Freedom in games

The less the game harasses the player, the better. This is entirely in a non-mechanical or challenge sense.

non-game-mechanic choices
It’s one thing to actually have a world I want to play in, it’s another to let me walk around in it.
   —- customization
——Give the gamer the option to personalize their experience, above and beyond what the natural course of gameplay will provide.

This is going to be the shortest post. Basically, games that let the player do what they want, aside from designed gameplay, are better than games that don’t. What I mean is that any game that doesn’t give the player freedom when they are doing the thing the game does, which would be gunfights in a FPS for example, is a game without depth. However, that same FPS might let the player lollygag around, move the plot forward when they would like, shoot friendly NPC’s, stand still for a while, explore the map after a firefight, or it might not let the player do any of that. Those things aren’t really game mechanics, and there’s no depth in any of them, but they absolutely feel good to the player.

In some sense, this is yet another strike against the heavily scripted action game. If, after a firefight the player is left to take however long they would like moving to the next firefight designers feel that the player might get bored. On the other hand, if you don’t let the player do what they would like, and instead throw them into a cutscene with forced quicktime events of something cool happening, you not only run the risk of poor plotting, as discussed in my previous article, but you’re not giving the player any freedom.

Which may be okay, because games aren’t good for just one reason. I have a post on this coming up, but some players may hate the feeling of being yanked along by the leash of the game designer, but other players may love the fantasy of whatever “cool” thing the game has them doing then. I’m being charitable here, because I think that heavily scripted action sequences are simply bad design through and through, but I guess they can be done well.

In contrast though, I find that the Place/Setting/World of the game cannot be truly enjoyed without giving the player a healthy dose of freedom. I, and I’m not alone here, always love just standing still and moving the camera in a well designed world. When the combination of Consistency, Dynamism, Ambiance, and World Logic all come together, but especially the ambiance, I often enjoy just the thought of being there as much as I do the game itself. If the game I’m playing is just rushing me through everything, and not giving me any time to stop and smell the roses, then I’m not going to be able to appreciate the world that I’m playing in.

I wrote that Exploration is one of the two things that make Freedom good, and I think that might be misleading. Partly because a linear game can still do this pretty well as long as it doesn’t try to control every second of the player outside of combat/whateverTheGameDoes, but mostly because exploration is often times a gameplay mechanic, and so it can be confusing. Still, one of the reasons I like Mount and Blade:Warband so much is because you can explore the world and see what its like. Even once you’ve explored it, there’s always cool things happening on the other corner of the land. You don’t need to do this, and can play pretty efficiently in just a small part of the world, but there is a very strong urge to see what’s over the mountain, that video games only do an occasionally good job of catering to.

The second part of Freedom is in Customization. I want to stress again, that this is customization in a non-mechanical sense. An example would be changing the name of the character you play as. That doesn’t have any impact on the way the game is played, but it does let the player change the name to whatever they would like, or just use the default if they don’t care. Sticking with names, I’ve always liked games that let me change the names of everyone, especially everyone in your party. Yes, half the time I change the names to something like “Asshole” or “the queefster”, depending on how many characters the game lets me use, but sometimes I just change it to a name I feel is more appropriate. Really, there’s no reason other than self-centeredness for games to not let the player change the names of the characters they play as and with.

Other examples might be choosing how your character dresses/looks, choosing what music plays in the background, choosing the ethnicity and gender of your character, having graphical options that control how much contrast and saturation is present in the game, or really any graphical options at all. There are a million little things, from UI elements, to in game stuff that you, as a designer, can safely allow the player to change to their whim, and which won’t affect anything else in the game. There’s no real reason not to let them do this. If you want to have a piece of “art” that people aren’t allowed to change go make a painting.


1) Let the players breathe.
2) Let the players change things that are meaningless to the x’s and o’s of the game.

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