Restrictions (Part 2)

Part 1

6. This is why broader audience games often fail to deliver, in some sense, that conveyance of intention: by swinging so widely, they only present the most perfunctory of mechanical interplay with the audience. They are, in a way, hollow. The more cooks in the kitchen, the more the original recipe is “diluted”. This is why “celebrity chefs” turned into a thing – they set the rules of what a person can make, and then people make certain dishes. People associate those dishes with that particular person (or brand, if you want to think of it that way). In video game terms, just imagine Assassin’s Creed and its development cycle. 9-10 different studios, all with different people in charge and very different intentions, cobble together all the different systems in the games. In one way, it’s amazing to see how consistent this structure is, and in another way hilarious to see the minigames jammed into the game with zero mechanical coherence.


So much to do! So little of it matters!

7. But, of course, using mechanics on their fullest isn’t just a matter of design. It also requires difficulty, challenge, you name it – games are a series of choices, and games with weighty choices make every decision more meaningful. I do not mean this primarily in an aesthetic/moral choice sense, but in the sense of actual willful actions by the player given the tools at hand (i.e., a video game versus a choose-your-own adventure book). I would guess this is why I like shmups and their “one hit death” rule so much – every movement, every position, every choice to kill enemy X over enemy Y is a weighty decision that will make or break a successful run. A bad decision in the heat of the moment, whether improvised or planned, could result in your death. That’s quite a consequence, but also a challenge to meet!

Now, of course, the traditional video game “death” isn’t the only thing that can fit in this vein of player consequence. I know killing people in Undertale, for example, present both mechanical and narrative differences; being a genocidal mass murderer eventually confronts the player with the game’s most challenging boss fight, one that most players can’t seem to even conquer. If a game can marry its narrative (assuming it has one) into its mechanics, so much the better! Again, though, restrictions on a player’s capacity, mostly via mechanical means, will still make the game more interesting by default.


Spoilers I guess.

8. These restrictions, by nature, focus you onto a razor sharp edge that makes video games more fun. Demanding something of a player allows them to inhabit the design space, understanding why a game is designed that way and fostering particular skills Giving the player “freedom” might sound like a better option. Constraints, on the other hand, sound like a bona fide way to make the player hate you. This doesn’t mean “lacking exploration” or “lacking narrative”. Rather, it means the game’s design brings out the best in what you can do, without obvious bloat (Ubisoft open world games) or lacking essentials (Grand Theft Auto IV’s lack of content). The world should feel designed. Getting dropped into an environment of great size isn’t “design”; it’s just a marketing ploy on the back of a box. Knowing where to push forward and when to hold back will prove the better option in the long run.

9. Without this kind of design, think of a wet pool noodle – yeah, you can slap people pretty hard with it, but it rarely leaves a mark. I hate these kinds of games with a passion. They have nothing to say, nothing for me to enjoy, no challenges for me to conquer. They are, in a word, boring. A video game shouldn’t ever be boring. Video games are fun, and challenging, and interesting in a number of ways, and just jumbling together pretty sights makes for a boring, boring game for anyone with half a brain of critical insight.


Who doesn’t love picking up a phone in a video game to do things that other people want to do?

10. Video games are, by nature, devices of self-limitation. Within those constraints, we hope to achieve something. I suppose you could make the argument that even “open world” games present limitations of environment and means of interactions (or, as I would say, the wider the puddle, the smaller its depth). Without them, video games are simply an exercise in doing a whole lot of nothing; blank spaces aren’t enjoyable in the least, I’d say. As games restrict their design and force the players into specific modes, self-expression follows under the weight of holistic mechanical design. G.K. Chesterton likes to make a big deal of restrictions, and that makes this quote from Orthodoxy surprisingly apt:

Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense, every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else… Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses… Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in you bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing.

And that is also why theology is meant to be a set thing, dogma a set thing, and belief in set things. Christians would not war across the ages for “the truth” without this fundamental human impulse – not necessarily a desire to be right, but to get it right. The stakes are high, as they say, and every person must choose a side some day or else become wishy-washy. Take a stand on something, and everything becomes much more interesting! Video games are also included in this, I find.

15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will [l]spit you out of My mouth.

Revelation 3

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.