Second Life, Liberty City, and the Pursuit of Freedom in Games
Today is Independence Day, and in honor of America's birth and its liberty from Great Britain, Crispy Gamer is taking a quick look at 10 games whose design emphasizes freedom, and passes freedom and its feel on to their players.
The 10 Games of Freedom
You want the car? Take the car! All of the games in the Grand Theft Auto series have indulged players' antisocial tendencies, but it was the franchise's third incarnation which really began to satiate players' whims with a fully realized virtual sandbox world. Featuring classic depictions of the American Dream, players "work" hard to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and out of the poverty/betrayal/bad luck foisted upon them by recent immigration/previous criminal organization/fate. Combining the ability to obtain whatever you want simply by taking it, with a fully explorable environment populated with easily obtainable vehicles, and numerous objectives and opportunities for player-defined goals,
The Legend of Zelda
While later games in the series have been tuned to more tightly control the player's path, the Zelda series has had a history of providing the player with a significant degree of freedom. The original NES game is a prime example, with players able to enter, explore, and complete many of the dungeons entirely out of their intended order. This freedom was also present to a lesser degree in the several titles following. Its inclusion in the original game is notable, however, as the trend in open worlds has been principally a recent phenomenon. It is also interesting in that while other games have trended towards greater freedom, the Zelda series has moved towards a more linear design.
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion / Fallout 3
A vast and beautiful world filled with countless locales to explore, a satisfying core quest chain with seemingly endless side quests, terrifying monsters, vicious weapons, varied combat, own-able properties, meaningful player choice, reputation, and moral ambiguity - Which game am I describing? It doesn't matter, because both of these gems have it all. For the ultimate experience in single-player RPG playgrounds one need look no further than these epic adventures from Bethesda. Their intricately crafted worlds allow you to leave ours behind, dive in, and do as you like, whether what you enjoy is saving Cyrodiil from the hordes of Oblivion, or nuking Megaton and its inhabitants into little radioactive bits. For the freedom to explore anywhere or everywhere, to quest along your own meandering path to glory, to choose and fight your own battles using your own tactics, and to reach the acme of American consumerism (owning your own home), fire up Oblivion or Fallout 3.
Little Big Planet
Mario is a staple for a reason - the appeal of platformers crosses a lot of boundaries and reaches a wide range of players. Little Big Planet takes the next step by putting the power to build those worlds elegantly in the hands of the player. Its comprehensive, streamlined, in-level editor frees the player from clunky level design UIs, while Sackboy's physical presence during construction of a level impresses upon the player that they are in complete control of this little world and are free to easily shape it however they like.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
We Americans love our cars and the thrill of speeding along the open road. But when it comes time to really travel, we take to the skies. As such, the Microsoft Flight Simulator series, more than any driving game, gives players the freedom to speed, soar, and take control. Later versions have placed scores of different airplanes at the fingertips of eager wannabe pilots, allowing them to take wing and land at real airports around the game's simulated world. It's also one of gaming's longest running franchises at over 25-years since its first title’s release (1982).
Second Life grants players a great deal of freedom to build, trade (using an in-game currency, the Linden), play, socialize, and compete with other players via their customizable flying avatars, in their own steadily evolving, community-generated MMO world. Using 3D modeling software, players can create their own clothing, vehicles, objects, furniture, and buildings. In addition to this large amount of freedom, Second Life also captures another of America's central tenants - capitalism. In order to own land and be granted a steady allowance of Linden Dollars, players must pay a monthly fee of real US dollars - a trait shared by most MMOs.
Mount & Blade
This often overlooked game provides the player with a rare sandbox experience. Set in a medieval land of massive mounted and infantry battles (think Braveheart), the player is let loose with no core campaign as an anchor. While this leads to some players drifting away, those who persist are rewarded with the unique freedom to fashion an experience that is entirely their own. Join with a lord, become a vassal, and earn your own fiefdom; fight your way to the top as a warlord, build your own army, and sell your services to whomever will pay; go it alone as a bandit, striking at random, and wreaking havoc; or venture on a journey all your own. What might be considered a weakness in Mount & Blade proves to in fact be one of its greatest strengths. By freeing players from a core purpose, players are faced with the freedom to do anything or nothing at all, a challenge which injects an element of realism seldom encountered in gaming.
As an added bonus, mounted players frequently have the vastly rewarding opportunity to free the heads of scores of enemy soldiers from their necks.
Sleep Is Death
What’s that? Ninja swarm vs. Cthulhu? Game on! Sleep Is Death gives players the freedom to do anything. No, really, anything. The latest indie creation from game design auteur Jason Rohrer allows two players to cooperatively create a story by taking turns manipulating pixilated 2D elements on a shared virtual “set.” The Actor player controls the movement, actions, and text-based dialog of one character, while the Director player controls the set, sounds, and all other characters and objects. With a little bit of teamwork and improvisation, players are able to plumb any depth, indulge any fantasy, or spin out into the strangest of imaginings. Its carefully restrained dimensions and 8-bit graphic style only serve to enhance the players' Freedom, as these seeming limitations allow players to easily and effectively create new sprites and objects with which to further broaden the scope of the game.
Ah, the irony. The Sims series grants the player complete control over a number of simulated people, and the freedom to help them start a family, build a career, and develop as individuals. However, with all the fun of possessing such intimate control over your Sims come the requirement for you to also tend to their every need, including food, sleep, hygiene, entertainment, and trips to the toilet. While these annoyances have certainly not affected the games' immense popularity, it's certain that they have resulted in scores of Sims being carpentered into doorless rooms or trapped behind furniture until they starve to death. Perhaps then the most important takeaway is that freedom is never truly free.
When it comes to players, nothing spells freedom like C-H-O-I-C-E, and when it comes to choice, you’re gonna want to look to the Latin. Considered to be one of the finest games of all time, Deus Ex allows its players numerous complex strategic choices across its arc, allowing players frequent opportunity to decide for themselves how they wish to negotiate a given obstacle. Strategic allocation of skill points and binary decisions when using nano-augmentations allow players to further develop their individual tactical flavor. In many ways, these choices could allow for the game to be experienced in the way most enjoyable to its players. This element of freedom rings true with one of the most hallowed American values – the pursuit of happiness.
Red Dead: Redemption
From the makes of GTA, comes Cowboy GTA!! It's new, it's shiny, and it retains all the freedoms of the regular GTA series, plus it has America's mascot, the Cowboy!! Yehaw!
Most FPS/puzzle/action games make you run around walls. Portal lets you run through walls.
See New York the way it was always meant to be - Swinging from building to building as a giant spandexed human-spider hybrid. Captures the fantastic feel and freedom of your friendly neighborhood hero.
The Wii frees players from the restrictions of a traditional controller. However, in order to get the game to do what you really want it to, you need to recreate a very particular set of motions, which often feel more limiting than liberating.