The Insurmountable Waist Height Fence

Let me paint you a story here. Imagine it’s 1944, D-Day +5 or +6 – you lost count by now. You were dropped somewhere in the middle of the France along with your paratrooper unit. Or at least that was the plan, but of course the drop went a little awry, and no company landed on the ground in full force. So you are fighting alongside a rag tag group patched together from separate units, operating behind enemy lines.

One night you are patrolling the area, and you get pinned down behind a waist high wooden fence – pitifully bad cover that gives you no protection from enemy bullets. Beyond the fence is a big ditch that you could crawl into – a perfect cover and firing position. Your buddies are sitting behind some shed a little way back but there is no hope of reaching them. The only thing you can do is to hop over the fence as the rest of your squad unleashes a suppressing volley at the enemy position. All you have to do is to grip the fence and roll yourself over it.


But… Fuck. It’s to high. The fucking fence is like 2″ higher than the height you can actually jump. Apparently the level designer decided to make this fence insurmountable, because you have to crawl alongside it all the way to the extreme left edge of the map so that you can find the grenade pack, and the key card… It’s even funnier if on your way back this flimsy, rickety fence turns out impervious to those grenades, which in other section of the game actually can be used to blow up tanks and armored cars. And sometimes that fence is a hedge or a shrubbery…

There is just nothing that destroys immersion and screams “poor level design” as that fucking waist high wall that you can shoot over, but for some reason can’t climb or jump over. This is the worst kind of railroading and no one appreciates that. Scifi games can sometimes get away with obstacles like that by coming up with some kind of force field mechanic. Same goes for fantasy and magical barriers. They are annoying, but not ridiculously unrealistic within the logic framework of the game universe. But present day or historical games have no business using such cheep gimmicks.

And it’s really not that hard to enforce an off-limit zone without some sort of artificial boundary by simply tweaking game mechanics. Give the AI good accuracy so that they can take down players that decide to use the “run and gun” tactic, while at the same time making shooting from behind cover relatively safe (ie. if you are partially covered, enemy gets huge penalty on aimed shots). Hell you can even use the old dirty trick from stealth games – if the enemy spots you they raise an alarm and all of a sudden everyone leaves their post and chases after you. Things like that will actually make player want to stick to the cover. And if you don’t want the hoping over a fence, don’t put a safe looking cover just beyond it – make it a killing field for many feet from each side with well dug out enemy defending it.

If you do that, the player will actually want to figure out the better way of doing this. Hell, going the extra mile along the side of that fence will actually make them feel like a smart strategic choice even though they will be following the same type of railroaded track. Instead of imposting the scripted path as the only possibility, why not give the player an illusion of free choices, even if 9 0ut of 10 of those choices are designed to be nearly suicidal. Figuring out the best path is always more enjoyable than following one because there is just no other choice.

I’m playing Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood (without Starforce – :twisted:) right now and the game is plagued with the waist high fences, indestructible hedges and simillar crap. And the funny thing is – the game already revolves around strategically using your squads to lay down suppressive fire and flanking the enemy. But there is not much strategy involved here since the game keeps your firmly on rails making you follow intricate scripted paths. Sigh… Still, it’s not a bad game – it’s just that I feel silly every time when it turns out that a highly trained soldier can’t jump over a fallen log, and must walk around a waist height obstacles that are used to block off certain streets or areas of the map…

[tags]games, gaming, brothers in arms, earned in blood, insurmountable waist height fence, game design[/tags]

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6 Responses to The Insurmountable Waist Height Fence

  1. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Reminds me of this: “The best way to keep players on the railroads is to place large obvious landmines on either side of the tracks” (Shamus Young… I think)

    As you said, instead of forcing the issue, it’s better to make it extremely hard or undesirable to play any other way (although too obviously impossible is just as bad – e.g. if jumping the fence triggered a sniper shot to the head 100% of the time, but standing out in the open just elicited normal enemy fire)

    How is it that all gamers can know these things, but so few game designers take them into account

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  2. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Even worse than the waist-high fence is the invisible zone line. Seen less in FPSs and more in MMORPGs. “I’ll just run over this shallow hill… *bonk* oh… I can’t”. How hard is it to put a cliff or a wall instead? Or even water if your game doesn’t allow swimming?

    But yeah, the indestructable waist-high fence is a major annoyance. Unless you’re trying to accurately copy a real-life environment, there is no excuse for this shit.

    Matt’ – one thing that I’ve learned since I started testing software is that it’s not as simple as it looks. I used to be one of the ‘but it’s so obvious’ crowd myself, but once you start working with complex software, there’s a hundred things you need to juggle in your head, and even if you do them all well, someone will complain about the hundred and first thing.

    Sometimes the sales guys will ask be about Unusual Feature(tm) and how the testing for it has gone, to which I reply ‘I haven’t even thought about that aspect, but I’ll get onto it’. They respond with ‘But it’s so obvious, you should have been testing it’. To which I respond with ‘If it’s so obvious, why isn’t it on the spec sheet you authored? Why didn’t you think about it then?’

    If you ask a gamer about what makes a good game, most won’t say “it won’t have waist-high fences”. It’s definitely an annoyance, but it’s not really that obvious.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @Matt` – very true. But I’d still rather have mines or super-sniper than an indestructible waist high fence.

    And I think varci does have a point here. It is difficult to design a level that is both open ended, balanced and still contains scripted story driven events.

    varci – It’s all about design choices and game mechanics. If the game is well thought out, you can severely restrict players movement and he will hardly notice these barriers. Look at hitman games – while you were constrained to a very specific mission area, the game offered huge degree of freedom in the way you actually conducted the mission. So while you could not leave the mission area, there was no reason to do so.

    Or FarCry for example. The outside levels really made you feel like you are exploring this immense game world even though you pretty much had to move from point A to point B crossing X, Y and Z on your way – without much room for open ended play. Still, the illusion was there.

    It all really depends on the game.

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  4. ikaruga UNITED STATES Mozilla SeaMonkey SuSE Linux says:

    I’m a huge fan of your blog, but we’re I’m gonna have to share some fatherly advice (not that I’m older) — but get over it… It’s a video game… How old are you to be taking games so seriously? Last time I was so upset by a game was in the 3rd grade… :-)

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Nah – I don’t really get upset – just disappointed and/or annoyed. Mostly because it’s so prevalent.

    And I don’t really take games all that seriously. I usually play few hours on the weekends, and sometimes for like an hour or so on some weeknights if I have time, and nothing else to do. I’m not very competitive, I do not usually play online, I’m not a big fan of MMO’s. I’m really a casual gamer – I play to unwind, and have some fun blowing stuff up.

    So I know “it’s just a game” and all of that. But hey, it’s a product that I spent my money on. I should be able to complain if it doesn’t live up to my expectations, no? :mrgreen:

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