Dwarf fuckin' Fortress

QOTW: Live Free or Die Free

Gaming is a funny medium: it’s interactive in a way that many forms of traditional media are not, and player agency as a concept is integral to the design of many titles. Equally there are games that insist on robbing their players of control and freedom. Sometimes, though, even these manage to produce an illusion of freedom and independence that is sufficient to sustain a player’s suspension of disbelief.

When I originally conceived of this particular question of the week, I had thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about emergent gameplay or environments such as those of Love, or Minecraft, but after a little more thought I remembered that while the tech may be greatly advanced, those ideas are ultimately derived from the Roguelikes of yesteryear.

Then I thought about sandbox games, which offer the player a huge and expansive space to explore and – in the best examples – be creative within. But I admit I don’t really know where the origins of this genre could be traced to. It must surely go back earlier than the first Grand Theft Auto games, and that’s even if you’re being strict about the idea of a sandbox and exclude huge open-world RPGs.

Don’t even get me started on huge open-world RPGs.

So this week’s question is a more open one than usual: which games instilled in you a sense that your freedom, as a player, was important? That you weren’t just able to do what you wanted but that the acts you chose to undertake mattered – whether solely to you, the player, or your character, or other characters; perhaps the game world, or its overarching narrative. At what point and why did a game make you feel free?

mud swimmer
I googled "MUD" (you know, Multi-User Dungeon) and this was the most worksafe image I could find. I think it's Batman.

(If you’re interested in my picks, well… I’m still thinking. So you’ll see my thoughts crop up in the comments once I’ve thought them.)






22 responses to “QOTW: Live Free or Die Free”

  1. GordoP Avatar

    I'm not sure which came first but I think the first two games which made me feel like there was a bit more freedom for fun were the Delta Force games and Destruction Derby 2.

    With regards to Delta Force, I can remember running around the environment of a level for upwards of 30 – 45 minutes just seeing if I could find an end to it which I never did. It was a strange bit of freedom that, because as I remember the massive environments never really mattered in most levels as they were usually confined into one relatively small area with the rest just being bland mountains. The ability to walk away from the mission in any direction, forever, was somehow gratifying and freeing…unfortunately it always led to a long trek back to the mission area afterward to complete the level.

    Destruction Derby 2 was the first game I can remember that had a believable sense of damage to it and for that I would spend countless races just driving the wrong way crashing into other cars and generally just bungling things up to see what chaos I could create. The game being a racer is pretty much the antithesis of freedom but the destruction alone was liberating in itself.

    Then there was Red Faction 2 / Guerrilla (I never played the first Red Faction). The sense of awe at blowing holes in the ground and walls in RF2 was one of the most gratifying feelings I've had in gaming as I was still young enough to be absolutely floored with the tech. I've never even finished RF2 because I would end up spending so much time blowing things up and creating massive craters. RF: Guerrilla just knocked that up one serious notch. Watching an incredibly tall tower start toppling over into another building was definitely a glee filling moment. By the time I was nearly done the game it was next to impossible to find a building that hadn't been absolutely hammered to hell and back. Unfortunately I never unlocked the ostrich.

    Anyone who talks games with me has probably had to endure a few hours of me rattling on about Just Cause 2, Badgercommander can attest to my obsessiveness with the game. What it lacks in totally destructible environments it makes up for in…well, environment. The game is absolutely beautiful for the sheer size of it and though it has a horrible story arc it makes up for it with everything else. The amount of hours this game has stolen from me is boggling even to me and whats worse is I still want to finish off the some 3.7 something percent I have yet to complete. It's hardly the best game ever, but if you're just looking to have some mindless free range fun, it's definitely a top candidate. I want to avoid to much rattling so I'm stopping here.

    I'm impressed I've made it this…FAR CRY 2…damn it!

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      I played through the first Red Faction the year before last and wouldn't recommend it. It's a very bland wannabe FPS. The first level is the most exciting as you're fighting your way through mines and have a huge supply of C4, and there are lots of points where you can blow holes above or below you and drop through into different caverns. It's quite a maze. (I'm not even sure myself why I make so much effort to complete these C-grade titles of the past.)

      Even I could tell the Far Cry 2 reference was coming! ;)

      1. GordoP Avatar

        I tried to replay Red Faction 2 just before the release of Guerrilla and could hardly get past the first 30 – 40 minutes. As much as I have fond memories of the game, it has not stood the test of time very well, at least for me.

