Somewhere in the early 1990s, the console-style adventure game got sort of codified, with Super Metroid as the main reference point. The ideal form, as wisdom had it, gradually opened up the world to the player as the player gathered new and usually tactile abilities, the better to traverse the world’s obstacles. Basically it’s a lock-and-key system, except instead of the green doors requiring green keys they demand super missiles and instead of unlocking the next section you climb or swing or blast your way there, once you’ve the right abilities.
This system is valid enough, and when done well it can be fairly invisible. You notice somewhere that you can’t go, and after trying everything in your power you remember your failure. So when you get a power that might let you past that obstacle, you race back to put it to use. The clever thing is that usually this new ability generally improves the player’s character, and slots into the existing move set naturally enough that soon the player kind of forgets that ability hadn’t been there the whole time.
This design’s appeal rests in an illusion of problem solving that makes the player feel clever and involved, when in fact the game is manipulating the whole situation, blocking off whole areas of its world until it figures the player may be growing bored of his current situation and powers.
This system — walling the player off until the game, or rather the designer, feels the player is ready, doling the game out in parcels measured both to prevent confusion and to manage enthusiasm and flow — has always bothered me. Mostly it feels transparent and mechanical. Its worst offenders, like Wind Waker with its inventory full of nearly identical items that each only is useful in one part of the game, raise too many questions. Why can’t I go down here? Because the game doesn’t want me to. Why can’t I open this? Because the game doesn’t want me to. Why can’t I just use the grapple instead of the hookshot? Because the game wasn’t designed that way.
A better way to limit progress is to put most of the onus on the player. Let the player decide when he’s ready to progress, and then be it on his own head. If he gets lost, or injured, or killed, or confused, that’s his decision. Let the player form his own rules: “Okay, the forest is too dangerous and is kind of scary; keep away for now.” And then later “Hey, I’m stronger and I have more resources; maybe I can risk the forest now.”
This is the system that you find in the original Zelda, and in Dragon Warrior. It’s what you get in Lost in Blue, and to an extent in Riven. And it’s more or less how Daniel Remar organized Hero Core.