Gaming – The Freedom Paradox

Ask any gamer what factors are important in making for an enjoyable singleplayer experience, and one word that will often pop up is the concept of ‘freedom’. In gaming terms this is perhaps more commonly understood by the phrase ‘non-linearity’, and I would suggest one other corollary to this – agency: the sense of ones own autonomy to exert control over themselves and their environment within an interactive setting. Indeed, this understanding has been a driving force for certain genres to take shape and evolve over gaming’s relatively short lifespan, and in its extreme form can be quite simply breathtaking in the sheer sense of unmitigated expanse on offer – see GTA4 as a recent example.


GTA4: A lot of freedom

The concept of freedom within video games is interesting in that it has no real analogue outside itself. One only need look to books or film to see that they are tightly controlled, orchestrated experiences in which the reader/viewer has only one path, and that is from beginning to end, A to B, with no real capacity for deviation in between. True, games often have a technical beginning and end, but in comparison to other mediums these feel more like vague signposts, a cryptic map whose precise route has yet to be fully deciphered. It is perhaps this unique capacity for personal agency that constitutes one of videogaming’s more formidable assets within a world saturated by linear media. It is certainly one which renders it financially secure for the foreseeable future.

To the observer however, one can’t help but view this concept of freedom as an unresolved tension that designers find themselves having to constantly grapple with. While the challenges of the market demand that studios push the exploratory envelope that bit further with each release, recognizing the lucrative potential that a fully realized, living and breathing world brings with it, good developers also know that there must be a narrative, a comprehensible story for which to fuse their elaborately complex yet emotionally flat world into a coherent, meaningful and above all satisfying reality.

This may not appear too problematic for the designer at first glance, until one comes to the realization that in gaming terms freedom and narrative are in many ways diametrically opposed ideals. Indeed, while narrative demands an environment of tightly regimented structure in order to cultivate effectively, freedom inherently demands chaos and anarchy. The crux of modern games design is the acknowledgement that in an environment of absolute freedom the story cannot be told, and the more tightly you craft your story, freedom and non-linearity become suffocated.

This has been an intriguing development to watch in gaming and one whose emphasis seems to be constantly moving and evolving as the industry matures. The FPS is a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon, precisely because nowhere else has this tension between freedom and story been so directly and explicitly involved in the evolution of the genre as a whole. For example, in the case of the FPS, you have a genre whose format has been custom built to channel a maximum sense of freedom and agency to the user within an expansive 3D world, crystallized in the form of an uninhibited first person camera whose primary conceit is that it places the user fully ‘within’ the game. On the other hand, there has always been a narrative presence there, no matter how subtly crafted, which serves to corner off parts of this interactive world from view and serve as a constant reminder to the player of the ‘developer behind the curtain’, not wanting he or she to stray too far off the predetermined path.

In the early years of FPS design, story was often just a brief formality running vaguely along the margins of the playable world. Its purpose was often simply to introduce not so much a story, but a scenario to the player, and this remained static through the course of the game. The original Doom and Quake are good examples of this philosophy – ‘Demons are escaping from Hell, blast as many of the fuckers as you can’ – and then the game begins and continues on that trajectory until completion. Because the story was so loosely defined (merely a backdrop, really) these games were able to achieve a certain degree of non-linearity to their level design flow. While there was generally a strict A to B progression structure in place, there was often a lot of room for freedom and deviation to be found in-between the two points, and rarely did this progression follow a straight line model.


Quake: Not always linear

By the time Half-Life came out in 1998, this model had become somewhat more advanced. In many ways creators Valve were able to pioneer an approach to FPS design where player freedom and non-linearity remained relatively intact, while a reasonably detailed narrative could be passively introduced into the 3D world. It did this quite cleverly by orchestrating pivotal moments within the game flow where the player would (as main character Gordon Freeman) intercept radio transmissions, or ‘eavesdrop’ on enemy characters, which were all carefully written so as to progress the story in a way that felt organic and faithful to the internal world. Along with this, the use of scripted action sequences and some limited AI further enhanced environmental verisimilitude and made for combat encounters which felt overall more dynamic and intelligent to the player confronting them.

Half-Life II expanded upon and refined these design principles, employing the use of scripted-action sequence driven gameplay to a far more saturated degree. However this also meant that, paradoxically, while the game’s encounter and story telling design felt more dynamic, the overall experience was arguably more linear than that of its predecessor. To put this more technically, the capacity for deviation and exploration between points A and B were much closer to a straight line model, whereas the original was more S shaped in comparison. This is because, again, the more tightly the story and experience is controlled, the less agency can be granted to the player in return.

Half-Life II

Half-Life II: Dynamic, yet linear

This dichotomy in videogaming is something I want to look at in greater depth in coming updates, as well as to speculate where these current trends are taking us. This is a fast moving industry (one that is particularly fascinating to me)  and despite popular opinion, it is one that deserves to be looked at critically from time to time.

Stay tuned.

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