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In Defense of Restrictions

An examination of how games can feel all the more meaningful when they force us to slow down.

Rhys Frampton, Blogger

June 22, 2022

6 Min Read

Ever since Wordle exploded in popularity in December of 2021, the wider Internet has been awash with imitators, each of them growing increasingly distant from Josh Wardle’s original concept. Antiwordle challenges players to make as many incorrect guesses as possible, Semantle gives clues based on the relative meaning of a word rather than its spelling, and Heardle does away with words entirely and instead asks players to guess a song based on its opening seconds. All of these spinoff games, however, share one crucial feature with the original: the restriction to a single challenge per day. When asked if players could bypass the daily challenge limit, Semantle creator David Turner gave an interesting response:

“No. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Mindless imitation of that other word guessing game.

  2. A game designer I know found a site that let you play as much of the other game as you want. He immediately binged, and then got bored, and hasn't tweeted about it since.

  3. Another friend of mine said that she considered giving up on one day's Semantle, and then realized it would be another 24 hours before she could try again. So she persevered and got it.”

    A screenshot of David Turner’s Semantle, taken from gitconnected.com

What this answer demonstrates is that the speed and ease with which players can interact with a game fundamentally changes how that game is played. If a game presents itself like a candy jar, players will treat it as such, clearing challenge after challenge until, like the designer from Turner’s example, they become sick of it. It’s tempting to blame these players for their own dissatisfaction, but none of us are exempt from this kind of behavior. Whether it be snack foods, casinos, or social media sites, the modern world is built to prey upon our human impulse to favor instant gratification over long-term fulfillment. In the same vein, if Turner’s friend could have simply skipped that day’s Semantle, she would have done so, cheating herself out of the satisfaction of eventually solving it. It’s likely that someone with this option would evaluate each challenge not just on how to solve it, but if it was worth solving at all, or was better off being skipped altogether. This is why the restrictions placed by Wordle and its imitators are so meaningful: When most games are treated as “content” to be consumed and then discarded, these restrictions remind us that each challenge is important and worth savoring.

An image of Harman Smith, one of the playable characters of killer7, wheeling himself down an empty street. Image taken from this tweet.

While Wordle restricts how often it can be played, other titles have created memorable experiences by building these restrictions into the design of the game itself. The 2005 cult classic killer7 precedes nearly every boss fight with a long, empty passageway, completely silent save for the squeaks of the player character’s wheelchair. These passageways contain no challenges or rewards, but they build tension for the battle ahead, while also giving the player time to reflect upon the events of the level thus far. Even though it’s been years since I’ve last played it, I can still largely remember killer7’s surreal and winding narrative, in part due to these moments of quiet introspection. Compare this to the relatively simple plot of Borderlands 2, whose details still remain hazy to me even after completing the game’s campaign over fifteen times. While the series’ formula of “get gun, kill thing, get bigger gun” is pleasantly addictive, its constant flow of action and treasure leaves the player no time to contemplate anything else. Even as someone with an interest in Borderlands’ world, I struggle to recall any finer details because the game’s own structure and pacing render them unimportant.

The importance of restrictions is most apparent when they are introduced into a game that did not have them previously. When I decided to replay The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I devised a list of self-imposed rules meant to make the experience more challenging. One such rule was to prohibit myself from using the game’s “fast travel” system, which allows the player to instantly teleport back to any of the various Sheikah Shrines they’ve already discovered. This restriction did little to increase Breath of the Wild’s difficulty as I had hoped, but what it did accomplish was the complete recontextualization of the game’s world and how I approached it.

A freeze-frame of the “fast travel” animation from Breath of the Wild. Image taken from withaterriblefate.com.

On a normal playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, finding a fast travel point is an act of conquest, allowing you to return to that area and plunder its resources at any time you like. What was once an independent expanse of nature now functionally belongs to you, becoming another node on your map which can be exploited or ignored at your own convenience. But when I replayed the game with a self-imposed restriction against using fast travel, these places regained their dignity as places, separated from my whims as a player. If I wish to purchase a heat-resistant Sapphire Circlet from Gerudo Town, I have to once again make that long and arduous journey through the Gerudo Desert, and then, on my way back, choose between exiting through the frigid highlands to the north or the winding canyons to the east. Breath of the Wild’s over-reliance on fast travel mechanics betrays Nintendo’s lack of confidence in their own open world, as if they assumed players would rather watch a loading screen than traverse Hyrule’s lush vistas for a second time. When this convenience is removed, however, it instead conveys that the time spent running, climbing, and horseback riding to each destination is just as meaningful and important as the destinations themselves.

An image of Link gazing up at the twin mountains known as the Dueling Peaks. Taken from zeldadungeon.net.

That is not to say that this approach should be taken by all, or even most, games. Most adults have busy schedules, so restrictions intended to slow the player might clash with their limited free time. When I am low on time or energy, my preferred “comfort food” game is Borderlands 2, precisely because of the same qualities for which I criticized it earlier. Furthermore, any restriction must be crafted in careful harmony with the rest of the game’s design. killer7’s empty passageways work so well because they enhance the game’s tense and unnerving atmosphere, but if they were slapped into a game like Sonic the Hedgehog, they would be nothing more than an irritating speed bump. This is part of my love for restrictions, however, as their presence in a game signals a clarity of purpose in its design. In an online media landscape that increasingly favors vacuous short-form content, there is something incredibly refreshing about a game that says “Sit down and pay attention. I have something important to show you.”

(Originally published on rhysframptongames.com.)

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