Options or freedom? Which one is ideal for the player? Which one should you pursue for your game design?
I remember hearing a lot of game developers marketing their games with things like “Your choices matter!” and “Infinite possibilities and outcomes!”
Often those just mean that the grand game developer, in all their self-relegated awesomeness, has decided to grant you, the lowly peasant player, a bunch of options that they think you should enjoy.
What are options?
Options usually refer to the parts of a game where the player has to make a choice. Typically between 2-3 predetermined options.
Do you choose to slay a thief or spare their life?
Run off to help a town that is on fire or a castle that is under siege?
Choose between this alliance or the other one?
Giving the player more options usually results in the game developer having to think about branching paths. And the more the paths branch, the more stuff needs to be implemented before the game is ready for shipping.
A linear but concise game that might be enjoyable by itself can turn into two or more games.
The game developer may feel like they can make the game more replayable that way, since the player cannot experience everything on the first go.
But the player may not want to replay the game, because the gameplay isn’t good enough to warrant another run. Especially if the stuff they missed isn’t that different from what they’ve already experienced on their first run.
Not to mention that options can often feel unsatisfying.
As the player, you know that making a choice will have the consequence of missing a part of the game. It’s like the game deliberately stops you to tell you that you’re going to be missing something.
What is freedom?
What is freedom in video games?
Of course, true freedom is just an illusion. But there is definitely a difference compared to “having options”.
We can pick any Ultima game to demonstrate what I mean by freedom. Let’s take Ultima IV for example.
As the player, you have an ability to attack.
Whoever you want.
Pretty much whenever you want.
The game never pops a question “do you want to attack this person/monster?” No. Instead, at any time in the game and at any place, you can press the A key and then choose a direction. If there is something in that direction, you attack it.
That is freedom.
Freedom is not about options. It’s about game mechanics and more importantly, not restricting said game mechanics to specific situations.
The mechanics need to be consistent. They need to remain the same throughout the game.
In Ultima IV, the rules for when you can and cannot attack, and also what you can attack, remain the same through the whole game. You can attack all living things, you cannot attack non-living things (like walls or water). You can attack whenever, unless the character is asleep or doing something (like talking or looking at the inventory).
This consistency also applies to all other commands in the game.
Focusing on game mechanics allows the player to think “okay, I have these tools (game mechanics) at my disposal, how can I use them to do what I want to do?”
Players will also get more familiar with the mechanics more easily. They have to, because the mechanics are all an integral part of the game, and not just something to remember when a specific event happens. It’s easier to keep them in mind at all times.
Freedom but not quite
There are also games that sort of do this, but not well enough.
In the game Octopath Traveler, you have 8 characters who all have their own special abilities. Two who can ask information from people, two who can challenge people to duels, two who can ask people to join the group, and two have access to items that people hold (either by stealing or buying them).
There’s usually several ways to handle any situation.
When meeting a captain who is tasked to prevent an uprising in a town, you can either ask around the town for info and give it to him. Or you can go confiscate weapons from the rebels (by buying/stealing them) and bring those to the captain.
The game doesn’t shove those two options at you. Instead, you run around the town and more or less naturally drift at solving the case in one of the two ways.
But there are also situations where the game betrays you.
For example, there’s sometimes a person standing in front of a door, blocking the doorway.
My first instinct was: “Oh, I can just guide/seduce this character. That way, they’ll be following me instead of blocking the pathway!”
Except… that’s not allowed.
You’re only allowed to beat them down, so that they’re lying unconscious next to the door so that you can enter.
Why that’s not good enough
The developer may think that it’s funny that you have to clobber down a completely innocent person to access their house (although sometimes it’s a public space, like a church). Or maybe they’ve thought that “breaking and entering” should only happen in a violent way, instead of allowing you to use one of the more peaceful abilities?
Who knows. Either way, as a player I feel betrayed that I can’t solve the situation with a mechanic that obviously should work in there.
The point here is: if you do mechanics, make them available everywhere. Design the game in a way where it’s expected that the player can use those mechanics as intended.
And don’t just rip them out whenever you can’t figure out how to make some scenario happen with them. If you’re looking to force the player to some kind of situation, you’re probably already on the wrong path.
Another example is Yiga Hideout in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. When you enter, the game decides that every enemy kills you with one hit. From the developer’s view, that may seem like a brilliant way to force the player to move stealthily through the area. But to the player, it’s just unsatisfying and dumb.
Let me decide if I want to use stealth there or not. If that’s the optimal way to clear that place, then give me the tools to do that. That’s all you need to do.
So, options or freedom?
Don’t give the player options. Give them freedom.
Design your game around mechanics and gameplay, and you’ll be one massive step closer to making a believable world in your game.
You don’t need to design multiple branching paths. Focusing on freedom will make your game more concise. Both the gameplay and immersion in the game will improve.
Your players will be happier being able to come up with decisions themselves, and not being constrained by the developer’s whims.