Considering the Implications of Player Choice, Player Freedom, and Game Purpose in Modern Game Design
game design design gamedesign sandbox sand box story linear writing open world game development development
Recently I encountered an article on Arstechnica by Peter Bright concerning the failure of storytelling in modern videogames. Peter Bright, The Failure of Bioshock: Writing Games Like Movies (June 14). The shortcoming of storytelling in modern videogames is a matter I have also given some consideration, and in doing so I came up with a rudimentary framework for thinking about game design and its implications for storytelling. In an effort to continue the discussion that Mr. Bright initiated with the publication of his article, I offer my framework as a tool (albeit, an imperfect one) to be used in this debate.
The foundation of my framework rests on what I perceive as the three primary purposes of modern videogames. After a brief discussion of those purposes, I will turn to explaining my framework and providing several examples of where I believe games fall within it. Finally, I will conclude this article by considering the implications of the analysis and what should be considered by game designers early in the development process.
II. General Purposes of Videogames
Speaking in very general terms, there are at least three primary purposes that a videogame can serve: (1) to entertain, (2) to tell a story, and (3) to allow the player to “live another life.” The first purpose, to entertain, bears little additional discussion, because the purpose is fairly self-evident. Likewise, the second purpose is self-explanatory — it comes as no surprise that videogames can be used to tell stories in the same way that literature and cinema can. The third purpose, however, requires additional discussion.
I refer to it as “living another life,” but what I am really referring to is an application of what Tolkien calls the creation of “Secondary Belief.” See J.R.R. Tolkien, On Faerie-Stories, Tree and Leaf 37–46 (HarperCollins 2001). Videogames can be used to create another world that is entirely consistent within itself, a world that inspires “Secondary Belief” in the player and allows an escape thereto. The game designer is a “sub-creator” and the efficacy of his or her sub-creation is judged by the degree to which it inspires “Secondary Belief.” In my view this is, perhaps, the noblest application to which videogames can be put.
These purposes are not mutually exclusive, and, indeed, all videogames (arguably) serve the purpose of entertainment. In other words, the purposes of telling a story and allowing the player to live another life necessarily aim to entertain — to tell a story is to entertain, after all. Similarly, a videogame that seeks to tell a story can also facilitate the player in living another life. As Tolkien recognized, the telling of many stories requires Secondary Belief by the reader in order to fully enjoy them. See id.
While these purposes are largely compatible with one another, they can become incompatible under certain circumstances. In assessing whether purposes are incompatible in a particular game, I propose a framework whereby the degrees to which each purpose is pursued are weighed against one another. This exercise provides valuable insights into game design and the implications of promoting one purpose over another. For purposes of this analysis, I will exclude the purpose of entertainment, as it is presumed present in both storytelling and facilitating the player in living another life.
III. The Framework
The framework I propose focuses on the use of two separate continuums, one for each purpose discussed above. For the storytelling purpose of videogames, the continuum represents the degree of player choice within the story. Alternately, the living another life continuum represents the degree of player freedom within the story or world. I will discuss each continuum in greater detail below, provide examples of where particular games fall along each continuum, and finally conclude by discussing the implications of where a game falls along each.
A. The Storytelling Continuum: Degree of Player Choice
For present purposes, the degree to which player choice is permitted to impact a story is perhaps the single most important characteristic that distinguishes one game from another. As I alluded to, by player choice I mean the player’s ability to act within the confines of the story, most notably by impacting or changing the outcome. This continuum represents a dichotomy with a complete lack of developer-defined story on one end and an entirely linear story on the other. In between these two extremes are games that (1) allow choices of consequence, including those that change the ultimate outcome, and finally (2) allow only inconsequential choice within the story. Below is a simple diagram illustrating the continuum:
The category that restricts player choice the most is where the developer has imposed a completely linear story. The line between this category and the following one is difficult to draw, because even the most linear story will include at least some player choice. Regardless, the “campaigns” of many first-person shooters are the obvious example here, where the player is simply an actor in a course of events set in motion by the developer.
Next we have games that allow nominal player choice, but that choice is either completely inconsequential or has so little impact on the story that it is rendered meaningless. Again, this is a broad category and many games come within its definition. Most games in the Final Fantasy series are a prime example of this category along the continuum.
Games where there is a story and the player can make significant choices within it constitute the third category. This is a relatively broad category, because meaningful player choice can manifest in a variety of different ways. Most importantly, player choice can influence specific events within the game, or even change the entire outcome. Notable examples here are games such as Fallout, Dragon Age, Mass Effect (criticisms of the ending aside), Heavy Rain, and The Walking Dead. These games all allow player choice to impact the story in a substantial and meaningful way.
