When Losing Control is a Good Thing

If you listen to the gaming community, aside from having a burning hatred of humanity, you’d probably think that it was best for a game to give players control over every aspect it possibly can. In a shocking twist, I disagree with the people who lower my opinion of humanity. While there are certainly many areas players absolutely should control (auto-platforming is the worst thing to ever happen to my favorite genre), it is not a universal constant. I’m going to explore some small areas, and a couple big ones, where games really need to stop letting/making the player make every decision.

Let’s start with something that I feel should be one of the ten commandments of game design: linearity is not a flaw! There are several genres that simply work better as linear games. Non-linearity may give the player the feeling that they are on a grander adventure and have more freedom, but do you know what the cost is? Level design. In any game with a focus on combat or environmental obstacles, designing levels in a way that always allows backtracking is going to cripple what can be done. The genre where this is most obvious is the platformer. Making a level in a platformer physically possible to backtrack in and explore areas in different orders requires greatly simplifying the level geography. The non-linear collect-a-thon platformers often had mostly flat, circular levels. Areas with platformer staples like crumbling platforms, auto-scrolling walls, and enemies that double as platforms ironically had to be much more cramped and restricted to accommodate the non-linear, explorable parts.

Platformers aren’t the only genre to benefit from linearity. The core of an action game’s level design is enemy placement, meaning a non-linear one has to either make you re-fight a tough battle several times with respawning enemies or break the pace of the game with treks through empty rooms as you try to figure out where to go next. Even in genres where complete linearity would be a bad idea, there are places where it is needed. In adventure games from the Zelda mold, you need an order for main story areas so that the game knows what items you have and can design areas around them. Good luck doing that if dungeons can be completed in any order.

Speaking of games knowing what items and abilities a player has, that segues nicely into my next area where I feel games often give players too much control: character customization. Now having gotten into the Pokemon meta-game, I’m not going to say there isn’t a place for character customization. But like non-linearity, there are contexts where it suffocates the level design. This mainly applies to real-time games with an emphasis on environmental level design. Let’s say I’m designing a level where the player has a double jump. I can do all kinds of things with it. Almost every aspect of the level design has to take it into account. I have to make the jumps trickier, make enemy projectiles bigger, place hard to get items in areas the player can’t just double jump to.

Now what if the player MIGHT have a double jump? Well, that just messes up everything. Either the level is unfair/impossible to players without it, or it makes the level too easy, or I just never have any situations where it matters. And what if the player may or may not have a double jump, the ability to climb walls, a projectile based weapon, a stealth ability, and the ability to possess enemies? Well screw this, I’m just going to have to make every dungeon as basic as possible. Maybe if I make 100 of them, people won’t mind. And that’s precisely what happens when games give you too many variations in what powers your character has and when you have them: the level design has to be neutered. This doesn’t mean real time games can never give players choices, but there has to be a balance. I’d rather have three distinct character classes with the level modified to suit mine than 30 combinations of abilities that one level has to accommodate all at once.

Another area where some genres should let the game itself do the work is camera angles. This mainly applies to more fast paced genres, games where the player simply doesn’t have time to constantly adjust the camera. Action games are the prime example, nothing is worse than getting hit by an enemy you couldn’t see at the time. Some may think that limiting the player to camera angles the game decided on would make this problem even worse, but what that objection overlooks is that the game will KNOW what area you can’t see. If the player controls the camera, then obviously enemies can’t be programmed to act according to what the player can see. But if the game sets the camera angle, it knows for sure if the player can see an enemy. Enemies can stay in visible areas or not attack when the player can’t see them. Obviously giving the camera over to the game requires a great deal of trust in the competence of the designers and programmers, but when it works it works very well. The Devil May Cry, God of War, and Super Mario Galaxy series give little or no camera control to the player, and it enhances the games, eliminating serious camera problems found in many other games of their genres.

Those are the biggest areas where I think some games can benefit from giving players less control, but there are a few other instances where I think it is a good idea. Many games where you can choose the morality of the protagonist strongly encourage picking an alliance and sticking to it, so why put in 100 choices when there are really just two real ones? A game like Infamous would benefit from just letting you choose to be good or evil at the start, it would mean less disappointment that you’re pressured into sticking with one side and allow for more variations between the two paths. I’m also quite frankly sick of “in gameplay” cinemas. Having to follow a character or pace around a room while a story event happens does not add any more to gameplay than watching a cinema, and reduces the chance of a game letting you skip it. If you don’t want a game to ever take control away from the player, make sure there’s always some sort of gameplay while the player is in control.

A recurring theme of this article was that all of my suggestions were only for certain genres and situations, and I want to reiterate that. There are many areas and genres where the player should always have choices. A linear sandbox game, turn-based RPG with no customization, or puzzle game where you couldn’t control the camera would all be absurd. However, that doesn’t mean giving the player control is a universal good in every single context, and the sooner developers and gamers realize that, the less games will be harmed by it.

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