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Game elements that hinder players from taking the shortest route between two places in game worlds.

One definition of playing a game is "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles"[1]. This can be applied literally by requiring that navigation in Game Worlds take into consideration diegetically present physical Obstacles. Often the Obstacles may be moved, destroyed, or avoided by specific actions but until this has been done (and it has become possible to do so), the Obstacles slow or block the players' progress in the game.


A typical kind of Obstacles are locked doors that require keys of various kinds. Examples of games that have this include The Legend of Zelda series, the Doom series, the Super Mario series, and the Leisure Suit Larry series.

Walls are Obstacles to both movement and laser firing in the board game RoboRally. It also stops movement in Ricochet Robots but here this can be advantageous since the robots cannot stop in any other way, and choosing the right walls (and other robots) to collide with is the only way to reach the goal destinations.

Most of the problems in the Portal series include finding ways of moving past obstacles by manipulating game objects and creating "portals" between different parts of levels. The Red Faction series also contain Obstacles in the form of walls, floors, and ceilings but these can be destroyed by players to give new access routes. In contrast, the board game Space Alert begins with no Obstacles to player movement in a space ship, but these can occur as effects of damage.

Using the pattern

Obstacles are most often created by making sufficiently large Diegetically Tangible Game Items. These may any type of Game Items, but Cosmetic Game Items and Props are examples that will be primarily experienced as Obstacles since they have little or no other effects on gameplay. Installations are worth pointing out in that they are naturally immobile while Avatars and Units are also worth pointing since they are highly mobile. A weaker form Obstacles, where the shortest route can still be taken but is not as efficient as taking a circumstantial route, can be created by Environmental Effects that give Movement Limitations; using Damage or Decreased Abilities provide weaker examples still since they do not actually hinder Movement but make passing through them into Risk/Reward considerations. Invisible Walls are also Obstacles but these may not even be noticed by players if they follow the routes intended by game designers. While Obstacles can be used in any type of areas, they can in general challenge players more in Vehicle Sections since higher speed are likely there.

The choice of Obstacles determines how players can bypass it, if at all. Privileged Movement that lets players ignore them while still maintaining their status as Obstacles to others. Making them Destructible Objects provides players with options of Game Element Removal by Damaging them - being able to do this can be a form of Privileged Abilities. However, any kind of Destructible Object can result in Obstacles being created when it is destroyed, so the two patterns can be used to modify each other. Having Moveable Tiles as Obstacles make bypassing them a question of waiting or Timing. While Moveable Tiles can be Obstacles they can also be modulated by Obstacles if they can be used to change the movement direction of the Tiles, and this creates a form of Indirect Control.

Obstacles that are Conditional Passageways blocking the way to Inaccessible Areas are often linked to Controllers that can remove them; the Controllers can either simply be Switches that need to be found or be game elements that need specific Resources or Tools (e.g. keys or key cards). Another option is to give players Privileged Abilities to ignore the Obstacles. If the Obstacles can be removed by players that have reached the far side of them, the Conditional Passageways provide a way to create Quick Returns.

Typically, Obstacles that do not act as boundaries for Inaccessible Areas can be avoided by taking longer routes, even if it is simply walking around a boulder or tree. Note that Obstacles can also be a large areas, for example mountains or chasms. While Obstacles affect how Avatars and Units can move in Game Worlds, Avatars and Units can be Obstacles to each other if they are Diegetically Tangible Game Items. Obstacles are usually not deadly to Avatars or Units, but can be so when colliding with them can cause Damage.

While blocking access to areas or creating detours are probably the most common reasons for placing Obstacles in Game Boards, Game Worlds, or Levels, but they can also be placed to create Transport Routes or Secret Areas simply by making these areas more difficult to notice.

Warp Zones have a complex relation to Obstacles. Having them present from the beginning can invalidate the Obstacles as hindering Movement or Line of Sight, but letting players open or create the Warp Zones during gameplay, as is the characteristic gameplay mechanic in the Portal series, provide the necessary building blocks for creating a spatial form of Puzzle Solving.

