game.
To generalize, the player in playing a game confronts a series of obstacles created by its rules and mechanics and perhaps additionally by an opponent. The goal of the game designer is usually to make the confrontation of these obstacles enjoyable. A major factor is the player's own perception on the freedom of choice. This perception of control over the course of the game comes from having fair influence to make a situation worse or better, closer or farther away from a specified final goal (such as capturing the opponent's king in the case of chess). This requires only the basic understanding of the rules. Nevertheless, there is also the desire on the part of the player to be most effective and to win in the game. Certainly, the better understanding the player has on using the rules of the game to the player's advantage, the more sharply the player will see the options available. It will increase the chance of winning for the player, but it can also make the game less fun if the player ends up gaining complete mastery of the game and over all potential opponents. A player who, by contrast, is overloaded and confused by the rules may feel that there are limitless options. However, such player will be unable to make progress and may quickly become disinterested in playing the game. To balance these polar opposites, the designer has to direct the player's interest beyond just the drive of seeking out the easiest way to winning. The player has to have sufficient free range for both: to slowly expand skills permanently, but also to experiment and sometimes invent solutions to problems instinctively.
Up to now, we have focused on the kind of games that are best described as mechanics driven games. There is a different class of games: story driven games. Adventure games represent this latter class, for example. In the context we need, what it means to be a story, is not necessarily to be an epic tale. A narrative composed of short and fairly autonomous plot threads is a story as well. For certain games, it may difficult to determine how essential the story is, if perhaps it is only for decoration. However, the sharpness of this classification is of only minor importance, as we have already successfully used adventure games as illustration of games in general. The difference which really matters is that story driven games not only follow the fundamental, rule based game mechanics but they additionally try to take on attributes of the art of storytelling.
Elusive value of immersive storylines
The question about story driven games that needs to be asked first is: how much can an immensely involving storyline compensate for the limitations in freedom? How much can it make the player forget about those restrictions? Maybe an immensely involving storyline can actually deliver a convincing illusion of freedom all on its own.
There is a type of games called Gamebooks that show just how little is needed to make a difference between what is being called a book and what is being called a game. The reader is presented with a small choice of narrative branches that can be followed. Each option contains a reference to the paragraph number that is to be read next if the corresponding option is chosen. This basic game mechanic can be expanded into more sophisticated derivatives, so that there are different kinds of gamebooks. They range from simple branching plot novels (such as the popular Choose Your Own Adventure series) to single player adventure role-playing games. Depending how the player regards this activity, the player is either playing a game and making choices or reading a book that is barely distinguishing itself from a typical novel. Nonetheless, the immersion achieved is not necessarily weaker than that created by a mechanics driven gameplay. This holds true even if the employed tricks are limited to a second person point of view narrator or a possibility of choosing from a tiny group of alternative plot threads. The weight of making the player believe that the development of the events can be influenced is left to the quality of storytelling. It means that the limited choices must be sufficiently interesting and appear to lead to completely different outcomes. This allows the player to immerse in the illusions of freewill actions inside the game world, even if the rational part of the mind knows better—that all the story threads and actions which can be chosen have already been predetermined.
Computer game critics have long thought that lack of freedom is the main reason why gamers have turned away from FMV (Full Motion Video) games in the 1990s, after the initial hype that these games have generated about their movie like visuals. However, such retaliation may have been due to the fact that back then the gaming community at large consisted of avid gamers who are used to more complex interactivity. Also, the quality of storytelling in many of the FMV games is rather low. These circumstances have now changed. More and more new people are drawn into playing video games, but they spend much less time playing them than the classic gamers. The recent development of DVG (Digital Video Games) for standalone DVD players—conversions of adventure games to DVD-Video—shows that developers are willing to experiment by exposing a larger public to video games in hope of reaching a new kind of gamers. The price for this is that freedom in the gameplay has been greatly limited as a result of the format conversion. Will this be tolerated by the new, inexperienced gamers?