Finally, the last category represents games with so much player choice that there is no developer-imposed story at all. Common examples of games without any developer-defined story are what have come to be referred to as pure “sandbox” games, such as Minecraft. There is no developer-defined story within these games. Instead, players are free to create their own story or narrative in the game. Put differently, the player has unlimited choice, and the story can be whatever (s)he imagines.
B. The “Living Another Life” Continuum: Degree of Player Freedom
When a game’s purpose is to facilitate the player in living another life, the most important characteristic is the amount of freedom the player is given. In this context, freedom primarily denotes the player’s physical freedom — the player’s ability to explore and engage with the world on his or her own terms. As such, factors bearing heavily on a player’s freedom are the extent to which the player can interact with the world (simply look at it vs. directly change it) and how much the player may explore the world (“on rails” vs. open world).
Again, the continuum here represents a dichotomy, with games that do not permit the player to explore or interact with the world on one end, and completely open “sandbox” games on the other. However, it is more difficult to create categories between the two extremes on this continuum. The matter is further complicated by the fact that many games fall in different places along the continuum at different parts of the game. Regardless, there are at least two points along the continuum that we can tentatively place: (1) where the player can engage in nominal exploration or interaction with the world, and (2) where the player can meaningfully engage or interact with the world. Below is an illustration of this continuum:
The first, and most restrictive category when it comes to player freedom, is where the game does not allow any interaction with the world or exploration thereof. Games that truly fall into this category are rare, because almost all games allow at least token interaction or exploration. At the very least, most games permit the player to look around, but it is not impossible to imagine a game without any player freedom. A game in this category would be more akin to a movie than a videogame, and would not be properly exploiting the medium.
Next are games where the player can engage in nominal exploration or token interaction with the world, but little more. A game that keeps the player on a limited, fairly linear path would fall in this category along this continuum. Numerous games fit this definition, including most platformers, first-person shooters, and action games. Even a number of roleplaying games, traditionally affording more freedom to the player, could properly be placed in this category.
Games where the player is allowed to meaningfully interact with and explore the world make up the third category along the player freedom continuum. Rather than simply allowing the player to explore within a limited area, these games will let the player explore expensive areas and may use this ability to explore as an important gameplay mechanic. In terms of interaction, these games will often let the player change the world in some way, either directly or indirectly. Most games in the Zelda series, Final Fantasy series, and Baldur’s Gate I & II are examples of this category. While the Elder Scrolls series arguably belongs in this category, I believe they fall somewhere between this category and the next.
Finally, games giving the most freedom for players are “sandbox” games with a completely open world. Such games give the player virtually unrestricted access to exploring the world and let the player change the world in significant ways. Minecraft perfectly embodies this extreme, and grants the player almost complete freedom. In terms of exploration, the Elder Scrolls series imposes few limits on exploration, but does not permit limitless changes to the world, so does not fit perfectly at the far end of the continuum.
A cursory look at the above framework leaves little question that there are important implications for a game’s ability to achieve a given purpose, depending on where it falls along each continuum. As a general rule, the opposing extremes of each continuum are not compatible with one another. A game with a linear story cannot simultaneously permit the player unbridled freedom to explore and change the world without undermining the game’s chosen method of storytelling. Likewise, a game that does not give the player any freedom cannot also include little or no story — such a thing would be no game at all.
The above observations are obvious, but matters become more nuanced when considering what it means for a game that is somewhere in the middle of a continuum. Although a game that gives a large amount of player agency in one area is not necessarily limited in the amount of agency it should give in another area, a significant disconnect may be ill advised. The more player freedom is granted, the more a player will be allowed to deviate from a developer’s vision of the story (s)he wishes to tell. Likewise, the more player choice a developer grants the player, the more the player will want to interact with and explore the world.
For game designers, when designing a game it is important to consider the purpose of your game at the outset and how much player freedom and choice you envision granting. If the purpose of your game is to tell a very specific story, it may not be wise to give the player too much freedom or choice. However, if you want to tell a story that the player can change, you should also give the player some freedom to explore and interact with the world, because it is becoming a world they are truly part of. Concerning games whose purpose is to let the player live another life, severe restrictions on player choice and freedom would obviously undermine the game’s objective.
These are my initial observations and I welcome additional thoughts on the interaction between player freedom, player choice, and the various purposes for videogames. It is an important discussion that needs to be had, particularly given recent blunders. Finally, I want to make it clear that this is only a rudimentary framework for thinking about game design as it relates to game purpose, and I have no illusion about it being all-encompassing. It is simply a starting point, a foundation that can be built upon.
 I recognize that this list of purposes does not satisfactorily account for strategy and competitive games. Though I am conscious of this deficiency, such games are beyond the scope of this framework and their omission does not compromise its utility.