Diegetic Aspects

If Obstacles are placed so they only become apparent when they are close, typically through a combination of high speed and turning corners, they give rise to Surprises.

In games building their gameplay extensively on Rhythm-Based Actions, Obstacles are sometimes used as diegetic game elements that provide collisions between them and the players' Avatars as thematic explanations for the failures.


Obstacles create Movement Limitations in how Avatars and Units can perform Movement or Maneuvering in Game Boards, Game Worlds, or Levels. They can also affect Aim & Shoot since they can block Line of Sight if they are not transparent, and this can make places with a view over the area worse as Sniper Locations while making the places themselves better as Sniper Locations. They can also force players to perform Leaps of Faith since they may not be able to see the areas they are moving into (this most often occurs with Movement such as Jumping or teleporting instead of "ordinary" Movement). The Obstacles that are created by Environmental Effects and that provide Ability Losses, Decreased Abilities, or Damage do instead raise Risk/Reward considerations. By having these effects, they naturally are Diegetically Outstanding Features even if this can be enhanced by their visual presentation. Depending on the size of the Obstacles, they can also make Game World Exploration, Game World Navigation, and Traverse difficult simply because they can make it difficult to get an overview of one's surroundings. By using these features and being placed strategically, Obstacles can modulate Movement to offer Challenging Gameplay by creating Choke Points. When the Obstacles block the Choke Points rather than define them but can be removed in some fashion, this instead creates Conditional Passageways and Eliminate goals if the Obstacles are Destructible Objects. Intentionally or not, Obstacles can create Secret Areas by occluding them.

While all Obstacles are Diegetically Tangible Game Items, the reverse is not true since some game items can be stepped over or onto, or can easily be moved aside. Obstacles can be Surprises if they appear suddenly from the players' perspective. When happens, they can effectively be Traps if collisions can cause Damage or provide other negative effects. If their appearance are Irreversible Events, they can enforce One-Way Travel through making retracing ones steps impossible.

Skillful players may be able to bypass more than one Obstacle at the same time or without requiring more Resources than if the Obstacles were not present. This is an expression of Gameplay Mastery made possible by, depending on the nature of the Obstacles, players Timing their actions (e.g. moving between moving objects), them performing Dexterity-Based Actions (e.g. avoiding stationary objects and other vehicles when driving), or by succeeding with Puzzle Solving (e.g. finding the most cost efficient route).

Non-transparent Obstacles give rise to Imperfect Information in a game since players or Agents can be hindered from knowing what happens behind the Obstacles. This also makes Obstacles basic building elements for Hiding Places.


Can Instantiate

Choke Points, Dexterity-Based Actions, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Gameplay Mastery, Hiding Places, Imperfect Information, Inaccessible Areas, Leaps of Faith, Movement Limitations, Puzzle Solving, Secret Areas, Surprises, Timing, Transport Routes

with Choke Points

Conditional Passageways, Eliminate

with Environmental Effects


with Irreversible Events

One-Way Travel

with Moveable Tiles

Indirect Control

with Movement

Challenging Gameplay

with Surprises


with Switches

Conditional Passageways

with Warp Zones

Puzzle Solving

Can Modulate

Aim & Shoot, Avatars, Challenging Gameplay, Destructible Objects, Game Boards, Game World Exploration, Game World Navigation, Game Worlds, Maneuvering, Movement, Moveable Tiles, Levels, Line of Sight, Rhythm-Based Actions, Sniper Locations, Traverse, Units, Vehicle Sections

Can Be Instantiated By

Avatars, Cosmetic Game Items, Diegetically Tangible Game Items, Environmental Effects, Installations, Invisible Walls, Moveable Tiles, Props, Units

Can Be Modulated By

Damage, Destructible Objects, Game Element Removal, Privileged Abilities, Privileged Movement, Warp Zones

Possible Closure Effects

with Destructible Objects

Game Element Removal

Potentially Conflicting With

Warp Zones


An updated version of the pattern Obstacles that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[2].


  1. Suits, B. (2005). The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press. ISBN 155111772X
  2. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.