        I've got quite a problem playing through much older games, I'm a bit snobbish I have to admit.

        1. ShaunCG Avatar

          Agreed on the 1st point. It's hilarious to think that RF2 came out after HL2 (I think, anyway). It is a lacking and incoherent title. That said I'm determined to finish it before I play Red Faction: Guerilla, because I want to understand the evolution of the Space Asshole.

          Almost forgot to add that I don't have a problem with older games at all. Well… some older titles that are very opaque, very difficult to learn, I tend to steer clear of them. I've never played the StarFlight games, for example, despite them being clear precursors to my favourite game, Star Control 2.

  2. @SeekNoise Avatar

    I have to agree with GordoP about Far Cry 2. It should be automatically included in the list as soon as anyone even whispers anything about freedom in games. ;)

    In terms of games that have made me feel like I'm genuinely free to make my own choices and see the results of those choices have an impact on the game's world, there are sadly too few.

    PC games such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl and Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis immediately spring to mind, because they encouraged me to explore so much and seemed to have an almost infinite number of paths I could use to progress through the story of each game. I've also never been quite as scared by any other game as I was when playing through both of these (I had a similar experience playing F.E.A.R. on PC, but having excitedly chatted with people about how much I love the multiple paths and freedom in F.E.A.R. only to be met with blank and confused expressions, I think it might've just been because I kept getting lost in it, so it doesn't count).

    As for consoles, there seem to be less and less retail games being released now that encourage players to think for themselves or make any real choices at all, let alone have an impact on the actual storyline. A few games that flow against the tide and have made me feel like I'm free to explore and affect the world around me are Far Cry 2, Dead Rising 1 and 2, Way of the Samurai 3 and LSD (the dream simulator on PS2).

    Those are unfortunately the only retail games I've played on any consoles in the last 20 years that come to mind as examples of games which give the player true freedom. There are hopefully a few more I've forgotten or haven't played yet but, for the most part, games that are marketed as allowing or being centred around a player's freedom of choice (e.g. Fallout 3/NV, Fable, Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, to name but a few) are ultimately hollow, scripted stories that have been written and set in stone by someone before the game was even developed. They're just thinly disguised as being non-linear by having a million and one side-quests, a few different endings and/or some sort of bipolar 'moral choice' system inserted into the gameplay. I've never felt as let down by any game as I was by every single title in the Fable series.

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      Oh, spot on about STALKER (fuck the periods). Less so the first one, which I never got too far into on any playthrough and which was often fairly linear, more so the beautiful, expansive Call of Pripyat.

      I replayed the first FEAR about two years ago (on my first playthrough back in t'day I got stuck, then lost, then gave up) and there are one or two points where you can follow a slight variation in route but they don't amount to much, and are mostly there to show off the fact that the AI can and will sometimes flank and circle around you (which amazed me the first time I encountered it).

      I also agree with the Dead Rising pick, although the pressure of bloody Otis and his bloody phone and the bloody survivors and the bloody plot all work to restrict your sense of freedom… boo.

      Oh, and you're right with regard to Mass Affect, AssCream and Fable being linear experiences dressed up with a few sidequests, but I would argue the toss about Fallout 3 and, to a greater extent, New Vegas. The former has a shit-ton of areas, many containing unique stuff, that you've no need or motivation to visit unless you enjoy exploring. And in fact exploring was my favourite aspect of Fallout 3, poking around in obscure areas to see what I could find. The functioning military installation from which I could call down orbital nukes was my favourite such find. As for New Vegas, it's chock full of minor quests and characters that are only there to flesh out the world. For all of the flaws of New Vegas its writing (given the limitations of the lower word-count etc.) is an admirable attempt to return to the tone and ethical ambiguity of the first and second game, which Bethesda's effort mostly failed to accomplish. Unfortunately Obsidian forgot to put in much interesting unnecessary stuff to explore in their game, sigh.

      1. badgercommander Avatar

        I think the main problem Gordo is having is that we are starting to sound like broken records when it comes to mentioning Far Cry 2 in regards to pretty much everything. At least I can blame Chris Remo for going on about it forever. I really should get over my PC prejudice and play S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at some point. I remember when I was introduced to Operation Flashpoint and behaved differently in the first conversation in three different ways and the game reacted accordingly, it was amazing.

        1. ShaunCG Avatar

          I'm not sure how much conversational variation there is in the STALKER games but given that any character can die and (in the later games) there is also factional warfare, I suspect that different people will have quite different experiences with it.

