Design Sins - Taking Control Away From the Player

Updated: Sep 16


No Control for You!

I don’t know about you, but for me, the key advantage a video game has over non-interactive passive media - i.e. TV, movies, books, audiobooks, radio-dramas, graphic novels, live theatre, etc. - is that a game is both active and interactive. As a player, you shape what goes on in-game by the decisions you make and the actions you take. Video games provide a sense of agency that simply isn’t possible in most other mediums - except for ‘Choose your own Adventure’ stories of course. 😉


Therefore, one of the worst things a game can do is to remove that interactivity and sense of agency by taking control away from the player. Doing so negates the point of playing a video game in the first place.


There are two gameplay mechanics which are notorious offenders of this - tutorial sections and cut scenes. And there are two videogame franchises which are notorious for excessively implementing these mechanics - Far Cry and Crysis.


NB - This view is based on my first-hand experience of playing games from both franchises. Full disclosure - I have not yet played every game in either franchise. The games I have played are; Far Cry Instincts Predator, Far-Cry 2, Far Cry 3, Crysis, and Crysis 2. For the remainder of this article, I will be focusing on the titles I am the most familiar with - Far Cry 2, Far Cry 3 and Crysis 2



The Devs Giveth Control, but they also Taketh Control Away


Both the Far-Cry and Crysis franchises pride themselves on player freedom. They take place in open or semi-open worlds, and there are usually multiple ways to deal with a situation, especially for players who think creatively. This sense of freedom and agency are some of the best aspects of these franchises and their respective developers should feel justifiably proud of their achievements.


Unfortunately, this makes the instances where agency is taken away from the player all the more jarring, as not only are they annoying, they feel at odds with the wider game. We will investigate tutorial sections and cut scenes in turn, highlighting how each franchise implements them, and then look at superior alternatives.



Tutorial Sections



Crysis 2, Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3* all have prolonged unskippable tutorial sections. These guide the player through set-piece scenarios that introduce the player to the various gameplay mechanics they will be using throughout the game. This would have been fine if; A - these sections were optional, and B - the various abilities and gameplay mechanics were unlocked from the start.


Hypothetical example; Your in-game, in-universe guide will tell you to ‘Go to the door and press X to open it’. However, if you attempt to open the door before the guide tells you to it will not open. The player must wait for the game to get around to telling them to do something before the player is physically able to do it. This is immensely frustrating.


It also makes little sense in-game - are we supposed to believe that the protagonist did not know how to open a door until the in-game, in-universe guide told them how to? Considering you are not playing as an infant this seems a little unlikely.


*It is perhaps telling that several mods remove Far Cry 3’s tutorial section entirely.



Crysis 2 - Full Game Walkthrough

Note that you do not have access to the vital stealth and armour modes until the 20-minute mark. This means having to sit and play through 20 minutes of cut scenes and tutorials before you can play the game to its fullest.



Crysis 2 at least has an in-universe explanation for your inability to utilize the Nanosuit’s advanced features from the get-go. The explanation provided is that your newly acquired Nanosuit is integrating with your body and you cannot access all its features until it has finished doing so. This doesn’t make playing through the tutorial sections on repeat playthroughs any less frustrating, boring and frankly patronising, however.


It is only after these tutorial sections that the games open up and the player is granted their full agency. It is only at this point the games start becoming enjoyable.

What is particularly irritating is that this must have been a deliberate choice on the developer’s part. It could not have been a case of ‘not knowing any better’ since far superior tutorial sections had been created many years before.


Half-Life - from 1998 - got it right. It’s tutorial section - the Black Mesa Hazard Course - was an optional extra mission thematically linked to but separate from the main campaign.



Half-Life - Hazard Course

Learning everything you need to know in under 11 minutes. And this is completely optional. If only all tutorials were designed as well as this.


The Black Mesa Hazard Course allowed the player a high degree of freedom - your abilities were unlocked from the start, although some of them you were unable to use since you lacked the necessary equipment. For example, you cannot fire a gun before reaching the firing range section because you are simply not carrying one until then. I suspect if you were able to spawn weapons in via console commands you could use them right from the start.


