It takes a lot of concessions to make a game feasible. Some of these are made early on, settling on a conservative and traditional design paradigm that has already been well explored by other games: Some of these are made much later, when one realizes the pragmatic limitations of the design one has chosen and then needs to pick what battles are worth fighting and which are worth letting go to get the game finished. Both have the potential to either completely undermine a game or to make it unforgettable. The concessions and failures can define a game every bit as much as its successes and its bold strokes of genius– both for the better or for the worse, depending on how well they are integrated into the game as a whole.
With The Walking Dead, Telltale Games set out to make a game where it felt like your choices really mattered. But, at the same time, one can only feasibly create a plot that branches so much. If each episode could have ended up with even just two completely different outcomes, by the time the player got to episode 5 it would essentially be one of sixteen possible game scenarios. It’s simply not feasible to give players that degree of deterministic control within a tightly authored game like that. Most would consider this an unfortunately necessary drawback of this style of design: However, because the content of the game is so grim, the fact that all choices result in the same outcome actually has an eerie resonance with the themes. The player’s lack of agency to affect the overarching plot is reflected in Lee’s inability to fight the horror his world has become– except, perhaps, in the tiniest of ways. Some have inferred mystical plot interpretations from this, but I think it’s safer to regard this as a simple and elegant consonance of theme, plot, and game mechanic.
Portal was a relatively small experiment for Valve: Beyond the core conceit of the puzzle solving portal gameplay, the game is bare and minimalistic. You are left alone to explore the space with only a disembodied robotic voice to keep you company. These aesthetic choices were picked so carefully and intelligently that most people didn’t even think to regard them as concessions to a design environment with a small team and limited resources, particularly since they dovetailed nicely with Apple’s trendy ‘futuristic’ consumer device style. If the developers had had more budget to expand the game with a cast of NPCs or a more detailed world, would it have improved the game?
Just as allowing the player to do something in your game sends a message, just as granting them agency within your world tells them something about your world, the inverse is true, and restricting the player’s ability to do something sends its own message. This is an aspect of game design which is often ignored, which is not in itself a problem: If designers wish to focus on enabling the player rather than creatively limiting her then that’s fine, as a matter of taste. However, when restricting a player’s agency becomes an inherent part of your design for purely pragmatic reasons, simply ignoring that message and continuing on with your own story results in a jarring and conflicted experience. Can you tell a story about being a genuinely good person when the limitations of your system allow a player to do terrible things in a way your system can’t ‘see’? You can, of course, but it becomes harder to take seriously. Yet, if you told a different story, about being kind and just when the eyes of the world were upon you and a rampaging kleptomaniac when the cameras were off, the game systems might support that narrative far more robustly– that’s certainly closer to the narrative most modern game mechanics tend to support.
This is a lesson that small independent developers have been forced to learn: If, due to the constraints imposed by your skill set and financial resources, you cannot have beautiful and elegant graphics, you can at least make an ugly and weird story suitable to the ugly and weird resources at your disposal. If you are restrained to making a short game with simple gameplay, make it a tiny but highly polished gem. Indie developers are constrained in their resources, but because they have free reign to choose their themes it’s actually much easier for them to bring the narrative of the game into accord with its gameplay and its aesthetic.
The desire to create a true virtual world, complete in every detail, would be unfeasible even were it desirable. As long as games are the creations of people they will have boundaries, and as long as they’re the products of technology the placement of those boundaries will be due to pragmatic, as well as artistic, reasons. These boundaries are not disasters, aren’t storms which occlude your brilliant vision: They are the ink stroke lines which could bring your masterpiece to life–
But only if you’re willing to color within the lines.