Almost every gamer probably also knows this one, it is those invisible barriers that prevent you from going out of the map or going somewhere you are not supposed to go. For game designers this is often a necessary evil, because there is no other way to do it based on their resources, but it is an ugly solution, therefore a bad game design choice.
First this was planned as multiple articles, because there are many kinds of invisible walls, each for different reasons, some physical, some metaphorical, let me make a list of the basic types of invisible walls in games:
1. Invisible physical walls at the edge of the map, to prevent you from leaving the map, as there is nothing there.
This is one of the necessary evil types of solutions, because designing more game world than necessary is just a waste of resources, so you have to make a cut somewhere. I used this method also in Übergame, sometimes I made a harsh cut, where you could just look into the void and in other levels I designed 500 meters of desert into every direction before I made the invisible wall. On another level I made 500 meter landscape in every direction that could be explored and then a 10km or so backdrop landscape that cannot be explored, just for backdrop, well it can be explored using the editor, but there is nothing there. I list those examples, because as an indie game developer I have limited resources, so I have to make a cut somewhere, some are more ugly others are less. I constantly list bad game design choices, but I give you some examples of more elegant solutions to this problem, the most elegant solution is probably the infinite ocean, extremely easy to create, just one click, then a few minutes or maybe even up to hour to adjust the settings and voila, a perfect solution and easy on rendering resources as well, the computer will just render the ocean until infinite and players can even swim as much as they want and they will never hit the unrealistic ugly invisible wall. Cry engine for example is designed around this solution, where every level would just be an island in an infinite ocean, kind of a clever design. However always having infinite ocean is unrealistic as well, you can also have an infinite landscape, though this is harder to achieve, of course you can make a simple plane with grass texture, but this will feel unrealistic, so you need to add some kind of terrain. Another semi elegant solution is to make mountains that make some kind of natural barrier, but dedicated gamers often find ways to climb those mountains, well if it is hard they probably earned to see the edge of the world. In the past the resources were limited, so the game world was basically just tubes or corridors that were textured like cities, countryside etc, but everything beyond that tube was invisible wall, so in the past it was a semi legit way to design games, but nowadays I would say it is an intentional bad game design choices as there are better solutions now and limited processing power is no longer a good excuse for not properly designing the game world.
2. Invisible walls to prevent you from going to places inside the map.
In point one I mentioned how old games were mostly just tubes, corridors and small arenas and the rest was backdrop cut of with invisible walls to prevent people from going outside, well there are also invisible walls to prevent people from going inside certain places at the map and this is probably a much less legit reason to have them, because why limit players when there is no reason? Limiting players to go to places that do not exist is kind of legit, because you cannot go to places that do not exist, well in video games you can and the result is ugly, but to block players from reaching places they could reach, because they exist is very retarded, it is as the game designers create parts of a level and then prevent players from going there and make use of it, intentionally destroying fun. I observed those kind of invisible walls in remakes of old classic shooters that were often competitive, like Counter Strike or Arena shooters. This is an intentional dumbing down of gaming and there is hardly a legit reason to do it, other to destroy the fun and make the game more boring and predictable, which is apparently an important factor in competitive games. You have to understand that those games started out with the first kind of invisible walls, where they were necessary, because the levels were just tubes, corridors and small arenas and everything else was nonexistent backdrop. Now the genius retard developers come and fill those backdrops that did not exist in the past with actual existent level geometry that theoretically could be walked into and used for gameplay, but only theoretical, because they then put invisible walls, to prevent you from going there, to keep the game mechanics like the old games, as if all the new graphic and rendering technology was just there to look at and not to be used in any actual gameplay. This is a good example of intentional bad game design choices to intentionally make games worse. It is like the level designer was thinking "Oh all those old levels are so small, plain and have no world around them, let me fix it and make them bigger, more geometry, more detail and actually model some backdrop scenery so you don't look into the void", but then when he was done doing so "Damn I made the game so good, I don't know if the players will be able to handle all of this, let me better just wall it off by using invisible walls, so nobody can ever go there and use it for gameplay, the stupid people from today are not able to handle complex level geometry, they can only navigate simple corridors".
