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Set our games free!


Sam P
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Alas, my summer vacation is over. No more full-time work. No more gawking at women in bathing suits. No more sleeping in. Worst of all, no more staring blankly into space with the satisfying knowledge that I had all the time in the world to indulge. Actually, even worse than that, my 4 splendid months of extravagent video game playing have given way to fall lectures. And homework. And studying. And stress.

 

But all is not so sour. My mind has come out of hibernation and I was introduced recently to a very interesting course labelled Cognitive Systems. One of its most interesting sub-topics involves psychology and linguistics. For example, do humans react differently to different diction and does that affect cognition?

 

What do you think of when I say freedom?

 

With the anniversary of September 11th just yesterday, I'm sure many will picture an American flag. Perhaps a historical event, such as a revolution. Or maybe the feeling you get when the weekend approaches.

 

The word crossed my mind recently, and still influenced by the warm glow of my prodigal summer gaming, I experienced an epiphany. Ok, ok, that might be a stretch. But it was a revelation at the time. :D I realized that of all the games I played this summer, I enjoyed those which gave the player the most freedom, the most.

 

What makes a game free?

 

Games that give the player multiple paths to an objective, games that give you extensive, consequential choices in who you are, and games that let you explore a living, breathing world. I love those games. Especially if it let you do all three.

 

Nevermind GTA 3 / Vice City's accomplishments in the graphics, sound or other technical departments. It didn't really matter when compared to the best thing it had - it set the gamer free. Most missions didn't restrain you to complete them a certain way - you could take planes, trains or automobiles. Even a helicopter or a tank! You could set up getaway vehicles and escape routes prior to the mission, just like a real criminal mastermind. The police resistance wasn't scripted and every chase was different and an experience to savour. The icing on the cake was all the freedom you had even when you weren't on a mission -you could explore the city from end to end, rampaging as you pleased with or without reason. People on the street and the changing weather made it feel like a living, breathing world.

 

As some have already read here, I positively adore Fallout for the same reason. It gave you the freedom to choose and the choices you made had very real consequences.

 

Hitman 2 was another gem I enjoyed. You could be quiet as a mouse or storm in as a one-man army.

 

The underlying essence of all these games, to me, is freedom. I played them and I did it my way (as the song goes...).

 

Man, this post has become far too long and verbose. Do you guys value games which are free or ones that are scripted? We have "freedom" games in both the Action and RPG genres, but are there other genres that could benefit from more immersion (i.e. the checkpoint style racing in Midnight Club)? What else would you like to see implemented in games in this regard?

 

Comments please! Thanks for listening. ;)

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That's funny, Sam, I had a CogSci class back in the old days that sounds very similar to your own (it was team-taught and cross-listed in Psych, Linguistics and Computer Science).

 

Very interesting thoughts you shared here.

 

A question, here's your loose definition:

 

"Games that give the player multiple paths to an objective, games that give you extensive, consequential choices in who you are, and games that let you explore a living, breathing world. I love those games. Especially if it let you do all three."

 

Might we amend it to say games that give you either in fact or in the illusion extensive, consequential, etc.? I think this might be one of the places where very clever game design comes in.

 

-j

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Might we amend it to say games that give you either in fact or in the illusion extensive, consequential, etc.? I think this might be one of the places where very clever game design comes in.

 

I wasn't trying to impose an absolute definiton for "freedom" for the discussion, those were just some general principles I thought were quintessential in a "free" game. By all means, amend or add to it!

 

However, I'm not entirely sure what you meant. I have a feeling you've got some examples, do share!

 

What about the games I listed? Was it strictly deception or was it, in fact, "freedom"?

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I tend to favor a combination of both. Give me scripted sequences that are rewarding and neat, and cut-scenes in-game that are frought with excitement. But if possible let me figure things out my own way.

 

The Thief series and Deus Ex are excellent examples of this. There are set objectives for each level or scenario in both games, but I am free to develop my own way to do it. If I decide to blow my way through the game using every heavy munition I can find, I can do that. If I want to sneak around and club people I can do that too.

 

But scripted sequences have their place. Half-Life does the best job with these because they're scripted, but you're totally screwed if you don't figure out your way through it. Case in point is the first part of 'Surface Tension' when Gordon comes under attack from the assault chopper that keeps flying in troops.

 

Technically that's scripted, the damn thing doesn't stop coming, but you have a dynamic role in playing that scenario out.

 

Ugh, I dunno if that makes any sense or not :P.

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Regarding HL's Surface Tension section, I think that falls under the realm of puzzle solving.

 

i.e. A chopper keeps flying troops down, I'm on a time limit (i.e. my health is depleting with each deployment of troops) but I gotta figure out what I should be doing next.

 

What I do now doesn't have consequences to how the senario plays out. I.e. I can't do something to stop the rapidly spawning troops and I can't go back and find another way out. I also can't shoot down the chopper altogether so that he won't come and bite my ass later.

 

I'm not dissing HL, it's probably one of the best scripted games. I'm just pointing out I think HL is strictly scripted. If you played it again, it will be the same, will it not?

