It is the little things that truly separate a good game from a great one. That extra layer of polish can drastically improve an experience and make it all the more memorable and enjoyable. The little things make words more immersive, play more pleasant, and an entire game stronger. Among those things are a game’s barriers.
While game worlds vary from the straight and focused to the apparently endless, they all eventually have an end. The walls of these worlds are what keep us inside the experience and protect us from the messy underside of the sets on which our games take place. Bad walls, however, can be just as game breaking as slipping past them into the potential endless nothingness that is undeveloped game space.
Invisible walls and bits of questionably impassible landscape are hardly effective ways of drawing boundaries on the world. While they may keep players within the perimeter of the game, they do so in an unsatisfying way. When a game puts up an invisible wall or wall that only appears as the player approaches it, the game has admitted that the player is in a fabricated space. As players, we may consciously know this already–all games take place in fictional space by dint of being games with rules and goals–but when we truly become immersed in the experience, that foreknowledge becomes irrelevant. Until we try to wander over to that potentially interesting bit of landscape only to be told that it is not part of the game.
Invisible walls are not simply unexplained impassable points, either. Plenty of games have tried to justify their invisible boundaries through narrative or some mechanic, and most of the time it does not make things any better. A relatively popular example would be the invisible boundaries placed on Assassin’s Creed players through the Animus. Narratively, it does fit, but it is still unsatisfying and still reminds players they are in a game. The Wind Waker, as much as I love it, does the same thing with the King of Red Lions, having your very boat stop and tell you not to go further into uncharted waters. It makes enough sense, and there is no physical wall there, but in a game about exploring and endless ocean, I would have liked to opportunity to see for myself that there is nothing out there. The game could have let the player go out enough for the mapped world to go past the horizon or wander far enough out for all the islands to be outside the game’s draw distance before fading out and placing the player back on the map. At least in that situation the player would be able to decide for themselves that the world outside is not worth his or her time.
The best way for a game to keep its walls from breaking play is to make the walls as much a part of the game as anything else. Subtlety is the word of the day here. The less intrusive the boundaries of play are, the less likely players will be to try and overcome them. This is why most games just make the boundaries some kind of impassable landscape. It is difficult to make the world itself feel like a boundary, even if parts of it are. That mountain range or ocean you can only swim a little out to are part of the setting, so they feel natural enough even though they serve a greater purpose than looking pleasant. Some boundary scenery is more obvious than others, but for the most part it is a fairly safe route.
Better than subtlety, though, is unity. If the walls that keep the player in the game are integrated well enough, they can feel more like an enhancement than a restriction. Even invisible walls can succeed when used well enough. For a strong example, let us look at Shadow of the Colossus. The world within Colossus is massive, measuring some twenty square miles if scaled to real-world numbers, and everything within it is huge. From the stones along the ground to the plant life, to the titular colossi, all the set pieces paint the same massive picture. Mountains and cliffs rise high into the sky, valleys and lakes cut deep into the earth, and fields stretch ever outwards. The player has only Wander’s hands and his horse to traverse such a place, and can still reach the tops and bottoms of many of these giant formations, but the entire map is filled with them. The result is that the edge of the map feels no different than the middle. Everywhere feels just as much a part of the same cohesive world, and none of it feels like an outer boundary. It is all just one more thing to get around and admire.
There is, however, one invisible wall within the game. That said, it is a brilliant one. Should the player climb the central tower–a task difficult enough in itself–that player could then make his or her way onto the titanic bridge from which Wander enters the land of the colossi. Those patient enough to make it across will be met with a narrow chasm between the stony formations that make up that part of the world. Nothing can be seen beyond it but bright, blinding light, and if the player walks towards it, they will be met with a light breeze. As Wander gets closer, though, the winds becomes stronger and stronger until it knocks him off his feet. It is an invisible wall, but it is strangely fitting, and what is more it is one the player can contest. No amount of walking can get Wander through the crack in the world, but the game dares us to try.
Journey does something similar, blocking the players’ paths with powerful winds, but again, it is fitting, especially since part of the game is about attempting to best those winds. Plus, as Extra Credits discussed in their hero’s journey episode, that wind actually plays a role in the hero’s journey, acting as the force that denies the hero, or player in this case, the refusal to the call to adventure. The use of the wind in the early desert levels make it perfect for this, as most players, handed a desert that stretches to the horizon, will see how far away from the obvious goals at some point in the beginning, only be to blown back towards the parts of the game that has been specifically made for them to explore. The game practically encourages this to happen, and by getting it out of the way early, the rest of the game the player will spend their energy solving the puzzles and finding the findables rather than trying to test the game’s limits. An invisible wall, but a brilliant one.
These walls are such little things. One small part of the games we play, but an essential part of the experience. These boundaries can frustrate and annoy us as well as impress us, and find success when we do not notice them at all. The truly great examples, though, can be just as memorable as the rest of their game, and make the entire world within it a better place to play.