I’m sure it’s happened to you: you’re playing a game and you come across a weapon, or ability, or game mechanic that you just love, and you wish you could use it all the time. Only you can’t, because the developer has placed restrictions on it in the name of balance. It’s understandable that you can only use the Super Gravity Gun at the end of Half-Life 2, it being the most powerful weapon in the game. Valve know that restricting its usage makes it more fun to unleash on the Combine.
Where does the designer’s responsibility for making a game fun end, and the player’s begin? Should the player be given full reigns over the available tools or should the designer limit them? Greg Miller at IGN raises this question using a recent example, the detective vision mode in Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. The mode enhances Batman’s vision, allowing him to use his detective skills and analyse his surroundings. At the touch of a button, a blue visor covers the screen and renders the environment in flat shapes in order to help highlight important details like vent covers and enemies. The mode can be activated at any time and for however long as the player wishes; moreover, it lets the player see through walls and points out key information like whether enemies are armed, if a wall is destructible, and so on. Sounds like a win button, doesn’t it?
The chief complaint with the mode is that it can make the game too easy, but that’s not the only consequence. Miller remarks how he’d forget he even had it on, and would breeze through “12 hours” without even seeing the locations he passed, missing all the intricate work by the texture artists hidden beneath the filter. So it’s a problem that concerns both the developer and the player. Rocksteady dedicated time and resources to ensure the game looks as detailed as it does, and all that hard work is obfuscated by the visor. Should there have been a restriction placed on usage of the detective mode? Miller thinks so. Perhaps a limited battery charge? Would that add to or take away from the “fun” of using it?
I can see how a restriction would introduce new elements to the usage of a game mechanic, enhancing the experience instead of hindering it. One example of such a restriction is the ammo system in BioWare’s Mass Effect series. The first game, an RPG-shooter hybrid, eschews ammo reloading entirely, justifying the absence of ammo in the in-game fiction. Instead, each weapon has a cooldown meter, allowing a few shots before it overheats. Being as it is an RPG, the game features weapon modifications that can effectively eliminate the possibility of overheating, letting you keep your finger pressed on the trigger of an automatic rifle and produce an endless spray of bullets1.
The sequel, leaning more on the shooter side, actually brings back the reloading mechanic – albeit under a different name. Retconned into the game’s fiction are “thermal clips” required for all weapons, functionally identical to conventional ammo clips. Project Director Casey Hudson explains that the mechanic was brought to add tension to combat2. So does the introduction of reloading improve the game’s combat? The consensus is that the combat in Mass Effect 2 is, on the whole, much improved over the original game. A number of tweaks have resulted in a much better experience, reloading certainly being one of them. Ammo management complements the cover mechanics, and a new level of tactical thinking is brought to the battles.
Coming back to Batman and his magical goggles, I know Miller has a point. But I don’t agree with him. There’s an argument to be made that a player doesn’t need to be given a safety belt and spoonfed an experience, he is perfectly capable of utilising his freedom of choice in a way that maximises his enjoyment. Batvision making the game too easy for you? Stop using it. If you’re speeding through the game and not noticing what you’re using and what you’re missing, one could argue that you’ve got yourself to blame for not taking it all in and appreciating all the game has to offer. In Arkham Asylum you have a large variety of ways to sneak through a room or tackle thugs, and it is up to you to change things up and keep things fresh in the true spirit of the spontaneous and resourceful dark knight.
There is a kind of player that shapes the game experience around his own preferences, role-playing the main character perhaps, or even going to extremes like with the Ironman challenge popular with dungeon crawl players3. One doesn’t have to resort to that of course, it’s entirely possible to immerse yourself in the experience without minmaxing the available options. Just because I can be resurrected without cost every time I die in BioShock, it doesn’t mean that I will take on the Big Daddies with a wrench and whittle away their health over the course of countless lives. It simply isn’t fun to play that way.
I think there’s more to say about this topic, as it touches on larger issues like player handholding, and full freedom versus the crafted experience, so we may return to it in the future. For now I think it suffices to say that some things can be left to the player to decide when and how to use, in order to get the most fun out of a game.