 

Deus Ex is a great example! You can play things however you want and you get RPG-esque character development that affects what style you will play the game (stealth, etc.)!

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I'm not dissing HL, it's probably one of the best scripted games. I'm just pointing out I think HL is strictly scripted. If you played it again, it will be the same, will it not?

 

Actually, the more I think about this, you're probably right, Sam. HL is a scripted game, period. It is, in places, a souped-up version of Dragon's Lair. But much more fun and the extra freeom bits to move around make it far more palatable.

 

Deus Ex is certainly great. Great at stealing all my damned time. :P

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What I meant, Sam, is that games, like anything else (except Monica Belluci) are imperfect. So when we say we like games that are free-form, perhaps we're really saying that we like games that successfully give us the illusion of freedom.

 

A seemingly small distinction, perhaps, a real and important one. After all, isn't freedom a state of mind? Enslave my body, but you'll never enslave my mind, and so on. So it's worth looking at aspects of games that most successfully impart an illusion of freedom.

 

KOTOR, for example, seemed remarkably free-form. Based on gamers' reactions, I would suggest that because it successfully fooled most people most of the time, it succeeded in imparting the illusion of freedom.

 

Clearly, choice plays a huge role in the examples we discussed like GTA3 and Fallout (one of my favorites, as well).

 

Are there any examples outside of games where you control a character in a virtual environment modeled on real life?

 

Would Civilization and its sequels fit? Here is a game that is open to almost any kind of play I want. I can spend the game nuking my adversery. I can treat my opponents as partners instead of adversaries and build trade. Or I can do both.

 

If don't like that neighboring city I can bombard it into dust, bribe it to the point that it switches sides, or use spies and terrorists to make life so miserable for its citizens that they flee, causing the the city to dwindle into nothing.

 

How about Soul Calibur and its sequel? The crisp controls make me feel like I really am controlling my fighter (however poorly). Maybe this, too, gives me the illusion of freedom.

 

Given your examples and mine, what are we getting at when we say "freedom"? Perhaps what we're really saying is that a game easily suspends our belief by making us really believe we have control within the context of the universe created by the game designers.

 

Just some thoughts.

 

-j

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Robot Monkey,

 

I think we're speaking at cross purposes. What I meant originally (and I may have been unclear) is that I like games which give me the ability to choose. Whether it is choosing the way I accomplish a mission, mixing and matching my character (preferably in such a way to affect my interactions in the game) or choosing my character's destiny through actions (i.e. KOTOR), those are things I meant by "freedom". In a nutshell, I like games that give me the ability to choose my own way to play the game. Your example about Civilization is exactly that kind of game.

 

I know, I know. I said some things about "immersive, living, breathing environments" and that's why it was misleading.

 

The topic you raised is indeed a good one. And in the end, yes, games will always be imperfect because you can only mimmick so much using nothing but images on a screen and a palm-sized controller. Of course, the simpliest example is a racing game. We've all driven a car in "real life" and know that there are many things a driving game cannot capture - the tactility, the forces exerted on your body (g-forces, etc.), the ability to look all around, the sounds, etc., etc.

 

A game is still just a game. I think, though, the most important thing for a game in terms of immersing the player is that it must be convincing in its own context. The physics of Halo are not the physics of our world, but you still learn to work with it, you can still anticipate it and you still learn to believe it. Same goes with Vice City. You feel it is real within its own context. And only the very good games do exactly that.

 

Boy, I've gone OT. :D

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I think, though, the most important thing for a game in terms of immersing the player is that it must be convincing in its own context.

 

Exactly!

 

I think that we're talking about games that successfully create the illusion of freedom. I don't think "choice" is the same thing as freedom, however; I believe it's a huge factor in creating it.

 

I was trying to identify other factors and came up with "control". The better a game's ability to make me feel like I'm in control, the better I'll feel the illusion of freedom. That was why I mentioned Soul Calibur (I don't know why they spell it that way, either).

 

Three Sixty put out a game years ago called Patriot, that was meant to simulate operations in Desert Storm. Strategy games like this can easily create an illusion of freedom -- here are your resources, here's the situation and here's your mission. Now go to it.

 

But Patriot was a horrible game for a number of reasons, chief among them is that no matter what you did, it felt like you'd get the same outcome. In this case, despite the numerous availabe choices, the perceived lack of control equaled no illusion of freedom.

 

I don't think we're speaking at cross-purposes at all, I just think I'm trying to put a finer point on our concept of freedom in videogames (with the assistance of everyone here, of course).

 

Make any sense?

 

-j

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Make any sense?

 

Definitely.

 

Control is a good issue. When you can operate something (a machine, an appliance, a car, whatever) intuitively and as if it were an extension of your body, you're much more inclined to be absorbed into whatever it is you're doing. Good point!

 

After you brought up Civilization, it occurred to me that the entire Real-time Strategy genre is free-form. It's inherently choice-based because it lets you build, customize and defeat the opponent (or accomplish an objective) at your own discretion.

 

I really like Blizzard RTS stuff.

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