Andrew Vanden Bossche has written an excellent piece over at Gamasutra about barriers in gameplay and how they relate to the suspension of disbelief. Players are willing to believe any law of a game’s universe, or any limit that the designers put on the player, as long as it remains consistent.
Players will, for the most part, happily accept limits like these. But when a restriction contradicts the very logic that has so far applied to rest of the game world, you run into situations where a character that could previously bash the brains out of a zombie with a lead pipe cannot use that same lead pipe to break an ordinary glass window.
Essentially, the article is another argument against the Insurmountable Waist-High Fence phenomenon that is such a common trait of lazy level design these days. Such obstacles aren’t just detrimental to the game in the sense that they’re annoying to the player; they actually remove the player from the game world, jarring her out of the story by reminding her that she is in a game with arbitrary laws.
Where Bossche covers some new ground, however, is in his suggestion that games can actually be more believable when they are less original in their use of obstacles.
He uses as an example the first Silent Hill, where the player is impeded by one of the oldest obstacles in the video game handbook, yet its existence follows the rules already laid out by the game.
Early in the game, the player is exploring the town of Silent Hill, and finds that in the middle of otherwise ordinary streets, enormous chasms have opened up and completely blocked where the protagonist player needs to go.
These holes in the ground enforce the boundaries of the game world just like the piles of cardboard boxes, but they differ substantially in the effect they have on the player. Because they are mysterious, scary, and unexplained, the holes are also instrumental in creating the sense of fear that is key to survival horror games like Silent Hill.
It doesn’t take much creative thought to come up with holes as obstacles in a video game; Mario was jumping over bottomless pits in arcades when I was still in diapers. Yet in later games in the Silent Hill series, (Bossche uses Silent Hill 3 for his example,) the developers seem to have gotten too creative for their own good, resulting in the unfortunate use of cardboard boxes as immovable objects.
Although I’ve quoted a fair amount of it here, the whole article is worth a read. I’ve argued for years that games need to get rid of inconsistent level design if they ever hope to be taken seriously as a narrative medium, so it’s always nice to see someone else tackle the issue.