What’s more, you did not always have to wait for the holographic in-game, in-universe guide to tell you what to do. More often than not, you could run right past her and get started in your own time. The only thing that slows you down is having to wait for the automatically controlled blast doors to open. This made the hazard course genuinely fun to play and a ready-made challenge for speedrunners.



Half-Life Hazard Course Speed Run


Same course in less than three minutes


The Opposing Force and Blue Shift expansion packs also contained their own versions of the hazard course that were equally well-executed and enjoyable. If Half-Life could get it so right back in ’98, why did Far Cry 2, Far Cry 3 and Crysis 2 get it so wrong over a decade later?


Cut Scenes


All three games are guilty of another Design Sin - unskippable cut scenes. If a player has seen a cutscene already - for example on subsequent playthroughs - they will not learn anything new from watching the cutscene again, so it will have little educational value.


Forcing a player to watch it when they do not wish to is both frustrating and boring, which strips it of whatever entertainment value it may have had. Some players may not want to sit through a cut scene at all and would prefer to skip it to get on with the game. An unskippable cut scene would prevent them from doing so.


Far Cry 2 and especially Crysis 2 compound this Design Sin by having these cut scenes occur in unexpected places, nor is it always obvious that it is a cut scene since they are viewed from the first person. One moment you are playing as per usual, the next you are frozen out of the controls and must passively sit and wait until the scripted sequence plays itself out. This is jarring and tends to wreck the immersion.


Crysis 2’s surprisingly good novelization - Crysis Legion - provides an in-universe explanation for this; the suit’s A.I. wrests control from its wearer/user/symbiont if it decides it knows best what to do in a specific situation*. The game does not make this clear, however, nor does it explain why your control over your in-game avatar ‘Alcatraz’ is similarly limited before he dons the Nanosuit.


For example - why can he not stand up or run at all at the start when the sub he arrived on starts taking on water? Are we supposed to believe a Marine doesn’t know how to stand up and run without being told how to first?


*It is worth noting that in the novel Alcatraz describes how irritating he finds these instances, which is perhaps a nod by the author to how irritating this is in-game.



Black Mesa East

The entire Black Mesa East chapter is essentially an interactive cut scene and tutorial for the Gravity Gun. THIS is how to do it right 😊



Yet again, Half-Life did it better a decade previously. Half-Life 2 did it better yet several years before the release of Far Cry 2 and Crysis 2. Half-Life’s cut scenes are also shown from the first-person perspective, but they allow full player control during them. It is probably incorrect to refer to them as cut-scenes. ‘Interactive scripted events’ would be more apt.


There is one sequence where control is wrested away from the player, this being the containment pod ride through The Citadel towards the climax of the game. There was an obvious in-universe reason for your lack of control - you had been captured and stuck in a pod designed to restrict movement. Its inclusion towards the end of the game made it impactful - you felt every bit as trapped and as disempowered as your in-game avatar, which I am sure was a deliberate design choice.


The sequence felt like a bizarre haunted house ride as you caught glimpses of the previously only hinted at atrocities the Combine was doing behind closed doors. If a game must include a first-person cut scene / scripted sequence which denies the player agency, then this is the right way to go about it.



Half-Life 2 Citadel Pod Ride

The first time you experience this in-game it is genuinely creepy. You can tell that if something bad were to happen you would see it coming but would be powerless to do anything about it.


Conclusion


It may sound like I am picking on Crysis 2 and Far Cry 2, but that is not my intention. Both are great games in their own right - Far Cry 2 is arguably the best ‘serious’ Far Cry game to date. (Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon doesn’t count - it’s a comedy shooter).


However, these design choices spoil what are otherwise great gaming experiences, and feel particularly at odds with the player freedom the franchises are known for. I’m sure there are plenty of other games which do likewise that I simply haven’t played (or my 40+-year-old brain cannot remember 😉)


Proclamation



“For the Design Sin of taking control away from the player, I hereby sentence the developers of each game to three Hail-Marys and having to watch Love Island on a loop for 12 hours in a locked room.”



What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree, or do you prefer Far Cry’s and Crysis’ tutorial and cut-scene mechanics? Are there any games that you feel are especially guilty of taking control away from the player? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at the_nomad78@outlook.com


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