Does player freedom automatically = good game?

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It seems that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is already widely accepted not only as a strong contender for game of the year, but as a strong contender for one of the best games of all time. So tiny is the minority of people (who have actually played the game) that disagree, that I’m genuinely curious as to what they have in common. Two likely answers seem to be a historic dislike of Nintendo, or a historic desperation to appear contrary (hello, Jim Sterling). I’m starting to go off topic here, so please allow me to continue to do so by pointing out that if any of you believe the above should read “an historic”, take it up with the English Oxford dictionary.

Now that’s out of my system, let’s continue.

What is it that people like so much about the new Zelda? Is it the fact that it sees the series make the leap into a “true” open-world experience? Of course not – or, at least, not only that. I don’t have an opinion on the quality or otherwise of Horizon Zero Dawn, another 2017 open-world game, because I haven’t played it. One reason I’m reluctant to buy a copy until it hits the bargain bins is that reviews from sites I respect seem to agree on three things: 1) it’s very pretty, 2) the writing is really, really bad, and 3) it leans far too heavily on tired and overused open-world cookie cutter ideas. Freedom does not automatically equate to a rich and fulfilling experience.

I played and thoroughly enjoyed Watch Dogs 2 (I even enjoyed the original – deal with it), but sold my copy before hitting true 100% completion because some of the extra missions were less about having fun, and more about hoovering up icons to make the map look tidy. It’s a similar story with GTA V, although I haven’t sold that; partly because my copy is digital. With the GTA series in fact I would argue that the atmosphere is more important to its success, and the enjoyment of each individual title, than the freedom that it affords. Although technically clunky by today’s standards, I think that on balance I prefer Vice City to GTA V. Vice City has a nostalgiatastic Eighties soundtrack, which plays in a world of garish neon colours and lots of palm trees. The latest GTA by contrast uses a much more bland, up-to-date, and “realistic” set of environments – and the soundtrack is entirely uninspiring, a messy and disappointing scramble for modern cool. GTA V has the massively bigger map but, in a not unrelated twist, it also has a lot more empty spaces with nothing interesting going on in them. GTA V offers more freedom, in that there’s more space to move around in and more activities to take part in; but the fifteen-year-old Vice City makes more consistently interesting use of what it has.

Coming back to the present, I’m very much enjoying making my way through Persona 5; although at time of writing I’ve “only” played 20.5 hours, which is why I haven’t written a review. So far I’m of the opinion that in terms of structure and design it’s probably a better videogame than Persona 4 (which I absolutely love), but – ironically, given the whole heart-stealing thing – it’s missing, well… heart. The reason that I fell so hopelessly in love with the world of Persona 4 was that it was, along with the characters that inhabit it, so well developed. The Persona series offers the player a limited amount of freedom between dungeons, and how 4 and 5 handle this makes a huge difference.

Both games feature a heroic band of high school students (of course!) and, as such, there’s a certain amount of normal teenager stuff involved. You can ordinarily carry out two time-consuming events a day – one during daylight, one during the evening – which can include socialising with your friends, building up a romantic relationship, studying, working a part time job, watching a movie, and more. These activities will have effects on your stats and/or your ability to create the personas that you use for battle, but they also play out in front of you with their own dialogue etc.

Persona 4 has huge sections where, theoretically, nothing happens. There are significant gaps between each major dungeon, and you’re free to earn money and talk with your friends without the pressure of an impending deadline. The upshot of this is that the characters have room to breathe and develop; to come alive, and stay in your thoughts even after you turn the console off. You care about what they do, what they say, and where they are. Conversely, Persona 5 (I must stress so far) seems to have been built around a determination to streamline the experience and keep the pace of the story at a constant, though not overwhelming, speed. There has been a gap between the appearance of each dungeon so far, but not a very long one. To top it all off, evenings where something’s happened to render me “too tired” to leave my room and do something – anything – have been appearing with frustrating regularity. As such, there hasn’t been much in the way of character development. If Persona 4 used Persona 3’s characters as a template (and it did), then Persona 5 uses Persona 4’s as a stencil at times. Perhaps recognising that the stymying of player freedom has had this effect, the developers seem to be relying on existing fans to fill in the gaps.

Teddie, Yosuke, Yu and – no, hang on…

I picked up a digital copy of Just Cause 3 in the latest Xbox Live sale and, after just ten minutes or so of play, I almost felt oddly guilty for not buying it sooner. This is a game that’s dumb, knows it’s dumb, and does its very best to provide as much dumb fun as possible. The graphics suggest it started development life as a PS3 game, but who cares when you can tether an attack helicopter to an armoured car and throw them into one another? You have a grappling hook, a wingsuit, and a parachute of infinite uses because why not. Hell, you start the game by standing on top of a plane in mid-air and making anti-air guns blow up.

As with Persona 5 I haven’t finished the game yet, and I can already tell that the icon-hoovering these games almost always suffer from will dull my enthusiasm a little further down the line. Nonetheless, Just Cause 3 is a great example of the balance between player freedom and developer guidance done right. You’re free to wreak havoc across the islands as you see fit, although that sort of thing always gets old eventually. The story missions have (mostly) been set up in such a way that while you’re given strict instructions on where to go and – let’s face it – what to blow up, exactly how you do that is more or less up to you. Then on top of that, there are loads of optional challenges that you gradually unlock which allow you to do all the fun stuff with defined rules and useful rewards.

Which ultimately brings me back to Breath of the Wild, and the lessons it has to teach the wider industry. BotW’s Hyrule is huge, and the player is allowed – encouraged – to explore as they see fit. The developer’s hand is everywhere, but in ways so subtle as to be practically invisible. There are no screen-filling boxes with text tutorials, and no self-contained missions to teach you how to use certain tools. When you scale a tower to fill in a small area of the map, not a single icon makes an appearance. Ever. However, NPCs may hint at the location of something in a vague snatch of speech. The name of a shrine will almost certainly contain a hint to its solution. An out-of-place rock or suspiciously-coloured tree in the distance will turn out to have drawn you in for a reason. Something that you learned while solving a puzzle may come in handy during combat – or vice versa. Watching a boss’s appearance or attack pattern may give you an idea. And so on, and so on, and so on….

The point is, too much freedom is a bad thing, but so is not enough. The very worst thing a developer can do is lean heavily on the ideas of others, or lounge back lazily on a wide variety of tried-and-tested past ideas of their own (yoo-hoo, Call of Duty). Player freedom is not compulsory for a good game. If you’re going to make a lunge for that abstract concept of “freedom”, then great; but on behalf of paying punters everywhere, I beg of thee, developers – remember that player freedom is a means to a great game, not an end that results in one.

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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