Article Tags / option-restriction (8)

Who's the Boss: Player Choice, NPC Consent, and the Designer's Unseen Hand

Last week, we discussed the spectrum of allowance - a way to describe how allowed a given action is within a game, ranging from impossible to required. A key point is that the game’s designer places each action on the spectrum. Aside from bugs (which violate the designer’s intent) and hacks (which partially override the original design with another), in a game you can only do what the designer lets you. This is true even when you have freedom of choice - that freedom was granted by the designer.

Some games understand this well and play with it effectively - see for example The Stanley Parable, especially the confusion ending (warning: spoilers). But not all games that examine player choice understand the designer’s role.

The Journey Of Me is a free browser game. It’s a 2D platformer and it takes about fifteen minutes to play. I am now going to spoil the hell out of it, but honestly I don’t think you should be too worried about spoilers in this case.

The Journey of Me title screen

That Which Is Not Forbidden: The Spectrum of Allowance

When Grand Theft Auto III came out, it introduced a new interaction to the series: players could now solicit prostitutes and then kill them to get their money back.

“To engage with prostitutes in the game, all the player had to do was pull up to certain scantily clad women, who would enter the vehicle in exchange for a sum of money. . . . Disturbingly, players found they could reclaim their cash by simply killing the prostitute with their car after she’d exited.”
—Samantha Leichtamer, The 5 Most Shocking Grand Theft Auto Moments

This capability has persisted in later games in the series, and gave rise to a lot of discussion. Much of the commentary is careful to point out that murdering prostitutes is not required at any point.

“After a player pays for services from a prostitute, they can run over, beat, and even kill the prostitute and then simply take back the money that was paid. . . . It’s worth noting that this controversial element in Grand Theft Auto is not required by any part of a mission, side quest or storyline: it is something that [is] available due to the open world/sandbox style gameplay.”
—Michael Klappenbach, Grand Theft Auto Series Most Controversial Moments

“[You can] pay a hooker to talk dirty and service you in your hooptie. It gets better: After you get your rocks off, you can run her over with your car or riddle her with bullets – it all depends on how you roll, ya big stud. . . . It’s important to note that GTA players don’t have to kill prostitutes, although they certainly can if it occurs to them.”
—Tracy Clark-Flory, Grand Theft misogyny

“Grand Theft Auto is known as the game in which you can pick up a prostitute, have sex with her, then kill her and get your money back. You never have to do that to advance in the game; the world is simply so open-ended that you can do it.”
—Chris Baker, It’s Not Just About Killing Hookers Anymore

Of course Grand Theft Auto games are exactly that: games. You don’t have to play them at all. And they’re known as games where a lot of the fun comes from messing around in the sandbox, going on murder sprees that are also thoroughly unrequired. So is there a meaningful distinction to be made here?

I think there is. Merely pointing out that you can do something in a game is incomplete. It treats it as a binary, with the action either allowed or disallowed. But game design is much more subtle than that. There’s a wide range of how allowed an action can be.

The Choice Is Not Yours: Why Prince of Persia Has The Best (And Worst) Ending In Modern Video Games

WARNING: THIS ESSAY CONTAINS EXTREME SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT PLAYED PRINCE OF PERSIA AND INTEND TO DO SO, DO IT BEFORE READING THIS ESSAY.

The game is called “Prince of Persia.” But it’s not really about the Prince. (He doesn’t even seem to be a prince this time. We call him “the Prince” because he has no name.) Really, the game is about (legitimate princess) Elika.

Princess Elika

As the game opens, the Prince is lost in a sandstorm, calling out for Farah. Franchise veterans will recognize the name as that of the love interest from the Sands of Time trilogy - but it is soon revealed that Farah is actually the name of this Prince’s donkey, laden with the riches the Prince has recently looted.

It’s a nod to the previous games, but it’s also a dig at Princess Farah’s characterization and gameplay role. She was little more than a pack animal. The Prince, lost in the storm, is trying to reconnect with her, trying to return to that simplicity. Instead, he finds Elika.

Pretending to Rock: Fake, Artificial, and Valuable Achievement

A while back, I discussed my experiences with the dangers of fake achievement and its potential for abuse. I’d become addicted, and regularly played RPGs to feel good about myself - I allowed myself to glow in the praise directed at my characters for their world-saving heroics, when all I’d really done is hit the right buttons enough times. Once I figured this out, and realized it was preventing me from accomplishing anything real, I set about the lengthy task of recovery. Step one was a game accomplishment that required skill rather than patience - collecting all the emblems in Sonic Adventure DX.

The response to this essay was… mixed, to say the least.

There was one comment in particular that raised an interesting question, which I would like to address today.

Mirror's Edge: What Went Wrong and Why

Mirror’s Edge is a Bad Good Game. The foundation is solid: players take the role of Faith, a genuinely badass woman with a non-exploitative, unconventionally beautiful design whose motivations revolve around survival and protecting her sister. Faith parkours her way around an unnamed city of bright colors and austere beauty, and is trained in a variety of disarm techniques should she encounter armed attackers she can’t simply outrun. Sounds good, right?

I'm Not Evil, I Just Play That Way: Player Motivations and Character Goals

Recently we took a look at the technique of option restriction, which is when a game presents the player with only one path forward, thus eliminating choice while maintaining agency. If it’s handled well, it allows for close management of narrative progression while still letting the player feel that they are in control. So what is it that determines whether it’s handled well? What allows the player’s sense of control to be maintained even with a lack of choice?

“Players like to feel in control, but this sensation doesn’t necessarily come from having the ability to choose. Having control is as simple as doing what you want to do. It’s possible for players to feel in control even if they don’t actually have the ability to choose, as long as the what the game asks and what the player wants aligns. A good narrative should foster this.”
—Andrew Vanden Bossche, Would You Kindly? BioShock And Free Will

I Told Him to Do That: Option Restriction, Choice, and Agency in Bioshock

Have you ever trapped a spider under a glass? Maybe you saw one on your kitchen floor and decided to humanely release it outdoors. So you took a drinking glass and put it down over the spider. Then perhaps you took a sheet of paper and laid it on the floor. As the spider scurried about in its prison, you gradually slid the glass onto the paper, which you could now pick up and take outside.

By doing this, you managed to move the spider where you wanted it to go - all without touching it or influencing it directly. As the spider aimlessly explored its limited circle of freedom, you advanced the walls, closing off space behind it and opening up space in front of it, in the direction you had selected. By choosing to move at all, the spider chose to move onto the paper - to the goal that you had chosen, and of which the spider was not even aware.

This is exactly how many video games work.