If a GM does his (or her, but let’s go with him) job well enough, he is able to weave a story in his game with a start, middle, and climax, predict where the characters will go and how to act, all the while offering the illusion the players had free will.
The illusion…of free will.
Last year, I played a rather subversive game called The Stanley Parable which blatantly thumbed its nose at the idea of player freedom. Freedom in games is only the range of predictable options offered. Open world games still require someone to create the areas one can travel to. The Mass Effect series takes pride on customizable gaming experiences even though it still greatly limits you on the number of choices you can actually make. We just appreciate the fact we were given choice at all. I was playing Call of Duty Ghosts recently and I was reminded as how little freedom you’re given in the single player campaign. Even straying too far from the designated arrow marker can result in death. In fact, the only moments I noticed where I could temporarily break from the designated narrative was when the game told me not to shoot and I let loose. The game attempted to punish me for deviating from the unspoken “script.” With half the situations, I’m able to kill my way out of the linear plot, only for it to snap back on the rails a second later; the other half, I get punished brutally for my cravings for free will.
With open world games like Grand Theft Auto, you can go anywhere…the creators design, and do anything…the creators anticipated. But the story missions are still entirely linear with a fixed end state. I have repeated ad nauseam that absolute freedom does not create a good story and players must have an objective that they wish to pursue, and thus create a predictable path the GM can follow to weave his story. I’ve also stated that I insist my player characters be heroes—no evil alignments allowed. This aids in creating a limited number of options the players will take, limitations that they create for themselves from being “civilized” adventurers aiming to complete a quest.
One issue I often have with my players is that when you give them enough freedom, they turn around and complain that the game lacks direction, or worse, that the game isn’t going where they want it. There’s a balance a GM needs to find where the players remain on the course laid out while not feeling railroaded and still believing that they are going where they wish. It’s almost like a GM has to fool his players into thinking they go where they want rather than where the GM wants them to go. I have been told by several of players that there is a struggle between GM and player where the players don’t want to be manipulated and yet they want the game to have purpose/direction. I’ve seen players get upset when they commit to an action they feel was of their own choice only to have the GM present a pre-scripted response.
In one situation I remember, players were prisoners in a concentration camp, and one decided to throw a shovel into a machine in a diversionary tactic for an escape plan. What the group didn’t know was that I predicted such an escape plan and had a pre-scripted set of consequences which occurred the moment shovel met machine. The players at the time felt so proud they had developed an idea on the fly which actually worked. I even played up the role as a confused GM, taking a moment to figure out what to do next. At the end of the session, the players interrogated me on whether I had predicted their actions. When I informed them I did, I could see them actually upset. It’s almost as if players want ultimate freedom to the extent that the GM gets stumped. The moment they do something the GM predicts, suddenly accusations of linearity are flung.
In my latest game, I made a point to not write specific game events down. Literally, I typed in tens of thousands of words in the creation of the setting but have not written the course of the future, letting the players go where they want, encountering the greater narrative when I am able to weave it in during their journeys. To my shock, I’ve still gotten accused of forcing the players down a specific path. Recently an issue came up because the group became split up mostly out of their own actions. Despite trying my best at the time to give them the option to reunite, they chose not to, and one half suddenly found themselves out of the story for a few hours. Free will had created the situation, and yet the GM was still at fault for not including the whole group.
A GM is asked to run a world, taking no pleasure in the development of a character or said character’s progression in life and levels. He must find a balance between story and player freedom and hope the group doesn’t peek into the inner workings of how it’s done. It almost like a GM is an illusionist. People want to see a trick but don’t want to suspect how it works. Some players hunt for the hidden string, obsessed with finding it but hoping they never do. Only when it’s done right can the group look back and say the game was enjoyable, all the while the GM keeping quiet on how the trick worked…for to reveal the magician’s secret is to ruin the performance.