As time goes on, I’ve begun to notice two trends sort of waxing and waning in the games industry, in direct opposition to each other, despite at first glance appearing to be the same thing. These are two types of games defined by a core design decision, two categories I call Fantasy Permitted and Fantasy Enforced games.
The first type of games, Fantasy Permitted, are best exemplified by Bethesda RPGs, such as Skyrim or Fallout 3. These are games that give players a variety of ways of dealing with the challenges of the game world, and allow the to select a set of solutions fitting with the character, or “fantasy”, they want to play out. In Skyrim you can be a great wizard, an expert magic user, or a mighty barbarian. In Fallout 3 you can be a smooth operator or rip and tear through everything.
This type isn’t necessarily limited to open-world RPGs. Wolfenstein: The New Order firmly falls into this category, allowing characters to be gun-toting badasses or stealthy agents, as do the Grand Theft Auto games. Overwatch arguably fits into this category, with the number of options it gives as far as characters are concerned, and MOBAs definitely can be categorized as Fantasy Permitted, as rosters with dozens of characters means a player probably can find a character to fit any playstyle they want.
The second type of games, Fantasy Enforced, has a lot of different manifestations, but I’m going to pick the Witcher series as my defining example, because it parallels well to the Elder Scrolls series (which is definitely Fantasy Permitted). In The Witcher, you don’t get to choose between some spell-slinging wizard or an amazing swordsman or a crafty apothecary, you have to be a Witcher, a combination of the three. If you don’t play that way, you’re not going to be equipped with the tools you need to succeed. This is what Fantasy Enforced games are all about: giving a player a single playstyle to embrace, with little room for variation.
Call of Duty is largely a Fantasy Enforced game, as is Titanfall and, to a lesser extent, Battlefield. Jalopy is a really specific Fantasy Enforced game. The Assassins Creed series is definitely Fantasy Enforced. These are games that define a role for you, be it “master assassin”, “guy with shitty car”, or “super cool soldier man”, and while maybe giving you some degrees of freedom within those roles, force you to play the game within those confines.
This is not to say that I disagree with Fantasy Enforced design, far from it. By designing a game with a singular playstyle in mind, it allows a design team to focus every mechanic on that playstyle and maximize its impact. Since Titanfall lacks vehicles other than the eponymous Titans, Respawn was able to construct tight-knit maps full of buildings that complemented the parkour-style gameplay nicely. Arkane could focus a lot of time and resources into creating stealthy paths through the levels of Dishonored, knowing full well that most players were going to use them, and as a result that game has fantastic level design.
The dichotomy that these two styles form is one of generalization versus specialization in design. Take, for example, Skyrim, a Fantasy Permitter. Skyrim has melee sword combat, just like The Witcher, a Fantasy Enforcer. However, Skyrim‘s sword combat feels a little flaccid, and has a variety of weapons that don’t really have any tangible difference, while The Witcher limits itself to just swords, but has a much more rhythmic, rewarding combat. Then again, if you want to play a ranged character in The Witcher, you’re SOL, while Skyrim has you covered.
Skyrim also features stealth systems, just like Dishonored, another Fantasy Enforcer. Skyrim‘s level design doesn’t really account for or accommodate stealth in any significant way, unlike Dishonored‘s crafted levels full of sneaking routes. However, if things go bad in a sneaking attempt in Skyrim, you can always switch to another approach successfully, while a botched attempt at stealth in Dishonored ends in consuming all of your resources to survive, frantic hiding, or death.
Skyrim also offers giant monsters, specifically dragons, to fight, sort of like how Shadow of the Colossus, a third Fantasy Enforcer, does. Fighting dragons in Skyrim is much like fighting…anything else, really, and in fact the combat systems really show their weak points when you fight larger opponents, while Shadow‘s combat systems make fighting massive opponents immensely satisfying, creating on the mechanical level this sense of grandeur. However, Skyrim also lets you fight things other than giant monsters, which Shadow of the Colossus does not.
The key to identifying these two design philosophies, and to picking one that’s best for your project, is to recognize the key idea I’m trying to point out. The more options you give a player on how to play your game, the more freedom they have, but the less polish each of those options is going to receive, and greater potential will exist for the systems corresponding to those options to cause friction in the design. The fewer options you give, the less freedom you give your players, but the more time you can spend refining and perfecting those options, and the more time you can spend ensuring those options form a harmonious whole.