Is freedom in video games a good thing?

shadow of mordorWe’ve all been there, playing a new game and you get an idea about a flank, a strategy, or something creative you want to try, but you can’t do it. Restrictions, limitations, or a scripted approach keeps you in line. Some games can feel more like an interactive movie, where you simply mash the buttons as the predetermined encounters play out. You feel constrained, maybe even annoyed, and you can start to get bored. But is the answer to give us nearly unrestricted freedom? Can too much freedom create the opposite problem?

Debilitating Freedom

Some titles, in an effort to offer more freedom, will remove a lot of the linear aspects of a typical video game. For the sake of this discussion I will use Skyrim and Shadow of Mordor as examples. Both of these games thrust the player into action with very little hand holding. Minor tutorials and tips about the mechanics of the game will periodically pop up, but for the most part you are left to find your own way. There is a lot about this approach that is admirable. It can feel rewarding and organic because it is more about discovery than going through mechanical education. This approach is also more engrossing because you aren’t playing the equivalent of an instructional manual. It can, however, leave the player aimlessly trying to figure out the best path forward. Typically in this style of game you look back and wish you had started or progressed differently as you learn about the world and mechanics. In both Skyrim and Mordor I found myself in fights and encounters I either wasn’t ready for or didn’t fully understand. In fact, because I didn’t have a grasp on the armor leveling system in Skyrim, I started over after getting fairly far in the game. This level of freedom can also make the game feel somewhat pointless…

Linear Purpose

When playing almost any video game, you need some sense of direction or accomplishment to feel like you are progressing your character, winning, or advancing the story. Ultimately you need to be able to answer the question, “What am I doing?” if someone asks you to sum up the point of the game. If the “linear purpose” is difficult to detect or succinctly describe it can start to feel somewhat pointless and even static. The more I played Shadow of Mordor the less I wanted to play it. Some of this was because the learning curve was pretty steep, so I was dying a lot. But it was also related to the lack of linear movement in the game. What was I doing? What was the point? Contrast that with Far Cry 4 where I had an enormous amount of freedom and optional activities to take part in, all while having a clear and advancing story. This is an incredibly important distinction because it tethers all of the optional missions and side quests to a grander purpose. Yes, I’m leveling up and getting better at combat, and that’s important because I’m fighting more difficult enemies and missions as I continue to hunt down the insane antagonist Pagan Min. In Shadow of Mordor, however, I was getting more adept at the fighting mechanics and dying a lot less, but it didn’t feel tied to any sense of movement in the story or a bigger purpose. Some praised the “nemesis system” as an innovative approach to this style of game, and I tend to agree. But it added a layer of repetition and fruitlessness to all my victories. This is why in my post about the importance of narrative I said less focus could have been put on the high quality story elements. Even though Mordor provides movie quality cut scenes with top notch voice acting, the game gives me so much freedom and so little direction that the story gets watered down and becomes unclear. Again, you untether all the freedom and optional activities if there is not a clear underlying linear purpose to the game.

Don’t box me in!

None of this means, however, that we should be boxed in and essentially placed on rails, because that is far worse. My motto is, “Give me liberty, but give me direction!” The point is that all the freedom given in a game is somewhat wasted if you don’t anchor it to an exciting, clear, and progressing story and purpose.

Agree, disagree, or have thoughts of you own? Share below in the comments. If you liked this entry please share it on facebook or twitter.

7 thoughts on “Is freedom in video games a good thing?

  1. In my opinion , they are times where I enjoy to follow the story line with multiple side quests hitting there but in the cases of skyrim , I played that game first because I had completed most of the Oblivion ( elderscrolls 4 ) but also to be free , because in the elderscrolls games didn’t limit you to much map restrictions , who I couldn’t kill ( mostly ) or how I could make my character , the characterics of freedom , choices define those games , plus I enjoy hacking slashing down things in a volley of arrows using magic and sometimes drifting off the story line to explore ,

    Now this is my opinion too so , it maybe wrong but it’s how I see it

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  3. Great topic! My answer is yes, freedom is a good thing and most games need some degree of freedom. What constitutes that freedom is where I think some people get it wrong. Freedom in games doesn’t always mean vast open worlds and sandbox style gameplay. Similarly, linearity shouldn’t be a dirty word and certainly isn’t mutually exclusive with freedom. In some cases, there doesn’t need to be any freedom at all. What matters most to me is am I enjoying the experience while playing. If the answer is no, I don’t care if I’m on rails or in the middle of field with a dozen objective markers.

    • Precisely. If freedom or restrictions hurt the experience, both are equally bad because they are failing to function as they should: supporting elements to the overall experience.

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