For computer games players, quite a few illusions of freedom are taken for granted so much that the only way to actually become aware of them is to find cases where they are missing or badly implemented. An instructive example of this is the possibility to control the game character to walk anywhere on the game screen of a third-person perspective adventure game. There are game titles that have left out this feature, perhaps to save time on programming pathways for the player. The imminent reaction of the player, who is not used to this, is a feeling of loss of control of the character because the avatar is stuck to the ground. Even The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, despite being an otherwise great adventure game, suffers somewhat of this problem. This is not so evident when the player progresses in good pace within the game, largely because the main character is seen traveling in cut scenes. However, when the player is stumped by a puzzle, the game quickly turns into a stiff and lifeless slideshow. At this point, an interesting confrontation develops itself between the story and the gameplay. If the player is willing to suffer through these obvious restrictions and not give up on playing in consequence of it, the story may be good enough to make the player forget quickly about any such detriment. Gamers seem to have a selective memory: what they remember after finishing an adventure game is the excitement that comes from experiencing the story, not the whole fruitless periods of not being able to put together solutions to puzzles.
This concept can be taken to an interesting extreme. Imagine an adventure game that is completely devoid of all mechanics used to create a sense of freedom. Suppose the player loses the ability to perform any action free from a strict chronological order and the interface allows the player to engage only the actions which make progress within the story. Thus, the player cannot even visit a different location in the game unless the right sequence of events has been triggered to drive the story forward. This is similar to the classic arcade game Dragon's Lair, but instead of having the challenge of pushing the buttons at the right order, the player needs to conceptualize and execute specific chains of commands before the game will respond.
Does such a game sound off-putting? Without taking into consideration any particular story, the answer is perhaps yes. However, a good designer of story driven games can work around many shortcomings of such simplified mechanics and compensate for them. The designer can add an immersive storyline and utilize the advantageous absence of programming challenges by putting more effort into the artistic side of the project instead.
As for the issue of puzzles in such a game, designing interesting obstacles with interaction limited to a minimum may prove to be quite a challenge. Either the player puts in the entire, correct solution in form of a long, complex command or the game will not respond at all to the player's attempts. Can this possibly work as a fair puzzle for a game? Maybe it can. Similarly, many questions in school tests demand a single specific solution but do not give any hints or direct means to achieve it, leaving a long thought process to build and follow by the student, often more on basis of logic than specific knowledge. It seems then, in order to create a story driven game, a designer needs almost nothing in solid mechanics but only imagination.
Speaking of which, there is another but very different kind of story driven games—the original role-playing game. Putting aside the elements of character and combat statistics, the core of the classic paper-and-pencil role-playing game is to place a figure of authority, the Gamemaster, behind the weaving and expanding of a storyline that changes in real time in response to the players' reactions. In a similar manner, certain computerized versions called MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), decades old precursors to today's MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), offer groups of players the opportunity to co-create epic narratives through a text based interface by expressing and sharing thoughts in a literary manner. On the other hand, it may be at the cost of a more defined and engrossing storyline. The approach of giving greater authority to the players encourages the designer to skip out on creating well thought-out goals for the players and pushes the game in the direction of total freedom devoid of any subtleness. Predominant ways of playing such type of games have roots in a strong factor of unpredictability that comes from the choices made by other players in the game. It is a kind of gameplay that relies on a constantly changing game world and not on a framework determined once and for all by the game designer. In doing this, the activity becomes more and more about meeting other random gamers online and less about actually playing a specific game.
Are the player's notions of freedom always the end results of the game designer's clever illusions? Perhaps this is too bold of a statement to make. Some gamers play games only to win and not for any other pleasure. Some regard games more as social avenues to meet other people. Such players perhaps do not feel the need to be immersed in the distorted perspective of a game world that seemingly offers a large variety of playing choices. For the rest, they will either wait for the mythical virtual reality to finally appear or consent to be fooled by games to achieve the desired experience.
For now, we have completed a cursory study on both the game created illusions and the game player's self-deception. Nevertheless, the material for analysis in this subject is definitely vast, and there are many techniques and specific examples that deserve a closer look and exploration in the future.