In the final analysis, videogames are just a collection of rooms and corridors. Sometimes, the rooms and corridors are very, very large and the walls very well disguised, but nevertheless, the walls are there. You may remember, with a shudder, the 2008 reboot of Turok, in which you wandered around a lush green planet infested with dinosaurs – or this was, at least, the illusion. In reality, you were actually being herded through a series of corridors dressed up to look like a forest. Attempt to stray far beyond the ferns and fauna that lined your path, and you’d come up against an invisible barrier. The woods and soaring vistas beyond were little more than wallpaper.
Nothing takes you out of a game more quickly than, while playing the part of a rock-hard space marine who looks as though he could pull the head off a horse with his bare hands, you find your path mysteriously blocked by a flower bed. You’ve got arms like a shot putter’s thigh, yet you’re unable to break the stem of a daffodil, or jump over a rock no higher than your ankle.
Most recently, Final Fantasy XIII has come under criticism from some quarters for its particularly obvious linearity. Its environments, it’s been said, are little more than a series of long corridors with a huge boss at the end of them.
The flipside to these kind of experiences, of course, is the open-world sandbox game. These take the rooms and corridors and make them much, much bigger. They take the boss encounters, non-player characters and objectives and place them much further apart, to the point where you need a car to traverse the vast distances between them.
By Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar, apparently worried that the length of time it would take to traverse Liberty City in a hotwired Nissan Cherry would leave players falling asleep at the wheel, decided to lay on an optional taxi service to chauffeur them to and from the main points of interest.
I have a love-hate relationship with sandbox games. In fact, some of them leave me with a particular kind of dread. I’m the kind of person who gets lost looking for a post box in my own village, or who will walk out of a shop and forget which direction I came from. I’ve heard and read numerous reasons for this condition: a genetic deficiency; a misfiring hippocampus; outright stupidity.
Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: put me in a free-roaming virtual world, and I will get hopelessly, utterly lost. I’ve wandered the forbidden zones ofS.T.A.L.K.E.R. like a well-armed ghost with no idea where I am or where I’m meant to go next. I’ve thundered around the mean streets of Liberty City in my Nissan Cherry, only to take a wrong turning onto a railway line and into the path of an oncoming train. I’ve lost myself among the crimson dust and prefabricated houses of Mars in Red Faction.
Oh, I know there are maps. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. even provides you with a PDA and GPS, kind of. But these toys and gadgets provide problems of their own. I’ve stared at the little maps too long and crashed into walls. I’ve stared at a PDA screen with a furrowed brow, only to receive an uncharitable bullet in the back.
So before you criticise FF XIII‘s invisible corridors too harshly, spare a thought for gamers like me, the perpetually lost and confused. Those of us who spend so long squinting at radars, maps and diagrams that we barely notice the wonderful world around us; those of us who are perpetually disoriented, bewildered, discombobulated and stumbling around in maze-like networks of avenues and alleyways.
Without games like FF XIII or Turok, we’d probably have had a nervous breakdown by now. Without those invisible walls to guide our path, we’d almost certainly never find our way home at all.
Originally published over at Den of Geek