When it comes to an interactive medium like video games, creating an immersive experience is a careful balancing act between two major design factors: storytelling and freedom. The difficulty with this is that increasing the emphasis on one of these two factors makes it much more difficult to implement the other, due to their somewhat contrasting nature.
On one hand, writing a detailed and thorough plot that includes well-developed characters, locations and events will help to establish a certain narrative and provides the game’s developers with a clear basis for communicating directly with the player. On the other hand, by implementing a plot that is heavy on details, developers must limit the availability of choice that is given to the player, which can greatly diminish their feeling of immersion. Examples of such would include games with an almost entirely linear plot, like Final Fantasy, Halo or Dead Space.
The same can be said of a game that takes the opposite approach by emphasising freedom of play over a structured experience. By having no plot to advance through or characters to interact with on a meaningful basis, the developer can allow players to act in virtually any manner that they choose without having to impose penalties or ‘game over’ scenarios. With no beginning, end or scripted events, there is very little that can be interrupted by the player’s choices.
The downside to this is that it’s almost impossible to generate any significant structure or interaction, as the choices that can be made by the player are too varied to support all the contingencies that would be required. With no true end point for the player to strive for, it is usually the extent of the player’s imagination or patience that determines how long they play the game. Games that are good examples of this optimization of freedom would include Minecraft, The Sims and Don’t Starve.
Mixing the storytelling and freedom elements of a game has become the popular choice for many developers in recent years, as it caters to both audiences and allows for a more engaging experience. The ways in which storytelling and freedom can be combined are innumerable, giving developers the ability to pick and choose the mechanics that best compliment the goal of the game. A good example of this would be a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, in which the player is given the freedom to diverge from the game’s main storyline at almost any point they choose.
By allowing the player to customize and name their own character, Skyrim avoids imposing a specific persona on the player, which further enhances the feeling of freedom. Eventually, for the sake of plot, the game boils down into a series of key decisions that lead the player to choose from one of two possible scenarios for the game’s final storyline quest.
A different approach to the same issue can be seen with the Mass Effect series, where the player can direct Commander Shepard’s decisions by selecting from a list of possible responses that are based on his character’s preferences, rather than the player’s. This creates a much more solid foundation on which to develop a plot and detailed character interactions, but only at the cost of overall choice for the player. By helping to guide the development of Shepard’s character, the player should eventually come to identify with him, making it easier to accept the limitations imposed on his actions.
Possibly one of the best examples of mixing storytelling elements with freedom comes from Fallout: New Vegas. Much like with Skyrim, the player is given the freedom to customize their character’s appearance and abilities at the start of them game, which allows them to imagine their own persona and impose it upon the game.
Free to wander for the most part, the player can choose how they want to interact with the game’s many factions, balancing rewards with penalties and altering their overall reputation. How the player chooses to deal with the game’s various factions will ultimately contribute to the choices that are available leading up to the plot’s conclusion, giving the illusion of a complex and dynamic world that actually only revolves around a few major turning points. After all, when we talk about freedom in video games, it is mostly that illusion of complexity that we are really after.
New advances in artificial intelligence, procedurally generated code and cloud computing are constantly pushing back the boundaries of how complex or dynamic our video games can become, but it is difficult to rely on such mechanics when it comes to supporting storylines or character development. The games that best combine the structure of storytelling with the complexity of freedom are those that use the tools at their disposal to inject this illusion of complexity into their gameplay.
Though they often come into conflict with one another, when used intelligently, elements of both storytelling and freedom serve to enhance a game’s level of immersion, bringing it closer to the reality that it attempts to present.