Who’s in control, you or the game?

There is an intersection in any game, where the player and the game structure meet. For nearly everyone, where that intersection lies it hidden to us. We just feel it out.

For example for video games, I like playing Sim City. I really liked Age of Empires. These days I’ve looked around for games like them that I might also like. But the popular interface in almost all the new games is wrong for me.

Some games just don’t feel right. I think this interface between the game’s structure and the player is something that deserves to be explored for a possible cause to that.

One aspect of this interface is control. Is the player the one that dictates what’s about to happen next, or is it the game? There are a huge number of variations of that one question. There is a texture of the interface. I think we pick up on it instinctively and we know what we want when we find it.

For me, I like a game that has a very heavy structure for low-level choices. Video games and table top RPGs I like have a rigid set of options but there are a large number of options. There may be dozens to hundreds of things that the player can activate, but the set is finite. For example, in an RPG, the player can choose to attack, defend or any of other concrete defined actions, there are options within each of those options. In a video game, I can build, destroy, move, with a myriad of possibilities within those.

But I like my high level options to be open. There is no structure that says I can’t make certain moves when I want to. Sim City is a good example of this. The play is open ended. The only thing that limits my options is money. In Age of Empires, there is no explicit winning strategy other than gather materials before you are wiped out by an enemy.

My likes in RPGs are similar, although this high level control is usually the default. In some cases it’s not though. Games that have phases of certain kinds of action bother me. Games that have scenes that dictate what can and can’t be done in them bother me.

Video games often limit a player’s options on the high level these days. Even building games seem to be doing this more and more by giving the player an endless string of “Missions” or “Goals” that you can’t ignore. A lot of them will not allow you to continue playing the game until you’ve accomplished those missions.

In these games, I wonder, who is in control? The player or the game? To me it feels like the game is playing itself an I’m just along for the ride. On the other hand, this kind of game set up is apparently very popular since there are so many of them.

I assume then that I’m in the minority in wanting open ended freedom to take the game where I want. That makes me wonder, is that a reason RPGs are not attractive to many people? Precisely what attracts a player like me, is not desirable to others?

This would seem to be bolstered by the fact that a lot of people that play RPG for a short time and then move on may be playing because of the GM’s style. Maybe the GM is giving them what they want, by sending them on very specific missions. They’re not there for the high level choices. They’re there to push the button, or roll the die that they’re being told to.

This might seem cynical but it seems to be borne out by the evidence. Games are obviously not a one size fits all endeavor. In a lot of situations, we have a lack of language to figure out why. So let’s try and create some language to talk about it.

Some games give some control to the player, others give control to the game. Although in RPGs the control can be shared between the two. It’s often up to a Game Master to set the levels of control. In some cases though, RPGs can set these exclusively to player control.

High Level Control

This is an open ended game that the player sets the agenda. There may be an overall mechanism for survival (this is usually defined in the low level), but beyond that, the player calls the shots.

Player Control Examples: Sandbox RPG play, many story games, Microscope, Archipelago, Sim City, Legos, building blocks

Mid Level Control

There may be a stated goal, take over the world, defeat your enemies, get to the finish line first. How to accomplish that goal is up to the player.

Player Control Examples: Traditional RPG play, many story games, Archipelago, Fate, Age of Empires, Risk, Chess, Catan, Sim City, Legos, building blocks

Low Level Control

The player can define how the game will work on a mechanical level.

Player Control Examples: Some story games, Archipelago, Fate (to a minor degree) building blocks, toy soldiers, cops and robbers

For me, I enjoy games with high level control (HLC) and Mid Level control (MLC) but tend to not enjoy games with low level control (LLC). For example, Legos. They don’t set the goal, they don’t set how to get to the goal, but they do have a low level set of rules that if written out, would be extensive.

Building blocks on the other hand, have almost no rules other than gravity (although I could glue them together) and their geometry. There’s relatively few mechanisms that enforce how they are played with. This makes them easy to learn, but also have limited options.

I think a lot of story games are in that way similar to building blocks. They’re easy to learn and there’s nothing preventing you doing what you want. However they don’t always have a structure that tells you how to accomplish the higher level goals.

Where do you fall in the games you like? Do you think this language is useful for figuring out what kinds of games you like? Are there other variations that you think would need to be accounted for?

Update: I thought of one more control level that’s worth mentioning.

World Level Control

This is the ability to define the world in which the game is played in.

Examples: Microscope, Possibly home-brew games since the GM is creating the world, Generic games like Risus and Gurps don’t make world level control part of the game but require it by default, I’ve included limited world control in a few games like SPF and my 24hr game Starpunk.

I know that there should be more of these out there, I’m not thinking of them at the moment though.


Filed under Experimental Mechanics, GM Advice

2 Responses to Who’s in control, you or the game?

  1. brainwipe

    Fascinating article! I am not 100% convinced by you control grouping. Perhaps it is because the naming suggests an exclusive hierarchy rather than properties of the game. For example, LEGO is defined by its properties not what group or best fits.

    High and Medium levels are about who sets the goals. High level is player driven; medium is driven by the game (the GM is an agent of the game). Low level sounds like mechanic-less gaming; where the game us played through social contract and rules decided as you go. World level is about how much of the setting is prescribed. Star Wars is arguably high in canon so little is described by the players whereas most 24hr RPGs are the opposite.

    I like the idea of naming these things but I’m not convinced the buckets you’ve chosen make it easy to discuss.

    As for PC games, have you tried Tropico? Sounds ideal for you.

    • Loc

      Perhaps more descriptive buckets would help, High might be Goal control while Medium may be, what? Desision level? It’s the idea that you have the goal, (set by you or the game) but you have to decide how to get there. Not sure of that. Low level I look at as mechanical level, almost the physics of the game (or toy).

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