I was musing on my chosen pastime and hobby recently, more specifically on the nature of game-play in modern video games. I won't claim to have some sort of special pedigree when it comes to game design, however there is one thing in which I can be considered the highest expert in the world, and that is what I like.
What I was considering was tools in games. When I say tools, I don't mean impolite people, and I don't mean hammers or screwdrivers (unless I do), what I mean is the things that allow the player to interact with the world. Take a shooting game for instance. The basic tools we use to interact with the world in a shooter game are bullets. Without firing bullets we cannot complete the game. Sure, there may be a "use key" to interact with doors, or pick up guns, or use a med-kit (for those games that don't have a Player Character that heals while out of combat, that is).
So, while I was musing, I took a step back and looked at the big picture. From there, I was able to discern two different kinds of approach for dealing with tools in a game. The first is to give the player limited resources and a problem to fix with those resources. This is by far the more popular approach, in fact it is the approach taken by so many games that it seems ubiquitous. It is what we have come to expect from video games. Play a shooter, they will give you guns and enemies and say, "You must get to the end of the level." and so you say, "Okay! I know, I'll shoot the enemies with my guns!" Sometimes it feels like you're making the choice, other times the motivation seems shoehorned in.
The second approach to tools is to let the player choose which tools they want or need, and even to let them create these tools themselves. In a shooter, you can sometimes choose which gun to use, but for the most part they all just sling bullets, just with different rate of fire, damage, spread pattern, and even area of effect (as with explosives). How many shooters give you a crowbar? I know what you're thinking, but Gordon's trusty sidekick is really just a gun with limited range and unlimited ammo. What if you, as the person sitting there trying to think through the situation, wanted to simply go another route to get to the objective? There's a door over on the far wall, that will not open no matter what you do. What if you could gain access to a crowbar and break down the door, bypassing that part of the level, or even finding an entirely alternate path that deviates from the rest of the story as it would have happened if you had simply gunned down the opposition?
This, I think, is part of the appeal of a game like Minecraft. You are given obstacles to overcome (which some would argue are currently too small and easy), but you are also given infinite resources with which to overcome them. You can kill all the skeletal archers in the dungeon you found, or you can block them in, dig under the room, and liberate the items from the chests without combat. Or you can block off that cave entirely and never come back. If you feel like digging, you can make a tool that will allow you to do so, and more efficiently than without it. If you want to engage in combat, you can make a tool for that as well, a sword for close combat or a bow for long range. If you want to explore, make yourself a boat for some sea-bound exploration or a map to record your progress. Want to make cool automated machines? Find some redstone and get creative.
Apologies for all the Minecraft references, but it's my best example for that end of the spectrum. Minecraft is my primary example of the second approach to tools, it's as far to that end of the spectrum as I have played, and many claim that it isn't a "game" because of how much direction it lacks. And it's true to an extent, it is not a traditional video game, which are defined by their boundaries (or "genres") of interactions. There are boundaries in Minecraft, but not in any of the places you would expect in a traditional, genre-defined game, so all these types of games have created a new, what I like to call "anti-genre": Sandbox games.
Now, what all this brings forward as questions are things like, how far can you go in either direction? The limit for the first approach, the completely designer-driven-interaction experience, seems to me to be point and click adventure games. The only way to win is the way which the developer intended. At the other end, well, it hasn't really been explored as far as it could yet, in my opinion. This kind of interaction, you could think of it as a game sitting on top of a simulation. The limits are what you can do with the game to alter the simulation. There HAS to be a game, the developer can't just make a simulation with no interaction and expect people to code their own controls, or fiddle with values directly. There HAS to be a simulation, otherwise any interaction is meaningless button pressing. The game and the simulation are both designed by the developer, through procedural means these elements can be made substantial, but there will always be some limits. The limits are, time and imagination. Time, because things need to be implemented by the developer. Imagination, because nobody can think of everything. "Even the very wise cannot see all ends," according to Gandalf.
So, why post this here? Well, because I wanted to hear people's opinions about my musings, and this seems a mature enough setting to be able to come up with some good brainstorms, examples, points and counter-points. And because I would like to see how this particular continuum applies to A Valley Without Wind. I am a big fan of sandbox games, which are largely more towards the player-driven end of the spectrum, although some more than others (GTA-alikes like to be called sandboxes, but the story is set in stone and the missions usually are as well, they are basically shooter/racing games with an open world). I am excited by A Valley Without Wind, but I have to ask myself, is that because I see it in it's current, unfinished state and see some sort of dream game of mine in it? I am THE expert on what I like. Something tells me I will like this. But I have been let down in the past. I saw something in a game that was never there to begin with. What I want is to be able to choose my own path. To make my own choices in this world, to choose the items and spells my character brings on their adventures, to choose the direction I will walk, choose who to help and who to condemn and who to ignore, choose what to interact with, and only I will know the reason why I made that choice. Not because someone chose that thing for me to be able to do (although this is also necessary for all these things), but because I chose to do it. I already know this game will be towards the player-driven end of the spectrum, I just hope those interactions that are included by design will include the things that I will want to choose for my character(s) to do. I also enjoy the fact that Arcen Games doesn't hold the illusion that they CAN think of everything, which makes them more likely to include new player interactions suggested by the community in subsequent patches and expansions.
So, to the forum members with enough time and energy on your hands to read this, I hope you found something to take away from this massive wall of text. And to Arcen Games, good luck, and I will try to remember, this is YOUR game, not mine.