A not so long time ago, the height of game complexity was moving a paddle two ways on a single axis to block a bouncing ball. It was an impressive event. Since then games have evolved at an astonishing pace. Continually giving us more complex experiences with an increasing degree of interactivity. More and more options and choice we were given. More and more room to let our personality and traits determine how each one of us would play our games.
For a long time, that was what both consumers desired, and game designers strived for.
The want for freedom seemed universal. Even to the extent that new games were marketed as better simply by their increase of breadth compared to the prequels and competition, often ignoring all other aspects of the game. Be it increased selection of cars in the latest racing game, the size of the game world in a platformer, or the number of dialogue options in an adventure game: they all increased. Never was our want for this more apparent then when new consoles were announced. The blunt increase in graphical capabilities naturally brought with it more expansive game words, more advanced AI and overall more complex gameplay. This would increase dramatically with each new console, until the technology was no longer a hindrance for the ambition of the game design. For me, that peak occurred when Microsoft launched their first console: the Xbox.
Microsoft would enter a market ruled by established players. Nintendo and Sony had been doing this for years. They both had strong IPs and a user base that would follow them based on their previous efforts alone. Not to mention they had just survived another long-time participant: Sega. Microsoft needed to enter the scene with a bang. With a console more powerful than the competition, and an unrivaled need to impress, they produced a game that was actually up to the momentous task of being an unproven console’s single killer app. Halo: Combat Evolved it was confidently named.
The game brought with it a ton of exciting ideas, and fused several established game styles into something truly special. It wasn’t a shooter like we had ever seen before. In fact, placing it under a general label as “shooter” is doing it a disservice. Concepts like regenerating health, enemies with much more reactive AI, weapons with wildly different attributes, seamless transition to vehicular gameplay, a dynamic weapon switching system and several more, were all new and exciting and fused together in a single game to create something wholly unique. Halo was revolutionary, and its subtitle modest.
Coming from the corridor shooters most people at the time were accustomed to, the battlefield in Halo’s campaign could be a daunting scene. While the game was fundamentally linear in where you needed to go to progress, how you got there was not predetermined. You could find yourself standing at the entrance to a large, open battlefield. In the distance enemies would be patrolling. You saw a couple driving around on vehicles, some even airborne. A second glance revealed some stationary on elevated positions, possibly acting as scouts. What happened next was solely up to player. One attempt might be to go in guns blazing taking everyone down as you went. It might be better to take them out one by one from a distance. Though it was always tempting to hijack a vehicle and run them over - or shoot them while airborne - if flying is more your thing. Some might feel safer simply sneaking past them all, without spending a single bullet. And due to the unpredictable AI, no two attempts would ever be the same, regardless of you used the same strategy - or combination of them.
Choice in games was nothing new. Different routes to take in a game or multiple choices available in a game's narrative were both present. Yet neither offered the same proposition of tackling a situation in a truly personal way. None required - and encouraged - you to adapt to the situation as you went on in the game. Compared to Halo, they were exposed as a selection of predetermined paths. All the different ideas Halo brought with it, their level of polish and the freedom the sum of them resulted in, were universally praised. The game got rave reviews and is still ranked as one of the 20 best games of our time. Then we got the obligatory sequel.
Halo 2 they called it. The combat was apparently no longer evolved. Not content with the large areas where players could let their personality dictate how to play the game, it was now a focused and restricted single player event. Now the levels were directed experiences. The game would heavily “suggest” how you should proceed. If the game wanted you to drive, the level would be long, narrow and a car would drop down from the sky a few feet in front of you. Another time you would be tasked with driving a tank across a long bridge while enemy aircrafts shot at you. In many cases it was still possible to proceed without following the game's instructions, but doing so would put you at a huge disadvantage and give an overwhelming sense of playing the game wrong. Walking for long, empty stretches of road is hardly an exciting experience, and a stark contrast to the exciting feeling of discovering a new successful strategy. In other instances there was simply one way to proceed, and you had to play through what was unambiguously the “flying level”. Combat had surely devolved.
The purpose of these new restrictions were clear: The designers wanted to make every sequence as exciting and memorable as possible. This happened at the expense of player freedom, and the dynamic, constantly unique events of the previous game. The irony is that exciting situations would certainly occur in the first game too. Have you not jumped out of a plane right before it crashed into an enemy tower? Hit a ghost with your bazooka - making it spin off into the distance - just as it was about to hit you? Not to mention all the crazy experiments made possible if one played the game in co-op. All of those experiences were more memorable than any pre-determined set-piece, as they were all created by the player. The trouble was that there was no guarantee that each player would have as exciting a time as possible without the guiding walls of the sequel.
Since Halo 2, this is something we see in most modern action games. There is a singular path to follow, and clear instructions as to what is the best - only - course of action. “Shoot down the helicopter with your RPG” a game might tell the player. The player abides. And judging by the data available to us - review scores and sales numbers - this is what the average player enjoys. We are seemingly content with being walked through a restricted experience as long as the surroundings are exciting enough for the duration. No longer any desire to learn the surroundings or enemies. Or to experiment with how to best tackle each obstacle. Or to have the chance of experiencing the game in a unique way - your own way.
Halo Combat Evolved was an amalgam of all our wants and ideas in an action game. It was the climax of player choice and freedom in its genre. Yet, many years later, we seem to have forgotten it.
Do you know of any action games that defy this trend? Or maybe some very bad offenders where the level of freedom is highly restricted? Or am I simply wrong in thinking most action games have regressed into very controlled, linear experiences? Let us know your thoughts in the forum thread!