A lone hero seeks adventure in a dangerous world. In one hand they clasp an ancient sword made from the devil's weirdest nightmares. In the other hand they hold a giant handgun so powerful that it doesn't need to be loaded to kill from two miles away. From head to toe, the hero is clad in armour that prevents attackers from remembering why they were even mad in the first place. There is so much arcane magic coursing through the hero's veins, that one sneeze can level an entire cinema. Only a 1 or 2-screen cinema, but it's still pretty cool when it happens.
Yet today, the hero will meet their match. No enemy, real or imagined, has ever managed to best this courageous, mighty and inexplicably handsome warrior. Today is the day when the hero faces...a fence which is slightly too high to jump over.
No matter how far a game world stretches, a border must be decided somewhere. Every good game knows its limitations, and over the decades games have shown straightforward, creative or downright ingenious ways to contain the player. This may not seem very important to the overall gaming experience, but consider the alternatives. Either the game has no barriers whatsoever or the game has 'invisible walls' scattered arbitrarily throughout the land. The former sees the player-character floating helplessly out into the multiverse, whilst the latter creates the embarrassing image of the protagonist trotting in place with their nose squish firmly against nothingness.
Today I would like to talk/witter on about the various ways that the player's experiences are contained. In Part 1, I intend to focus on the ways that more linear or directed games contain the player in effective ways; in Part 2, I will turn the attention to more open world containment. In both parts, I will be discussing the effective and inspired ways that games control the boundaries of play. When you've finished reading, I've no doubt that you will be able to recall examples of games that use one/more of these methods. Maybe you will think of other methods that I have neglected to mention.
The truth is that linear or directed games don't need to offer reasons for why the character can't wander off the path – you can't climb jump over that fence because [insert reason here] – and that's fine. It's enough to know a game has properly defined the boundaries. However, I am quite impressed whenever a game designer gives a little bit of thought or artistic flair for the intended 'container' that You the Player are in.
Method #1 – Complete Containment
A player can't wander off if there isn't anywhere to wander off to. The easiest way to do this is by having an indoor game location. Whether the game wishes to direct you along a set path or allow you to explore within a distinct area, you can't go wrong with several lengths of brick wall with doors and windows painted on them. The risk here is that gamers might consider this form of level design to be a cop-out. The player may also get bored of 'walking down corridors', or irritated by backtracking through rooms. But if done right, a player can be funnelled around the entire game without ever questioning why they didn't go outside.
A game that truly hammers home the need for a linear, indoor world is Portal. This is a game that not only ran with the idea of repetitive, near-identical rooms and corridors, but made its indoor environment an integral part of the game. The player shouldn't even consider exploration beyond the white, tiled walls because the facility is buried underground. There's no need for any extraneous corridors or optional exploration because that would waste time during the "tests". Even when Chell [spoiler warning?] escapes GLaDOS' tests, and the player is barrelling down 'random' tunnels and stairwells, the player is still following a strict path [end spoiler?]. We don't mind being contained in this way because the game has justified the game location. Whilst praising Portal nowadays is as unnecessary as stating just how good sliced bread is, I feel that this is a game that proved that linear game worlds can work effectively.
Horror games (and horror movies for that matter) have also formed a long-term bond with indoor locations. The act of restricting a horror story to a closed space works on many levels. Setting the scariness within a close environment generates a sense of being trapped or it can induce claustrophobia. Steering the player down specific corridors allows for set pieces designed to disrupt bowel control. And what's a horror game without a smattering of creaky doors?
There are lots of excellent examples of horror games confined to interiors. Rather than lean on the usual names (I referenced Dead Space and Resident Evil just last week) I will dredge up a more obscure reference: a little game called Koudelka. I have a soft-spot for this decidedly average horror RPG, partly because it freaked me out as a child and partly because it's set in Aberystwyth, which is where I went to university. The game is set within the confines of a wonderfully creepy monastery, and you navigate through church towers, courtyards and tombs. As the game progresses, you open new routes, but the environment is kept within the monastery walls. You are trapped inside with all the Poltergeist-ridden furniture and monsters made entirely from limbs. The whole setting is as sinister and odd as the combat mechanics – Final Fantasy-style combat combined with movement over a giant chess board – and the game uses its creepy container to full effect.
Both these games define their walls rigidly, and don't even let the player see past them. At no point does either game suffer from boxing the player in. What happens though, when a game designed to steer the player along paths takes the player outside? How does a game make you feel like you are outside without really giving you freedom?
