Freedom Is Dead, And Why It Doesn’t Matter

Freedom in the FPS is an archaic and false concept. A relic of that childlike sense of wonder in the possibilities of three dimensional gameplay. It speaks more to the obsession of technology than it does in delivering a satisfying experience.

This is perfectly ok. Let’s just let it go.

As the FPS genre has matured, it is no coincidence that this has coincided with an ongoing contraction of ‘virtual’ freedom and an acceleration of linearity. This is due to an overall shift in philosophy which sees game designers become increasingly like film directors, meticulously orchestrating the player’s field of vision; structuring, pacing and lighting their virtual sprawl with increasingly elaborate cadence.

One of the interesting design features to emerge in response to this shift is something I like to call ‘pseudo non-linearity’. In many ways it is the invisible art of level design; when it’s done properly, it is imperceptible. Where it’s perceptible, then it’s something else entirely. (To the more theoretically inclined, it is also a fascinating case study in how to simulate a sense of free-will when, in fact, there isn’t any at all – but that’s something for another update)

Half-Life 2: A dichotomy of freedom and linearity

Pseudo-non-linearity is the process in level-design which seeks to preserve the visual actuality of vast, open-ended environments, while simultaneously concealing a largely rigid A to B progression structure in its place. It is inherently an extremely difficult concept to empiricize, precisely because it deals with such a slippery and abstract value as free-will. However, there are certain rules or identifiers which can be followed in helping to locate its presence in any given instance.

One of these is that the virtual environment must never be ‘artificially’ restricted from the player. This includes such common design flaws as invisible walls, or entire towns where every door is mysteriously locked (except for the one the player was meant to go through).

Of course, the environment still has to be restricted in some way so that the player may progress appropriately through the story. Elaborately scripted events have little use if they can be skipped entirely by some form of creative navigation. Likewise, such plot ‘leakage’ is unlikely to make for an immersive or cohesive experience.

With this in mind, it becomes clear from a design perspective that the player must be constricted in some way owing to the demands of storytelling, while also recognizing the aesthetic and immersive appeal of a sprawling open-ended environment as something worthy of being preserved. Pseudo-non-linearity achieves this by only closing off parts of the virtual world in a way which preserves fidelity with, and remains faithful to, its inherited scenario, while minimizing unnecessary artifice.

An example is required.

The introduction to Half-Life 2 is a particularly useful archetype. The player (as Gordon Freeman), finds themselves trapped in the dystopian City 17, a living and breathing hell house of fascistic undertones (and a not so subtle reference to the dissolution of the Jewish ghettos in Nazi Germany). After a brief encounter with an old friend (Barney, undercover as one of the faceless Combines) it soon becomes clear that the mission is one of escape. As Gordon Freeman makes his way around the spatially imposing City 17, navigating its various alleys, back roads, and crumbling apartments, the sense of a genuine, living and breathing world is certainly palpable. Other ‘evacuees’ offer small talk, ‘Combine’ guardsman patrol the streets, while sinister public service announcements play on giant, dominating screens. The world conveys a sense of it pre-existing the player’s arrival there, which is really, for all titles that strive for immersion, one of the apogees of virtual design.

Hello and welcome to your new prison

What one may not be consciously aware of however as they navigate through this dystopian sprawl is that Gordon’s escape route is quite immaculately linear; an effective straight line in the figurative sense. And yet one could be entirely forgiven for thinking this virtual City as fully, spatially unfastened, naked to the whims of electronic exploration.

This is due to the creative design principle of pseudo-nonlinearity.

City 17 employs several techniques to psychologically re-orientate the player in this way, all operating generally around this one principle. Perhaps most psychologically effective, are the Combine guardsman who ‘dynamically’ operate to cordon off certain parts of City 17’s various stairwells and pathways as Gordon attempts his escape. They are dynamic in the sense that they allow for a passing glimpse of the virtual world outside the player’s immediate field of view, before finally forcing them back en-route (often by way of a hard whack from an electro-truncheon) to be left with only the tantalizing suggestion planted into their own imagination; that of a fluid world that only marginally pre-empts subjectivity. Simultaneously, a colossal barrier to immersion is shattered as the familiar constrictive sense of the ‘developer behind the curtain’ ruthlessly chopping and cutting parts of the world from view is countered by effectively showing the world behind that curtain – if only briefly. This is sufficient however, as in the process an illusion of freedom, or rather of non-linearity, is actively cultivated in the player’s mind; the world becomes actualized, feels more three dimensional, as the artificial barriers to exploration are, in turn, naturalized, effectively reshaped into actors of the story operating against the player. In the process, they are absolved of their essential artifice as agents of linearity.

