The FPS: Where Freedom isn't Free

As game designers become more like film directors, the paths they lay out for players becomes increasingly scripted and, frankly, downright restricted. Still the illusion of freedom persists in this genre.

The blog One Dimensional Man deconstructs this kind of design, and comes up with another illusion - the illusion that the game isn't linear, and how the stage may be skillfully set for that. "Pseudo non-linearity," is the term the writer coins, and an expert example of it can be found in the opening sequences of Half-Life 2.

I agree that hamfisted mechanisms such as invisible walls sort of break the third wall, and at minimum are things working against immersion. But I'm not sure I ever felt that my freedom to explore anywhere in an FPS was part of the bargain in the first place. Hell, it's not completely part of the bargain in an open world RPG like Fallout 3. In Grayditch, an entire town, only a few buildings have doors that may be opened. The others have the kind of locked facades the writer calls a design flaw.

But we can't have everything. The key for a designer is knowing what we can have, and then how to discourage or prevent us from needlessly pursuing what we can't.

Freedom Is Dead, And Why It Doesn't Matter
[One Dimensional Man, Dec. 17, 2009]

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.

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.

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.

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.

- One Dimensional Man

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