          I absolutely recommend Call of Pripyat over and above the others. Although I've not played Clear Sky, because it's hard to get because it's apparently a bit shit.

        2. GordoP Avatar

          I'm really trying to not bring FC2 into everything, but it's difficult.

          And yes, you should get over that PC prejudice of yours.

          Also having watched BC playthrough Crysis: Warhead, it would be interesting to find out about his experiences with STALKER. I think the hard time I'm having with it stems from trying to see and do each and every little thing, some of which is mind numbingly boring and doesnt advance the story at all.

      2. GordoP Avatar

        I'm starting to realize I may never make it through STALKER. I'm trying my hardest to enjoy the experience to the point of using the Complete mod to overhaul the graphics engine and other details of the game but even so each time I get in game I can hardly play more than an hour without being overcome with boredom or frustration. I would really love to have it on my finished list but I'm ever more doubtful I can push myself through it.

        The more I talk and think about Mass Effect the less I enjoy it. I struggled through the first two and because of that I feel like I must complete the saga and play the third game but I hardly think it'll be much better. For all they've done well with it the game itself is just such bore and a total drudge through one linear experience after another.

        1. ShaunCG Avatar

          But, but, but, Mass Effect! It's a perfectly acceptable space opera! It's cutting edge writing for, like, a few decades ago!

          I do actually love those games. Ditto STALKER, it's just that I keep getting distracted by other things…

  3. @SeekNoise Avatar

    Agh… I totally forgot to add the important bit:

    I was carefully referring to 'retail' console games in my above comment because the recent surge in AMAZING independent game titles has rekindled the flame in my heart and loins, and made me realise that games aren't dead yet.

    I can't even begin to list all the indie games I've played recently that have allowed a fantastic amount of freedom for players to explore and affect their worlds, but the two that have kept me playing them indefinitely are Solar and Miner Dig Deep on Xbox LIVE Indie Games. Admittedly, both of them are quite simple, basic games, but it's the creator's attitude that's evident in both of them that fills me with hope and optomism for the future of gaming. ^_^

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      I think either one of us could go on about Minecraft for ages. :D

      1. GordoP Avatar

        I have finally played Minecraft. Last night a friend showed me around The Medieval Nerds server as an attempt to persuade me into the game. I must say I was impressed though out of fear of just how many hours I would lose to it, I will continue to stay away from it…for now.

  4. badgercommander Avatar

    Oh man I loved Solar, the music, the peacefulness of slowly whittling away at other solar systems, watching civilisations emerge on your outer planets to only be smashed by an errant asteroid. I need internet at home so that I can play that again.

    As for freedom, Terminal Velocity:

    This game was a weird shooter in 3-D that sort of reminded me of Time Pilot.

    Some of the early text adventures gave me this illusion of huge worlds where you could do anything at anytime (realistically you couldn't but the illusion was there)

    1. GordoP Avatar

      HOLY $#!?, after wondering why it sounded so familiar and googling some video from Terminal Velocity, a whole flood of memories of playing that game came right back. Wow. I remember getting lost in that game quite frequently.

      It also made me think of the post-apocalyptic taxi driver game Quarantine. That game gave me a huge sense of freedom. Perhaps it was because I only had the demo and was limited to just one area, but man is that a game I wish I had gotten to play the full version of.

      1. badgercommander Avatar

        Played the full game of TV and yes it was a hell of a lot of fun. When you got into it, it was pretty relaxing too

        1. ShaunCG Avatar

          I never played Terminal Velocity but we did get Fury3 with my dad's Win95 PC – a slightly less well-received MS game studios title built with the same engine. I liked it a lot and remember not knowing how to disable my dad's second monitor setup, so I ended up playing the game with the crosshairs being between two monitors and the aspect ratio grossly stretched. :)

  5. Kerry Avatar

    Exile was the first game I played where I felt a real sense of freedom – freedom to explore the world, freedom to try different solutions to puzzles, and freedom to just dick around with the physics.

    It was the latter that I spent most of my time doing, of course.

    1. badgercommander Avatar

      I'd never even heard of that game until now… I am intrigued.

      1. Kerry Avatar

        Definitely worth a go. The 1991 Amiga version's the one to play.

    2. ShaunCG Avatar

      Sounds pretty advanced for the time! I wish I'd had a C64 back in the day… between that and the Spectrum I missed out on an entire era of classic gaming that it's pretty much impossible to revisit without having been there before.