- [In this detailed opinion piece, writer Andrew Vanden Bossche takes a look at games from Silent Hill through Metal Gear Solid to examine what you can, should - and shouldn't - believe in games.]

A sickening creature pursues you through the dimly lit halls of a subway station: A mangled dog, head split in half. You strike at it with a lead pipe, and it yelps, stunned. Finally you can run from the horror writhing on the ground. You turn, left, right, and run into a hallway strewn with cardboard boxes. Daylight clearly shines at the end of the hall. You push through... OH WAIT.

Apparently haphazardly strewn cardboard boxes in Silent Hill 3 are made of something more durable than say, corpulent living cancers, zombie dogs, or the common wall. You uselessly press the analog stick towards the boxes and Heather is messily devoured by dogs. Game over. Maybe they should have just sent zombie cardboard boxes up against you.

Invisible walls, convenient unbreakable magical barriers, thickheaded party members, stubborn commanding officers, spineless protagonists, and cardboard boxes; they come in many forms, but unsubtle and impenetrable barriers are an all too familiar feature of video games.

Limiting Player Choice

It’s understandable that designers have to restrict player choices because it simply isn’t possible a create an outcome for every conceivable choice a player would like to make. There are only so many possibilities that can be programmed into a game, and designers ultimately have to limit the player’s abilities.

Players will, for the most part, happily accept limits like these. But when a restriction contradicts the very logic that has so far applied to rest of the game world, you run into situations where a character that could previously bash the brains out of a zombie with a lead pipe cannot use that same lead pipe to break an ordinary glass window.

Gamers will find this problem especially glaring and frustrating if that window is the only thing stopping them from continuing onwards. If the designer can maintain limits that are consistent and subtle, then the player goes happily on unawares. If not... well, strap on your cardboard box armor, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Suspension of disbelief is a delicate balance to maintain in any art form, but it is especially important in video games because the player is constantly testing the limits of the game world. The character the player controls may have limited abilities, but the player can use those abilities as they see fit to overcome the game’s challenges. Players will also assume, and rightly so, that a consistent logic will be applied to these abilities.

Developers must give the player ways to interact with and change this self-contained world while at the same time design the protagonist, environment, and NPCs in a such a way that prevents the player from thinking that they can make choices that haven’t been implemented into the game. The player will believe any world, no matter how far-fetched the premise, as long as the world is internally consistent.

Cardboard Boxes Vs. Holes

When games present players with the power to make choices but then stop them from making those choices, it violates the world’s internal consistency and ruins suspension of disbelief. Which brings us back to Silent Hill and the impenetrable cardboard boxes.

You can get a player to believe in zombie nurses, hysterical drug-dealing witches and drug peddling pseudo-Judeo-Christian death cults, but you can’t make them believe that three or four haphazardly strewn cardboard boxes and a knocked over lamp will stop them from walking down a hallway. The fact that the protagonist of this game is clearly strong enough to swing lead pipes at hideous monsters makes the obstacle particularly laughable.

The player logically assumes that since Heather is strong enough to escape the grasp of monsters or strike at them with weapons, she should be able to push aside a box or two. If a video game consists of using the abilities you are given to reach a certain goal, what can a player do if those abilities simply fail to work in arbitrary situations?

The fact that the cardboard problem is present in Silent Hill 3 is really a shame, because for the most part the first game of the series did a very good job of creating a structured world for the player without breaking suspension of disbelief. Early in the game, the player is exploring the town of Silent Hill, and finds that in the middle of otherwise ordinary streets, enormous chasms have opened up and completely blocked where the protagonist player needs to go.

These holes in the ground enforce the boundaries of the game world just like the piles of cardboard boxes, but they differ substantially in the effect they have on the player. Because they are mysterious, scary, and unexplained, the holes are also instrumental in creating the sense of fear that is key to survival horror games like Silent Hill.

Even though a giant hole in the ground is by no means realistic, it’s believable within the context of the game - and believable that they can stop you, whereas cardboard boxes are realistic objects with an unrealistic implementation.

Most importantly, the holes of Silent Hill allows for the smooth continuation of suspension of disbelief not just because they offer a convincing explanation for why the game world is structured in a certain way. After all, no one has any problem with floating coins in Mario games. The holes in Silent Hill work for the suspension of disbelief because of the atmosphere they create. The limitations the holes impose feel like a part of the world.

While they still limit players from making choices, a player won’t feel that barrier is arbitrary. The key is to limit choice in a way the player will accept. Freedom in video games really is an illusion, an issue that is explored extensively in Metal Gear Solid.

Metal Gear's Games With Choice

The Metal Gear Solid series, especially the second installment, are very self-conscious of the balance between player abilities and player limitations. In fact, the main plotline of Metal Gear Solid 2 revolves around the S3 (Selection for Social Sanity) program, which is a narrative arc that can force anyone into a specific set of personality-molding actions.

It’s an intensely meta-fictional meditation on the nature of video games, a metaphor for the true lack of freedom the player has. [NOTE: the following section has some story spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 2.]

In a unique moment in video game narrative, the player is in the same situation as the protagonist; able to examine and interact with the world, but unable to make their own choices. The idea of modeling a program for societal censorship and control after the defining features of a video game is a scary concept, but true to what a video game is: an illusion of freedom.

While most games try to maintain the illusion of player choice, Metal Gear Solid 2 specifically confronts the player with the reality that there is no choice outside from what has already been programmed into the game. By the end of the game, Raiden has realized there’s no real point in fighting the main antagonist, Solidus Snake, but by that time it doesn’t matter. As Raiden’s (fake) commanding officer points out, the narrative doesn’t allow deviations, trapping Raiden and the player like a cardboard box.

Of course, it makes a big difference whether or not the intended purpose is to make the player aware that the game’s reality is just an illusion; in Silent Hill it ruins the atmosphere, but in Metal Gear Solid it creates the atmosphere.

Conclusion

These barriers, both physical and narrative, don’t need to be a bad thing. In fact, limitations make up everything there is in video games. But design needs to focus more both on making these limitations believable and on accepting the fact that choice is limited. Games shouldn’t imply choices that players cannot actually make. Players tend to notice when they can’t do things they expect to be able to do.

Despite all the narrative flaws that Metal Gear suffers from, Hideo Kojima has a very good firm on the implications that video games have for narrative structure. Understanding and accepting the limits of what a video game can do will lead designers to create video games that are more immersive, and can better create narratives unique to the medium. Or at least stop badgering us with cardboard.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche recently graduated from Oberlin and now lives in Boston. He wishes his dwarves would learn to not encase themselves in magma but is glad they can at least do it on a Mac. He has a blog at http://mammonmachine.blogspot.com/, in which he talks about pop culture, blood, Ikea, and videogames.]