Invisible Walls: Dealing with Limitations Artistically

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Video game technology has advanced greatly in the last 20 years, but the medium will always be limited by the capabilities of the hardware and software involved.  “Invisible Walls”, in a gaming context, refer to methods of handling the limitations of the game’s environment.  This concept is an oft-overlooked, but commonly encountered, issue in game design.  This week we’ll talk about how four games, all of which excel at world-building, handle restricting the player to the environment created for them.

Invisible walls have been around since the beginning, and throughout the 2D era, they were most commonly the physical borders of the screen.  Mario cannot move backward past the edge of the screen, in Gradius III your Wile E. Coyoteship cannot move up or down past the edges of your TV.  When 3D environments came around, however, level designers had to come up with ways to contain the player to the areas that were constructed, as getting outside of them often caused glitches or did not allow the player to continue.  The weakest method of doing this is the literal invisible wall; the player cannot move forward despite clearly being able to see that there is space to do so.  This breaks immersion, and reminds the player that he’s in a fake world.  It’s the equivalent of finding out a door has been painted onto a brick wall.

The term doesn’t always apply literally.  Examples of the same concept can be seen in doors that cannot be opened, geographical and architectural features such as cliffs, boulders, or fences, or in user interface interaction such as warnings or error messages; the term can be applied to anything that stops the player from moving outside the designated boundaries of the game.  The game’s immersion is extremely important to the believability of the storytelling, and a facet of this immersion is the game’s ability to create a seemingly vast, realistic world.  All games must deal with this concept, but they take many approaches.

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One of the worst methods of addressing the invisible wall issue is by using the HUD to interact directly with the player.  Fallout 3, in other ways one of the most powerful stories told in recent gaming history, falls down in this regard.  Upon moving to an area outside the game’s boundaries, the player is given the error message “You cannot go that way, turn back”.  Fallout’s world is absolutely massive, and emphasizes exploration greatly.  Exploring the DC wasteland is a core concept of the game, and in most respects, it’s extremely well-built and believable.  This fourth-wall-breaking method of restriction is therefore even more jarring.  An error message doesn’t just remind us that the post-apocalyptic capitol is a fictitious playground, but also reminds us we’re using a computer to view it, and we’ve managed to force it to fail.  There were so many possible options to address the game’s boundaries within the context of the story that it’s an absolute shame the developers chose this method.  An area of deadly radiation, or perhaps an abnormally high concentration of Deathclaws, could have easily covered this limitation.  Even an impassable fence or cliff would have been better.  The interface is an important concept to game design, and is necessary to convey constantly changing or very important gameplay aspects, but it should be used sparingly to address errors or limitations.  When something can be addressed through a story element that works within the logical confines of the narrative, it can increase the sense of immersion, and keep the player focused on progressing.

azeroth4The massively multiplayer giant World of Warcraft takes the concept of a believable world to a new level.  Azeroth is huge, taking hours to cross one of its continents on foot.  Invisible walls are few and far between when you’ve created an entire world, and most are extremely logical, such as mountain ranges.  In a world as big as WoW’s, with so little limitation on where you can go, the only real border is the ocean.  While the player can swim, once he or she nears the limits of the map, the player is presented with a fatigue bar.  Once the fatigue bar runs out, the player dies, and is returned to land.  It makes sense that one could not swim indefinitely, and the timer aspect of the bar conveys a sense of danger to the player’s actions.  Rather than simply blocking the progress of the player, or instantly killing him for going beyond the boundaries of the environment, they are presented with a choice that makes sense: turn back or die.  This allows the player to retain control of the situation, and feel a stronger attachment to his or her avatar and the surrounding world.

gameplayBioWare’s space opera epic, Mass Effect, presents a brilliantly thought-out universe, with deep social, political, and economic backgrounds to draw upon.  Despite being arguably one of the greatest worlds in video game history, Mass Effect’s environments are for the most part extremely small and linear.  While in some areas this can be glaring (the Mako missions in the first game particularly, which were mercifully removed in subsequent sequels), the vast majority of environments are small and artificially contained for a very good reason; if you stepped outside of them, you would die.  Spacecraft and facilities in hostile extraterrestrial environments provide a legitimate reason to find permanently locked doors and windows to inaccessible spaces throughout the trilogy.  For the most part, you never think about trying to escape the game’s designated boundaries for fear of your head exploding.  Of course, this method of restricting environment is rather specific to certain types of stories, but it works well in many games.  I do not know if this is the case with Mass Effect per se, but hypothetically, if a game designer knew he had a limitation to level size, imposed by either the gaming engine or lack of talent in that area, a story could be chosen to compliment those limitations; on the other hand, a designer intending to tell a story that necessitates mostly indoor locations or confined areas would do well to choose an engine that emphasizes small spaces to save on resources.  Leveraging the correct design methods to enhance storytelling or to create narrative that compliments the available technology are key to powerful games.

animusWhile I decried Fallout 3’s obvious fourth-wall-breaking error message a few paragraphs ago, Assassin’s Creed takes an interesting approach to environmental restrictions that is similarly artificial-feeling, but within the context of the game’s narrative, is brilliant.  For those who haven’t played the game, you play as Desmond Miles, a man in the near-future kidnapped by the unethical mega-corporation Abstergo.  Desmond is placed in a machine, the Animus, that allows him to experience parts of the life of his ancestor, Altair ibn-La’Ahad, during the Crusades.  While playing as Altair, all interface elements are explained to be part of the Animus that Desmond is strapped into.  When Altair ventures to areas that are outside of the game’s designated environment, a wall made of digital-looking aberrations is encountered, and it is explained that because we are re-living a memory, and the real Altair never went this way, the Animus cannot generate the area.  The game’s limitations are addressed in a manner that enhances the storytelling, and drawing attention to them in this way reminds the player that he’s trapped in a machine against his will.  In this way, Assassin’s Creed uses its technological limitation to strengthen its story, rather than simply hiding it.  This is an elegant solution to a common design problem, and an example of the best approach to dealing with the shortcomings of a gaming engine.

As gaming technology advances, we may see less need for ways to hide the software’s borders, but there will always be quirks of the medium that can be leveraged in artistic ways, not only to cover problems, but to use the unique aspects of video games to strengthen storytelling in a way no other medium can.  Immersion is at the core of storytelling; the more believable the environment is, the more involved the player will be in journeying through it.

What games have you played that address the invisible wall issue in an unusual or effective manner?  Which ones had glaring problems?  Let me hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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