On Doors in Games

by wsampson

It’s been a while since I’ve written about games here. This is a draft post from a few years ago; on rereading I think it’s worthwhile.

Doors in Penumbra: Overture

Some time ago, I started playing Penumbra: Overture, the debut first-person horror-adventure title from Frictional Games. I never finished the game or ever played very far in, but I wanted to comment on a satisfying mechanic seen early in the game: manual manipulation of objects — but particularly hinged, swinging doors.

Yes, I’m going to talk about doors in a video game, but I’m certainly not the first.

A little background on the game. Penumbra: Overture shares the perspective and control scheme of first-person shooters (WASD keys and a mouse), and although one combats enemies, this is not a first-person shooter. Your avatar, one Philip stuck in an abandoned mine, has panic attacks when he confronts enemies: breathing contracts, vision is marred, and Philip may stand and reveal himself in a nervous outbreak. Combat is similarly frantic and amateurish. Outside of doors, a player can manually slide, slam, stack, etc., various objects in the game by clicking and holding them, and then moving them onscreen with the mouse. This leads to some physics-based puzzles and object manipulation, and provides a strong sense of analog mechanics at work in the world.

Doors in First-Person Shooters

Let’s return to the operation of doors in the game. It makes design sense that so few (if any) first-person shooters contain hinged doors opened by degrees with a mouse. If the central activity is gunplay or melee, operating a door is a distraction.

Apart from gameplay, it is computationally much more expedient to implement a simple sliding or pocket door. This door will use the same animation every time, and if the game runs a genuine 3D engine, it may remove the need for on-the-fly numbers crunching. In a pseudo-3D system such as seen in the original Wolfenstein 3D, implementing a hinged door would be absurdly difficult and perhaps technically impossible. Thus the player is confronted with the same door sliding door for the entirety of the game and its sequel, from the opening jailbreak setting to officers’ quarters, secret labs and bunkers. Whatever the fiction of the setting, the door never changes.

Going back to gameplay however, a sliding or pocket door features only two states for the player: open or closed. Instead of the player encountering a panel on hinges which he or she must manipulate by degrees to pass through, the player encounters a flat, essentially 2D barrier (even in the case of more modern titles like Halo) that only needs a single button press (if that) to open. The player passes through such doors completely or not at all. Even when it is opening and visually between open and closed, it is functionally closed; when it is seen to be closing it is still absolutely closed and impassable. Many games that feature hinged doors use a preset animation, or use it as a loading screen (Resident Evil). In all cases, doors are a binary gate.

And this is acceptable. It is of course the point of doors, to let something in or out, or keep it in or out. We didn’t make doors for them to be halfway open, although as it happens many are.

Doors of this type are found in numerous older first-person shooters: Blake Stone, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Rise of the Triad. Even a modern title like the aforementioned Halo, which could easily implement a hinged door, has no need to do so. Esoteric or exotic settings have their clear attractions as game worlds for players, but they arguably have equally if not more compelling attractions for programmers, developers and designers. Automatic, two-state doors are infinitely easier to implement than a board that swings, by degrees, on hinges, and it’s reasonable to expect to find such doors in science fiction or otherwise futuristic settings. By that time superior door-tech  would have eliminated any instances of halfway open doors.

(This of course goes into the long tradition of technical constraints informing a game’s fiction. I have a growing mental catalog, from Mario’s design to the preponderance of bald space marines.)

Immersion and a Hinged Door

So Penumbra: Overture‘s doors can be neither entirely open nor entirely closed. Why is that so interesting?

I’m sure some of my interest has to do with how such creaky, realistically old doors contribute to the atmosphere of the game. But it’s also jarring to see something in a middle state, a state that’s not precisely describable. I could say the door is open just a crack, or mostly open, or even halfway open, but these are not absolutes like open and closed. I can have any number of different views into the next room depending on these highly adjustable degrees, as I try to imagine what is still obscured by the door panel.

It is the mundanity of operating the door, and of noticing the space it occupies, which is so compelling. Taking the time to operate the door feels slightly unreal – I’ve never had to think about opening a door in a game, and I mean really think about moving the hinged board over. Each door is opened differently, depending on my angle to it and the position of my mouse. Having to concentrate on this, however briefly, immerses one into the game unexpectedly, and reifies the world suggested onscreen.

Considering again the automatic sliding and pocket doors of first-person shooters: their prime function is to demarcate rooms and divide the player’s challenges appropriately. They reinforce the gameness of the world in that way, in their ability to be completely in the way or completely out of the way. Penumbra: Overture‘s developers do make use of their doors in gameplay. In some cases one needs to block the door from a pursuer. The tension here is that the door returns to its original binary function: it will either be open for the pursuer or closed, and one can watch as the door, by degrees, is forced open. Frequently however the doors are simply wonderfully described objects that exist in the game, outside of your immediate concerns.

This leads me to wonder what other games have used mundane details or provided interactions utterly unrelated to the central gameplay to enhance the realness of the world (and I do not count side quests and such as are found in RPGs: they almost all have very applicable benefits for the player)?

In any case, that lack of a definite state is refreshing, as it happens so little in games. When opponents are felled in a shooter, they are almost always absolutely felled: you do not often maim an opponent with an errant shot and have to deal with his or her suffering. Levels are completely finished, quests are definitely open or closed, achievements are either unlocked or locked, etc. How often can one badly hurt an opponent, and then move on to the next area? If you came back, would it still be there — would you have to hit the opponent a few more times to finish the job? This is the sort unsavory midway point games have dealt so well in discarding, one could argue games have to discard this aspect of our lives to be games at all. In any case, so many games belong in the province of fantasy that dealing in totalities makes thematic (along with the aforementioned technical) sense. Still, it is awfully nice to engage with a world where a few mechanics, at least, are not figured in such absolutes.