Monday, December 12, 2005

Game Reflections - Freedom

Breathe freely. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Which one do you like the most? If you could either only breathe in or breathe out for the rest of your life which one would you choose? Could it be that both are so codependent of each other that neither would be worth much nor be much enjoyed on their own? A co-eternal rhythmic dualism. If the the ocean curl back too far and for too long you shouldn't go scavenging the bare ocean-floor for crabs and clams because there is a monstrous tsunami building up. Its inevitable and its coming your way. You should head for high ground.

Freedom isn't freedom without restraints.

Jet Set Radio. A bold game in more ways than one. Not only did it have a timeless and sassy art direction, a fantastic soundtrack, it also stayed true to the game rules that it was molded in. Tokyo-to was like a giant playground, yours to explore and have fun in, your character was a inline skater that did graffiti, rival gangs, police and the mafia was after you. Gameplay-wise all you as a character could do was skating and tagging. Thats it. No action buttons for melee attacks or dodge moves, no distracting character building, no time consuming and distracting minigames or sidequests. It would have been easy for Smilebit to a add any of those. But instead they kept it just the way they intended it to be. And the gameplay and the experience are all the better for it. Exploring this urban jungle, spotting opportunities and possibilities to reach further and get new kicks, while leaving tags on billboards and avoiding cops. It was elevated freedom in a very entertaining package.

Hunter. One of the earlier 3D open world games, back in the days of the Amiga. A 3 way cocktail of strategy, action and adventure. You traveled between and on different islands in various vehicles. By emphasizing on exploration and having the horizon visible to to you most of the time you get a comforting sense of freedom and you subconsciously start to think that the horizon is a place on the map to which you can go. Of course you cant and those restrictions is cleverly designed. All vehicles running on a limited amount of fuel, when the fuel runs out the vehicle either stops or implodes leaving you in the ocean. And you dont want to be in the ocean for too long because the sharks is biting.

There is a difference between playground games and open world games. Many developers who are doing open world/sandbox games try to achieve the maximum amount of freedom by setting the framework fast and loose. You can almost do anything. And it has proven to be quite a successful formula so far. But by painting with these broad strokes the substance and mechanics tend to be quite shallow. Or somewhat hollow. As an outlet for escapism these games are great, but by giving you so many options the developer sometimes have to spread themselves thin to cover it all. Open world, loose structure, endless options and character customizing isn't the only way to achieve freedom in a game. In playground games you can in fact have really hard and uncompromising rules and yet generate an tremendous sense of freedom, that sometimes even eclipse the games that is playing the fast and loose card. By setting up a framework with clear boundaries - premise, gameworld, gameplay and purpose, you have a strong backdrop to screen against. Here freedom -anything that defy, challenge, play with or bend the ruleset, will be a distinctive contrast. And your sense of freedom will thereof be amplified and give you an extremely satisfying experience.