3. Invisible walls to force you following the storyline.
This is more a single player game solution, while point one and two were more for multiplayer games, but not exclusively. Game designers often face the dilemma what to do to force players following the carefully crafted storyline. The elegant solution would be to guide the player so he will figure out by himself where to go and will not want to go back in the storyline, or even if so, let him and design the game so, that he cannot fuck it up, or create natural realistic barriers or reasons the player cannot go there anymore. The ugly bad solution is again, just use an invisible wall and just use brute force to put the player into his place. Well people react differently to being forced into one direction without leaving them freedom of choice, stupid people may tolerate it more, but you can really piss off the more curious type of player with this kind of game design choice. Story based games are a dilemma in itself, which is probably material for an extra article, because a story based game has to give the player the illusion that he has freedom of choice and can influence the game, while in reality, he is just playing an interactive movie that has a pre determined fixed outcome. The game designer has to give the player the illusion of freedom and so long the illusion of freedom is intact the player has a good experience, but an invisible wall can give the game away instantly.
4. Temporary invisible walls.
All the previous examples where fixed invisible walls that were always there, but some games also use temporary invisible walls or just freeze the player into a position. This does not fit the definition of an invisible wall directly, as often the game just freezes the player instead, but for simplicity sake I include this mechanism into this article, since both methods are kind of similar in the outcome. This is similar to point three, as those walls are often used in storyline games. An example would be to lock the player into place or preventing him from going further in order to force him to watch a cutscene or so, I once saw a documentary about game developers and one developer said "We spend so much time on that cutscene, so we just force players to watch it". It is similar to an unlocking system, since the level geometry exists, but is walled of until you are allowed to go there. Another example also involves cutscenes, where they have to put an invisible wall on the cutscene as long as it plays, because it is just for show and cannot be interacted with, only if it finishes, the result of the cutscene is programmed to be interacted with, so the invisible wall will be deactivated when the cutscene is done. This solution is also kind of ugly and a bad choice, a good solution for this would be to make it so the player can interact with the cutscene or create a more legit reason the player cannot go there.
5. Invisible walls for more primitive collisions.
From a game developers perspective there is a difference between visible mesh collision and collision mesh collision. Often used for performance reasons, which is also bad for the gameplay, but kind of necessary at times, but less so nowadays, but otherwise used to prevent complex interactions with the game world. You have to understand as game worlds get more complex in geometry and detail, they theoretically also get more complex about how you can interact with the game world. This however is just in theory, because intractability has to be programmed as well and to save them all that work, game designers often just wall it off with invisible walls, so the level geometry looks detailed, but it cannot be interacted with in all the detail, it is just a thing to look at. This is similar to point two, but the difference is that here there are not sections of the game map that are walled off, but rather individual objects or geometry that is locally walled off, to prevent interaction. Let me tell you about a good example why this is so bad: In the past I used to make levels for the mod Action Half-Life and one of the most fun things was a gamemode we invented ourselves and it was storm the room and it worked as follows: One Team had to capture the room and secure it and the other team had to storm it, often only having one door to go through. Here comes the interesting part, first we played this gamemode on regular maps, but then I started making my own maps, where I added a lot of detail and intractability into the map for example: You could hide behind the sofa, or in the shower, or under the table, you could even open the wardrobe door, go inside and close it again. The storming team had to carefully open the door or use the vent as backdoor and then guess if there is one behind the sofa or inside the wardrobe and then decide whether to use explosives or high caliber rifles to shoot through the wood and kill the hiding player. Let me cut if off here, I could explain even more details, imagine all the gameplay related complexity here and this all in a game that was released 1998, kind of in the gaming stone age, but still the way you could interact with the gameworld was still more complex than most games today and this is because it is intentionally. For example furniture is just there for decoration, you are not supposed to go behind the sofa, under the desk or inside the wardrobe and to make sure you don't go there, some designers even wall it off with invisible walls or similar mechanics, to make sure nobody uses the game world in a way that was not intended and the intention in many games today is that the player is not supposed to have fun, prop models are just props to look at, never to be interacted with unless explicitly necessary for the storyline and some games go even as far as to wall off everything with invisible walls or collision boxes to prevent any finer interaction, the game level is just intended to be a corridor. Of course this all is just idiocy and a bad game design choice. Before I forget, yes there is a legit reason for those types of invisible walls and it is to prevent players or NPCs from getting stuck, as you know the more complex the geometry, the more complex you have to program the AI, so you have to make a compromise somewhere and make your game more primitive at times to prevent bugs.