Method #2 – Convenient Detritus
If you were asked to describe what a 'city' looks like (I don't know why) you would refer to two main ingredients: buildings and roads. The walls of buildings can be used to define the limits of a game path, but roads are designed to transport people in and out of a city. And we can't have that, can we?
If the urban area in question is post-apocalyptic, or currently experiencing its own personal apocalypse, this can make the game designers work easier. In survival games such as Left for Dead and Last of Us, a well-placed, upturned bus or jack-knifed lorry can give the impression that the road continues on, but prevents the player from wandering off. Both games also use roadblocks and quarantine fencing to good effect. In addition, you can't go inside most of the rooms because the doors and windows have been nailed shut. In the Crysis games, subway trains and skyscrapers are pushed over just to prevent you from being nosey. Next time you're playing a game set within an urban perimeter, have a look round to see what debris and detritus has been used to fill the places you can travel down.
More inventive barriers are needed for towns and cities that are not afflicted by artillery strikes or waylaid by Zombies. People can make nice barriers. Usually people are soft and squishy, but in virtual realities crowds can be quite sturdy, and used as barriers. They can be used to stand in front of pretend exits or fill a seemingly large area that you can only pass through. A few weeks ago I was arguing that the game world from Remember Me would make for an interesting school trip. As I was writing I remembered (Ha, that is funny because the game is called Remember Me!) a moment where I turned a corner to see a flight of stone steps blocked by a small nest of people listening to a preacher. Nilin could walk down a few steps before the backs of the seated audience would stop her. It was a quaint moment, an interesting aside and a good excuse for a game wall; I actually found myself standing with the crowd listening to the preacher for a few seconds before remembering (Ha!) where I was.
This method of creating barriers has also been used successfully when building temporary barriers between sections of a game. Objects can be moved out of the way. Or indeed, exploded out of the way. Detritus may have moved later in the game due to your actions. Pokemon is a big fan of using rocks and trees to block progress early in the game. Eventually you will be allowed to slice your way through those trees or headbutt those rocks. But not the trees or rocks that border the edge of the game world; that way madness lies.
Method #3 – Illusion of Openness
Then we come to those games that boycott the urban environments, skipping freely into the open air. Well… skipping passed the open air at least. Games which direct the gamer through open-world settings have to do a great deal more to disguise their linear undergarments. You might think you are skipping through a thin, restricted path in an otherwise open world, but don't be silly. Look! A pretty flower!
Demon's Souls and Dark Souls pull out all the stops to give the player a sense of freedom and exploration. There are lots of branching paths and connecting areas, but these games still run on fairly narrow paths. It's never actually a problem because of the variety of ways in which the world is presented: treacherous cliff paths; rickety wooden scaffolding; crumbling castle walls; church roofs; dank sewers; narrow caverns. Furthermore, walking on a slim path in Demon's/Dark Souls is as close to blessed relief as you can get whilst playing; if the corridor opens up into a larger area you're probably about to meet a boss. Who minds walking on the little path when the alternative is being reduced to Pâté by a hammer the size of a small car?
Consider how many linear games have paths with sheer drops on one side or pass through canyons. The more rural areas/maps in the Halo series do this a lot. Usually Halo has fairly wide and open areas to pass through, sometimes with more than one path, but now and then the game world thins. This might at first sound like a criticism, but consider the impact these narrowed sections have on gameplay. Firstly, they break up the gunplay, which is usually a good thing for the player. Secondly, when the world opens up again, the contrast makes the wider combat areas seem even more expansive. Plus, if the area is set against a cliff side or raised in the air, there's always a chance that your opponents will fall/jump/get knocked off, which will never ever ever ever get old.
In any game where you have to follow a specific path, there is a real risk that the player will become overly aware of "the path" and the barriers that contain them. With the combination of striking scenery, crafty level design and (of course) quality gameplay, the player will forget that they are tightly contained within "the path". In the end, it's such a small part of any game, but it's an aspect that has often been handing proficiently.
Next week I'll move on from directed games and celebrate the ways more open worlds or free-roam environments manage to keep the player contained without detracting from the fun. Even the largest, expansive worlds have to find a limit. Before then, I'm hoping that you can think of other great ways that games keep linear worlds feeling filled-out, and contain the player without annoying them. Leave a comment below.
I could go on to make fun or criticise games that get it wrong, but that's not really me. Returning readers will hopefully know by now that, apart from the occasional cynical jab or a throw-away negative quip, I'm not one to attack games with any real venom. However, if you do have some amusing bad examples, find a particular game 'containment' irritating or disagree with anything I've said above, you should definitely comment too.