Freedom in Constraint: Let’s Talk About Control

The old axiom ‘less is more’ is hit and miss. Sometimes, quite simply, more is actually more. But every now and again it rings true and we are left with an appreciation of simple, uncluttered freedom. In video games this is absolutely the case; when limitations are broken down then the control of a character within an environment is less tactile and less involving.

If we are given a small set of abilities which we have full control over – and are actually limited to – we are set free to explore environments with a greater degree of involvement. Strangely, defining the limitations of one’s avatar actually makes the interaction with a given environment more interactive. A barrier between avatar and surrounding is more freeing than it is constraining. One of the best games to look at with this in mind is Metal Gear Solid 3.

Ocelot Aim

Snake Eater is remarkable because it took the mechanics and the engine from the previous Metal Gear Solid games and moved them from restrictive corridors and put them in a jungle, mountains, and caves. A lot of what Naked Snake can do depends on the player’s manipulation of his shortcomings. We start to become comfortable with what we can and can’t do, and then when measured against the world of Tselinoyarsk we can start to find our way around these limits.

For instance I know that Snake’s prone position can be pushed up to a certain point near the edge of a drop before he will automatically move up into his crouched position, so teasing this limitation I move him as close as possible to the edge without triggering the crouch. The result is that he is partly over the edge and can now line up a head shot. It may look a little silly – even a little glitchy – however the degree of control I had in creating the scenario was one that was forged in the understanding of limitation. This was understood independently of the environment, and then came to include it. But the result was that I felt a stronger interaction with the environment. It was more tactile, like driving a manual when compared with an automatic, there’s a sense of “I DID THAT”. A player can have absolute connection with an environment through a character that is often at odds with it. It wouldn’t be as immersive if an icon popped up and prompted me to press a button which initiated ‘dangle mode’ or ‘edge-aiming’. Snake’s rigid and angular movements are clearly intended more for urban sneaking, but Christ if it didn’t make the jungle come alive with possibility.

Power to the People

The crux of the matter here is really quite a simple and obvious one: the more control in the player’s hands, the higher the degree of immersion. Often this control is heightened by lessening the actions available to the player, by having a smaller number of fundamentals if you will. Context sensitive button presses only really aim to decrease the level of control because they literally take actions out of the player’s hands.

Looking at Assassin’s Creed, the differences between the two approaches start to become clear. Holding a trigger allows Altair to climb anything that is in front of him. Now this does facilitate a free-running system that is animated beautifully and a joy to watch, but that is what it is – watching. Now compare this to something like Tomb Raider, especially the older Tomb Raider games, where every single jump has to be planned and thought out and extreme differences of approach can be observed. I’m not about to argue that Tomb Raider’s old way of doing things is superior – more rewarding once mastered yes, but not a superior system. A middle ground would be something forgiving like the Uncharted games which allow a degree of recklessness but do not simply guide you through the process of platforming like an observer. Playing an Assassin’s Creed game can sometimes feel like you are in direct control of a camera more than a character, watching and not doing. The Arkham games provide an excellent mix of both freedom and involvement. Having to rhythmically line up a grappling hook to a particular edge and then hit a button while zooming through the air, holding that button to time a jump off the ledge and trigger a pleasing glide is far more rewarding. Although it bypasses the process of the climb altogether, you feel a lot more a part of the process due to your involvement with each stage of it.

Altair Climb

Emergency! Emergency!

Having tight control and more specifically simple control – i.e. fewer actions available – allows for something not possible in games that lean on context sensitivity: emergent gameplay. At the moment it’s a phrase that seems to pop up a lot – it’s cool to want it and it’s cool to have it. Put simply, emergent gameplay is what happens when simple game mechanics are experimented with to create more complex results and solutions. A classic example is with the original Deus Ex, where you can place wall mines and use them as foot holds. Now this wasn’t planned by the developer, but the sense of manipulation and player interaction was at its highest. Being allowed to experiment with a world and produce your own gameplay that others haven’t tried, that the developers hadn’t even thought of. What’s more rewarding, a scheme you’ve concocted to beat a game using its own mechanics, or a solution presented to you by the game, with the game’s permission and planning? Emergent gameplay allows for a sense of non-linearity, the phrase ‘beat the game’ applies here more than ever. It’s a phrase I always thought sounded foolish. The game was created to be completed and that’s what you did. You didn’t beat it, the game allowed you to do what you could within its constraints. This is not the case with emergent gameplay; there is a far greater sense of achievement given to the player. Even more satisfying is unintentional emergence; this sometimes takes the form of glitches. Back when Halo 2 was released a friend and I managed to glitch a Banshee into the boss fight against Tartarus, something that gave us a real sense of beating something – of creatively coming up with a solution that hadn’t been planned by the developers. And on Legendary difficulty, that Banshee was a real help.

So ranging from larger solutions like my glitchy Banshee and Deus Ex’s wall mine climbing trick to smaller pieces of emergent gameplay like my wall-leaning trick in MGS3, emergence means more control. Not all games have to be playgrounds of emergent play, but on the whole it is more immersive to deliver the player the feeling that they accomplished a task, rather than that it had been served to them on a plate. So even though Snake may not be as lithe and agile as Altair and his band of ninja parkour assassins, I truly inhabited Snake and I played and tested and felt around the edges of what I could do, whereas with Altair I held a direction and a shoulder button and watched the city go by.

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