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.


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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