Tools can serve as immersion-breakers too, since their paths tend to be highly telegraphed. Theif's crowbar doesn't allow the player to open every window in the city, just the ones with a glowing crack, the universal sign of "break in here." (Doesn't a house having lights on usually mean someone's home and you shouldn't break in?) Likewise, the socket wrench only works on specific vents. Garrett can't latch the claw onto buildings unless they've got a glowing grating. While Thief's toolset was intended to deepen our sense of sneaking through the City on a backstage tour, instead they call attention to all the windows you can't open.
The Arkham games, in contrast, did much better by letting the gadgets work anywhere, but with unsuccessful results. Sure, you can Bat-Zipline across the utility closet or use explosive gel on that wall - it's just not going to do much.
But the tools we've discussed mostly deal with access. They're door-openers, essentially glorified versions of the red and blue keycards from Doom. However, tools play a more active and broadly applicable role in the emerging sector of survival games. Minecraft's tools let the player reshape the world for the purpose of creativity or self-defense. Similarly, you won't last long without tools in Don't Starve, and many recent survival horror games such as Amnesia and Outlast have played with light sources and cameras being the player's primary means of avoiding death. These tools are broadly useful in their ability to alter (or reveal) the environment - like real tools, they have many functions rather than one, and often yield more materials the player can use. Tools in survival games also work via basic logic and trial-and-error. Sure, you could you use that shovel to chop down a tree, but you'll waste your time and ruin your shovel. Better to use an ax.
What sets tools apart from weapons is that while a weapon can only destroy, a tool can create as well. You can lure enemies into a pit or build defenses like in Minecraft. Climb walls with the proximity mines in Deus Ex. Drag chairs in front of doors or set up obstacles in front of the monsters in Amnesia. All these objects change their environment and allow emergent gameplay, becoming storytelling props rather than mere elements. There are thirty-five guns in Call of Duty: Ghosts and they all essentially perform the same function. But a tool? Each tool does something unique. Each tool tells a story. They dig canyons and level mountains. They make and unmake. They're a more effective weapon than most weapons.
You can kill a man with a shovel, but you can't dig a hole with a rifle.
Playing with tools - either instead of or in addition to weapons - is an experience I always enjoy, and I hope Minecraft's success helps them circulate into more mainstream genres. In fact, in lieu of a tenth gun in my arsenal, I'd much prefer something that could affect the environment and help me either collect resources or find novel solutions. Watch Dogs went in this direction with its hacking, but most environmental interactions were contextual rather than free-flowing. Wolfenstein: The New Order's LKW pushes into this realm too, since it isn't only an excellent grate-remover, chain-breaker and secret box-opener, but its cutting mode can also silently stun enemies who notice you sneaking up on them long enough to execute a takedown. Far Cry 4 promises a wing suit, a grappling hook and even animal bait, all of which could lead to creative problem solving. The Hitman series, with its emphasis on finding creative solutions with found objects, pushes the envelope as well. But as companies further exploit the processing power in PCs and next-gen consoles, I hope we can start constructing and deconstructing environments more often.
After all, humans are tool-using creatures. Would anything be more natural?
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.