In this article I will discuss unscalable fences and invisible walls in RPGs and their impact on immersion. I’ll also suggest some alternatives to them and look at games that already do this well.
If my Dexterity level is so high, why can’t I climb a fence?
I’ve shoved the majority of my attribute points into the Dexterity stat. I can now dance around the battlefield like a hyperactive ninja after one too many coffees. The enemies don’t know what hit them and hardly any of their strikes can touch me. The final enemy begs for mercy. I somersault over his head and plant my sword into the back of his neck, killing him instantly. The battle-scene ends. I’m feeling like a bad ass and decide to head back to the local inn to celebrate another victory. It is then that I face my ultimate enemy: a fence.
“It makes a difference, doesn’t it, whether we fence ourselves in, or whether we are fenced out by the barriers of others?” – E.M. Forster, A Room With a View
It barely comes over my knees and there are clear footholds in it. Yet try as I might, I can’t climb it. The long line of fences seem to stretch on forever. I make my way along the long row of fences, looking for a gap. I am unsure if I will die from starvation or boredom first.
Finally, I make it back to the tavern. My plucky NPC sidekick reached it before me and has already drank three pints of grog. “What kept you?” he cockily asks me. I try to punch him in the face but apparently it’s not possible to strike friendly characters – no matter how much they’re asking for it.
Face-planting an invisible barrier is never fun.
Sick of the sight of fences, I head somewhere where I am certain that I will not find any: a remote desert. I set out to explore this great uncharted wilderness. I come across the occasional desert bandit and random cactus-inspired monster but they offer no resistance to me. Giddy with glee, I run virtually naked through the desert (it isn’t possible to remove underwear in this game). It is then that I face-plant an invisible barrier. Just how long does it go on for? I keep running into it, edging to the right with each step as I go.
After walking for miles, I reach the end of the desert and find the great blue sea. The invisible barrier is still there. I start to swim, sure that eventually I must find some way beyond it. Eventually my stamina levels are depleted and I drown, my dead corpse propped up unnaturally against an invisible wall at the bottom of the sea. It’s such a horrible way to go.
More fitting barriers and climbable fences please, game designers
Why is an unclimbable fence needed? Is it a way to artificially lengthen your game, dreamt up by the same people who came up with the spiral-like queuing system for rides at Alton Towers? Or are you just so afraid of players coming up with something that you didn’t plan that you want to do your utmost to stifle their creativity? Unless you have written it into the plot that the main character is some abandoned bastard child of a Dalek, they should be able to climb over a fence with ease.
This isn’t to say that you can’t include barriers that can’t be passed at all but please make sure that it makes sense and that it adds to your game. If my sword can sever the limbs of an iron giant, it should also be able to chop through a bush. You can include a trap-filled labyrinth but please ensure that the walls are at least taller than my character and made from something that can’t easily be destroyed.
Games that already handle barriers well
Games such as Skies of Arcadia didn’t include invisible walls when flying around the world. You could fly past one side of the world and pop up on the opposite side of the map. At least this makes more sense than an invisible barrier. When you really have to stop the player from being able to leave an area or from reaching another area until later in the story, can you at least do it in a visually logical way? If an island I am on is surrounded by lava then I won’t go for a swim in it. Or alternatively, in science fiction games you can have areas where radiation levels are lethal beyond a certain point.
Wasteland 2 used radiation as a logical way to limit players from going too far. It would also allow you to just about reach areas that are too difficult for your level if you had enough healing items. You may then be killed by an opponent that is too powerful for you but at least you got there.
If game designers could think more about the logic of their game worlds, it would lead to a more immersive experience and help us really feel like the powerful heroes that we are meant to be.
What are your pet peeves in RPGs? Comment below and let us know!