image: The Path (Tale of Tales, 2009)

> There is a CASTLE to the NORTH. The ROAD to the castle curves to the EAST.


> You can’t go that way.


We’ve all done it, taken the shortcut across a field or campus instead of the purpose-built sidewalk. That shortcut formed by hundreds of walking feet is called a “desire line” (aka “desire path”) and reflects human common sense when navigating across a landscape. We see these paths all the time in the natural world, so I started thinking about whether or not desire lines/paths exist in the synthetic, namely in video games.

Video games are digital built environments and so are largely designed spaces governed by rules created and implemented by their developers/coders. For most games, players have limited choices of where to go and what to do within the confines of a screen. Side-scrollers (e.g., Super Mario Bros.) allow players to move left, right, up, and down as they negotiate hazards and retrieve rewards. Text-based games (e.g., Zork) allow players to type commands, but only certain commands would work in a given scenario. We observe designed navigation through space, as well as designed navigation through narrative. But some players what more than that, more freedom to explore the game as they want to see it, not as the designers prescribed it. This could be classed as “counterplay,” which means that players intentionally test the rules of the game, finding ways to circumnavigate them.

Desire path (image: , The Hollywood Walker)

There are games that do allow for more natural methods of wayfinding and gameplay, namely “open worlds”(e.g., Fallout 4 as pictured below). Open world games typically contain massive landscapes across which players can travel, often finding quests, places, NPCs, and antagonists tucked away behind hills and in forests. Players have the opportunity to decide how to get from Point A to Point B on the map, and can often find Points C, D, and Z along the way. With Fallout 4 (below), roads connect major points of interest, but it is not necessary (or even safe) to follow them. Instead players cut across the landscape, often seeking the least costly way to make the trip while ultimately straying from that imaginary line connecting the two points in order to explore or to fight. But even though millions of players have experienced post-apocalyptic Bostonia, they have left no trace of these desire lines between points. Bethesda Softworks designers did not add in paths over time. The world seems new, as if no other passersby had attempted to take shortcuts. The fact that games such as Fallout 4 also feature a “fast-travel” mechanic (i.e., teleportation) between places visited by the player means that there might not be a need for desire lines at all within the gamespace. And what are desire paths but the physical remains of erosion and use, which can be imitated in games, but do not actually happen. The game’s imagined physics omits this. In most games, people have no weight and leave no marks on the world. It’s not important to the narrative, and takes resources to maintain, leading to an “expensive” design decision. Desire lines do exist in open worlds, but they are strictly in the player’s mind as it considers the map.

Concord, MA, regional map, Fallout 4 (image:

Thinking about the differences between didactic side-scrollers and more forgiving open worlds, I was wondering if open worlds evolved because players wanted that extra freedom of movement and choice. After a quick survey of the earliest open world games, this is clearly not the case. Some would consider 1977’s Colossal Cave Adventure to be an open world. The Legend of Zelda (1986) is a classic example. These games were being developed side-by-side with other types of games catering to players of all kinds. For some people, mastering the rules of a game for the most efficient possible play-through is the key. For others, spending time watching the sun set over an alien landscape is just as big a motivation. The desire lines rest within (and between) each player and the marketplace.

So if desire lines remain invisible to players, do they not exist at all? I’m not so sure. One can look at node maps for games created in Twine (see below) to see how all player-choices relate to each other.

Node map for the Twine game, Escape from the Crazy Place (image: J. J. Guest et al.)

Most games will have decision trees and rules for artificial intelligence to help in decision-making based on what the player does. Perhaps one could map AI behavior of NPCs, watching them walk back in forth in their environment, creating a visualization of the designed pathway. Anything around that designed pathway becomes a desire line, a way to avoid the NPC without actively engaging it. Maybe with games a desire line is not something people take again and again, but is an individual’s decision to avoid the intended path, and to do something else in order to accomplish a game’s goal in a way unanticipated by the developers. But that’s desire: we want that which we were not given.

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming


  1. In the Animal Crossing series, grass deteriorates over time in places that you often run. The game, however, doesn’t feature any intended paths for the player to use, and it is up to the player to decide if and where they want paths to be. Outside of the lengthy process of dirt paths the player can lay patterns down on the ground to act as roads, but the only options there are vertical and horizontal paths, so if the player needs to get someplace fast they may end up subverting their own intended path in favor of the quicker route.

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