A brief glimpse of freedom

Freedom not found

Pseudo-nonlinearity may also be achieved without the aid of such dynamic tools (which, it is worth stating, cannot always be relied upon – owing to the context of plot or narrative) and this is certainly a more common approach to environmental design that one finds. In practice, the fundamentals remain largely unchanged as the principle barrier to exploration must still undergo the same process of naturalization; that is, it must be configured so as to maintain consonance to the inherited semiotic array of both narrative and environment. For instance, in introducing an obstruction into a particular environment, the environment must also be able to passively disclose the ‘story’ of why that obstruction is present there. The closer fidelity is able to be maintained between the obstruction to individual progression and the dynamic motivation to progress (i.e. the narrative) the greater the linearity ‘deficit’ is reduced. To use a common example from modern FPS design: a wrecked car or coach laying across a road or landscape forces the player onto a different path, effectively manipulating them into the appropriate, pre-determined direction. While this form of static obstruction may appear a rather brash imposition and unconscionable artifice, this hinges upon how effectively it is naturalized in respect to its narrative and environmental arrays. By ensuring that it conforms to the animus of these two factors, its symbolic charge as both artifice and bearer of linearity can be effectively neutralized.

To put it simply, the narrative should, either directly or indirectly, be able account for why the obstruction is there, while the environment (by means of inference) discloses how it got there.

Left 4 Dead: A good example of 'naturalized' obstruction

These two environmental operators (static and dynamic) form the basis of environmental design from the principle of pseudo non-linearity. By deploying them, developers are able to mitigate the lingering problems associated with this shift toward a narrowing of exploration in favour of greater control. Of course, the ever-critical gamer will often be able to penetrate the façade, and readily deduce the reality of linearity on display. However, awareness, or pre-awareness should not detract from the overall effect, which like a magic trick, is able to retain much of its prestige despite knowledge of this basic deception.

Having looked at pseudo non-linearity in some detail in both its static and dynamic forms, in the next update I hope to move onto how FPS games are beginning to evolve beyond this paradigm, by reviewing a few overlooked examples from the annals of gaming history, and some emerging titles that look to disrupt these established models.

Stay tuned.

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    • Mike
    • December 19th, 2009

    I’ve been looking for a good critical analysis of video games in a blog, and I think I just found the holy grail. Thank you so much. I think another good example of the facade of an open world environment in a shooter albeit third person, is Uncharted 2, evidenced especially in the Nepal scene. We literally get taken to the top of a hotel in the exact route the developers wanted us to take, yet are able to gaze upon an entire valley, mountains and rivers and all, once we get to the top. Wonderful post.

    • ALTuna
    • December 19th, 2009

    What an awful lot of words for a concept that can be summed up in a paragraph…

  1. Interesting ideas, and well written. This is the internet right?

    I’m looking forward to your future entries.

    • Nezuji
    • December 20th, 2009

    I believe that Half-life 2 is certainly an excellent (if not the best) example of a game with a tightly-scripted, linear narrative which still manages not to suffocate the player’s feeling of freedom.

    Shenmue and Shenmue 2 are two other good examples of creating the appearance of freedom from a linear script, but they approach the problem in a different way. Rather than giving the player an illusion of geographical freedom (showing you places you can’t actually go), they give the player an illusion of interactive freedom (plenty of characters and objects with which you can actually interact in only a superficial way).

    However, I am currently playing Fallout 3 and frankly I believe that it shows that it IS possible to deliver a satisfying, pre-orchestrated narrative in a non-linear environment, by revealing that narrative and its associated setting in dozens of unconnected vignettes instead of one continous flow. Certainly this is not the traditionally-scripted, linear narrative style that you discuss in your article, but it is a pre-planned and (somewhat) directed narrative nonetheless.

    And how do Deus Ex 1 and 2 — and a large part of BioWare’s library — fit into your argument? Is some kind of line crossed when there is a sufficient number of options in a tree-structured script? If there is, then what is that number, and what kind of game is on the other side of the line?

    • It’s interesting you should mention Deus Ex as i was planning to do an entire update on that very game. I definitely think it’s a rare example of FPS design which is somehow able to trancend the dichotomy between freedom and linearity that a lot of games contend with. In a future update i want to look closely at why i think this is.

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