6. Invisible invisible walls.
I did not really know how to call this, but there are also invisible invisible walls, that are often not even physical, but instead trigger some kind of script, that kills you or prevents you in some way in going further into somewhere you are not supposed to. As game designers figured it is an ugly solution to just put an invisible wall to prevent players from going where they were not supposed to, some instead turned into putting invisible invisible walls where the player would not notice that he passed into a zone where he was not supposed to be which would trigger some game event that would then prevent him from going further. Examples for this would be a simple script kill, or the game would tell you that the outer zone is inhabited by monsters that will kill you if you go there etc. This solution seems to be more elegant than the first solution to put a simple physical obvious invisible wall there, but on the second look it is only slightly better, because it quickly becomes obvious to the player that he is not supposed to go there, some people even see this as a challenge too beat the game developers by beating their unbeatable script system, in which they sometimes even succeed with, through some glitch or loophole, which then again shows what a bad design choice this was, but at least the developers tried. Well I have to admit, this is quite some improvement, because even I often don't know how to make it better, because humans are naturally curious, at least some and they will always try to beat the system as they subconsciously know they are fenced in inside a video game world. If done well and plausible such an invisible invisible wall is hard to detect and will feel very natural. For example in Crysis where even though you had a big open world with an infinite ocean, they would still script kill you when going off the supposed map, by saying they could deactivate your suit aka kill you, which was plausible within the game and a legit thing, even though I would say that game did not have the necessity to do so, because they already solved the problem by having a fully accessible game world surrounded by an infinite ocean, so they could just have let the player roam freely, but somehow they still chose to do this, well at least it was plausible and did fit within the game.
So I think those were all kinds of invisible walls, I try to categorize them as good as possible, but many things often overlap as I described already in certain points.
Let me get to the final conclusion, from a game design standpoint having invisible walls is often kind of a legit decision, even though it is bad game design. How is that possible? Well game designers have to consider to appeal to a large audience, which means also the stupid people, which there are plenty and stupid people cannot handle freedom that well, they get confused and angry, so they need to wall them in and force them into the storyline. It was always kind of confusing to me that humans were so different and I could not understand that people would love an intentional dumbed down game more than a complex one. Through some of my own experiences I can confirm and partly understand why. I used to make some levels for the game Far Cry to play in private on LAN against others, I did so because the levels that came with the game were too boring and not complex. So what I did was to make a level as complex and detailed as possible and I found the more complex and detailed, the better. One map was a simple jungle hut where the player was as big as a mouse and the hut was filled with almost all the prop models the editor had to offer, it was a super cramped untidy apartment and everything was prepped with planks and mouse holes, so you could get under and behind the cupboards, walk up and down, behind and under, so an experienced player could get around the map almost unseen and kill everyone in a sneaky way. Another map was an extremely dense jungle, so dense that you could only see a few meters, leaving only a few landmarks with a bit more open space, which meant you really had to rely on your orientation and hearing to survive in that map. To make a long story short, I ran a private dedicated server and occasionally random people joined so I wanted to play with them, but most did not like the new, much better, much more complex and better looking levels, some even said "Please make mp_surf" or some kind of other boring default map. I really found that weird, why don't people like better levels that offer much better gameplay? Simple reason, it makes them feel stupid, which they are. Of course playing a regular game also makes them feel stupid, as they will likely lose, but they will feel much more confident on for example a map they know well. A stupid random player probably will feel worse the better the level and the gameplay gets, because the more the game becomes a real challenge and the more you have to use your brain, the more stupid people will feel stupid.
So because when stupid people will feel stupid, they will not like to play the game, so modern game designers have to design games so that they appeal to stupid people, so the game cannot be too complex and challenging. In order to design games idiot friendly, the developers have to put invisible walls everywhere, similar to the way human babies are given a playpen, where they can roam "freely" without hurting themselves and feeling stupid. Of course video games are more a thing for human children, but they are supposed to train you for real life, which is not possible if games are designed without freedom to do wrong things or just to experiment.
Invisible walls of course do not solely exist, because of the customers dumbing down, it is kind of half because the developers are bad, like lazy design where they cannot do it properly and just wall it off and the other half because they have to put invisible walls there, to prevent stupid people from feeling stupid. The problem with it however is, that while on the one hand invisible walls make games more casual friendly, it will on the other hand piss off the pro gamer, but the casuals are the majority, so most game designers chose to appeal to the casuals, which results in a worse game.
I just had a vision of metaphorical invisible walls that are inside peoples heads and the invisible walls inside video games are just a projection into the outside world of what is inside most peoples heads. When I design games or more like game levels I just materialize what I invented inside my head. My vision probably just led me to the probably prime reason why invisible walls are such a bad game design, because they defeat the primary reason video games exist and this is to do things you cannot do in real life. You know in real life you cannot do everything, well you can, much more like in video games, but it has such serious consequences that you basically can't do those things or at least many of them only once, this is where video games are so great, in video games you can just do freely what you want without real consequences, however this is where the bad game design choice of invisible walls comes in and destroys all the fun by preventing you from doing what you want, especially from going anywhere you want, well and this is why invisible walls are a bad game design choice.