Free will in games, Cockslap City!

May 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Games of old were simple folk. You’d start at point A and be set an objective for the game, be it to eliminate all enemies, win races, collect stars whatever then eventually after many hours of toil you’d end up at point B with (if you were lucky) a few lines of congratulatory text and the ability to do it all over again. That basic formula worked well for many years until this fella called Will Wright in 1989 and released a game called “Simcity.” In it, you were an aspiring major who was tasked with zoning land, collecting taxes and arranging mass transit systems with the eventual aim of building one big fuck-off city. Unlike other games it did not have a definite goal or end; you could carry on playing for as long as you liked, and you could achieve your aims however you wanted and it turns out this formula was quite popular, spawning an entire series as well as establishing the whole “sandbox” genre, which has stood firm to this day.

With increasing technical power as well as bigger budgets and larger studios the idea of doing things your own way has flourished over the years. The most recent example of this was in GTA4 where at (admittedly infrequent) stages in the story you could choose whether someone lived or died by your hand. In Metal Gear Solid 3 you were given a wealth of options to defeat The End, an aged sniper who would challenge you to a massive battle across three whole game areas. You could experiment with different ways of defeating him, you could sneak up behind him, using a perfect combination of camouflage and cover before shooting him in the head and trailing him to his next location. You could play him at his own game, hunt silently around the map before sniping him at the right moment, or you could simply avoid the battle entirely, killing him after he appears in the distance of an early cutscene. Such choices not only add an immense amount of replayability to the game, but also allow the player to play to their own strengths, ensuring that the game remains challenging without being difficult…if that makes any sense at all.

Giving the option to players cannot be said to always be a good thing. Take Grand Theft Auto 4 as an example. Soon after it’s release protest groups were up in arms about the players ability to drunk drive. Apparently giving the player the freedom to drink drive would encourage it in real life, despite the game giving obvious handicaps to you if you did decide to take the unethical route. Drink driving in GTA4 is no mean feat, your vision is impaired by a screen that constantly waves from side to side, your driving manoeuvres are greatly exaggerated, causing you to spin out of control with every turn you (attempt to) take. Add to that the fact that if a cop sees you driving whilst intoxicated then they’ll take you down to the station to sober up. It seems to me with all these measures that Rockstar’s made a pretty good case for just catching a cab home. This brings up an interesting question, does it make a game more amoral if the creator simply chooses to give the player the option of behaving badly?

It’s been three paragraphs, and yet I haven’t gotten to the focus of this post. Free will in games is a difficult thing to pull off because it becomes very difficult for gamers to establish what they can and cannot achieve because in order for them to be able to do it, the developer has had to have to foresight to include the ability to do it in the game. A prime example of this is GTA4 when you’re given the option of letting some enemies live. These occasions stick out from the rest of the game hugely because when they occur seems completely random, and often it doesn’t make any sense when they do. If you’re going to hunt down a gang, why would you kill every single member but then let the leader go free? Games will always have the boundaries that have been set by the developer.

It is a tricky business giving the player free will in games. On the one hand it leads to an overall more engaging experience, where you feel like you’re actually having an impact on the story rather than just watching it go by, but at the same time the boundaries of your influence soon become clear immediately you see the underside when the developer turns to you and says “Hey, what should happen now?” Closing statement: Cockslap City? Bit harsh perhaps?

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