Monthly Archives: October 2015

Opinion – Crossing the River the Second Time was Better

You can’t go home again….but that’s okay.

Over the past two months, I’ve played through the entire Starcraft series, beaten Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, and am now working on Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. In short, I’ve recently spend a lot of time playing games of the past. Interestingly, the last two (Oblivion and Skyrim) were games that I didn’t really like, yet the second playthrough turned me around on them. I still have the same issues with the games, but now I have information.

There is one moment that defined Oblivion for me. After repeatedly scraping by in fights, I came across a Will-o-Wisp blocking a cave. I survived up until that point by running through doors and sleeping off my grievous wounds which, foolishly, the game wouldn’t let me do if a monster was inflicting said wounds at the time. In short, I needed to kill the Will-o-Wisp to secure a safe sleeping area so I had a chance at the dungeon. After repeated failures, I set the difficultly down and killed the now super nerfed enemy. It felt like failure. Sure, the developer included the difficulty slider for just that purpose, but that loss both showed I was incapable of beating the game as intended and condemned me to futzing with the challenge. Oblivion lost its hold on me and I moved on to other games.

In my most recent playthrough, I ran across the same dungeon. If I were being dramatic, I might say I was on a quest for revenge, but really I was just waltzing through the countryside. I came upon the monster, fought it a few times, and finally felled the beast. What was different? I now know how to play the game. The player inevitably first plays through a game suboptimally. They misallocate skill points, don’t understand puzzles, or expend resources before they need to. Oblivion punished that via its approach to challenge (see here) where if the player made a few bad choices, they were dramatically weaker than their opponents. Understanding how that mechanic worked made the game easier and more enjoyable. I could address weaknesses early and prevent the pitfalls that plagued my first game. I knew what to expect which made it easier for me to get what I wanted from my time.

Speaking of expectations, having previous experience with the game allowed me to set my general expectations beyond difficulty. Oftentimes you’ll see the above phrase, or one like it, mentioned in terms of the hype a game receives before it launches. Marketing materials and games journalists (not to mention friends) set unreasonable expectations that no game could meet. I’m not talking about that. Instead, I’m talking about a solid understanding of what the game has to offer and an acceptance of any flaws as an inherent part of the experience. Case and point: the reason I didn’t like Skyrim. After climbing to the top of the mage faction and defeating a hellish Dragon Priest, Bethesda thought the appropriate reward was to give me an infinite number of fetch quests and repeatedly have the town guard ask if I was new in town. The game didn’t recognize my achievements and that bothered me greatly. I can’t really get annoyed about that during my second playthrough, because I knew about it going in. That’s baseline knowledge. Me picking up the game is an acknowledgement that, despite how frustrated I felt, I accept that part of the game. That understanding and acceptance made it easier to play.

When the gaming community talks about going back to a game, the conversation typically centers on whether or not the game holds up. I’m certainly guilty of that. We should take a step back and realize that the second playthrough is not like the first. It has certain benefits (and negatives) that can change the experience dramatically. Perhaps we should even question if our conception of a game “holding up” isn’t effected by the fact that we’ve played it before. We’re not testing the game as if it were brand new, rather, we’re approaching it with experienced eyes. As you see above, that can change our view of a game in substantial ways.


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Opinion – Gamers Ruin Stories

You’re all just jerks.

Gaming as a medium is unique in its capacity to involve the user. Whereas movies, books, painting, and music leave user involvement in their product firmly in the user’s world, games incorporate the user’s actions. The artist must always share their vision with the thousands of punks who played it. Inevitably, the artistic vision is diluted. In this article, I’ll show how player involvement makes telling stories difficult.

A great deal goes into the narrative beyond the dialogue and written story components. One of the most effective ways of telling a story is via the atmosphere it creates. Ruined walls and desiccated corpses say more about an ancient dungeon than an NPC saying “this dungeon is old” ever could. They work together to build a mood that adds greater context to everything the player experiences. At least, until the actual game starts. The challenge of a game never seems to calibrate with the story the game is telling. When the game is too easy, the spooky dungeon that claimed a thousand adventurers feels hollow. When the game is too hard, the player feels weak and decidedly unheroic. Making the balancing act more difficult is the wide variance in skill between players. Even if we assume skill on a simplified scale of newbie to master, the extremes and all points in between represent the target the developer must hit to convey their narrative. Adding the complexity back in, player skill also varies based on the type of challenge and the character they’ve created. Hitting the sweet spot where the player’s challenge reflects the narrative is impossible.

Beyond the capacity to overcome a particular challenge, the player also approaches each level in a way that often breaks the narrative. In order to overcome challenges, add convenience, or just because they feel like it, the player often acts in narrative breaking ways to achieve their personal goals. One of the most common examples is exploring mountains in a BethesdaSoft game. Just about every player jumps up against the mountains hoping to find a pixel that they can use to launch themselves higher. A normal human in the context of that narrative would probably just walk around. The narrative of bravely exploring an untamed wilderness is turned into a pixel hunt for the lazy. Players also repeatedly disobey instructions, hunt around for collectibles, and do asinine things like jump on NPC’s heads just to see if they can. Trying to preserve a story in the face of an uncooperative player is practically impossible.

Player’s aren’t just screwing up other people’s stories; they’re also telling their own. Players create stories in their heads about their characters and the worlds they inhabit that may conflict with the developer’s vision. From small tweaks to major changes, players are constantly revising, reinterpreting, and totally ignoring the plans laid out by the developer. Consumers of media have always done this to a certain degree, but the freedom of video games allows them act out the stories they’re imagining in the context of an existing story. Games with a focused narrative experience will inevitably have trouble matching their story with the player’s unless they are able to convince the player to join in on the developer’s vision. Consider the nature of dialogue options. Any number of games allow the player to choose their dialogue, but the player often doesn’t see the dialogue they want. This speaks to one of the most difficult aspects of storytelling in games: the developer is effectively writing a story with thousands of people whom they will never meet.

Telling stories in games is hard, but that’s also why it can be so rewarding. When the developer succeeds in getting the player to commit to a story and world, the player has the chance to live in that space. The games enthralls the player for its capacity to deliver on a vision the player wants.  If only the player would cooperate.

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Opinion – Ease of Play vs. Fun

Press lever, get pellet.

I recently completed a simple, little game called Game Corp DX. The basic idea is that the player controls a nascent video game development studio and must lead it to success and triple A gaming. I can’t say I had a lot of fun with this game, yet I invested a couple of otherwise productive hours into it. I did this because of the systems inherent in the game that make it easy to play, even if it’s not fun. Game Corp DX makes clear the distinction between a game that smoothly works the player through its systems (easy to play) and one that gives the player joy through its systems (fun).

The game begins by starting the player off with a small office and a few resources. By providing a helpful hints and obvious goals, Game Corp DX leads the player towards success in bit sized chunks. This prevents the player from being overwhelmed by the introduction of new mechanics and provides a clear metric by which the player can measure their progress. Game Corp DX doles out challenge in a way that clearly marks the path to success and so short circuits the frustration of not knowing what to do next. It also gives the player a non-stop succession of quickly achievable missions to always push them forward. In short, the game is designed to weed out all of the natural stopping points that cause most players to move on to something else. At no point has the player accomplished a major task or run up against an insurmountable wall that would encourage them to stop. There is always an easily achievable task waiting for the player joined with a tiny boost of success. Game Corp DX is easy to play because it is designed to be a smooth walk to inevitable victory.

Yet the game is totally unsatisfying. When the missions stopped, so did I. If something had caused me quit the game earlier, I doubt I would have picked it up again. The same traits that made the game so easy to play also undermined the joy that I might have derived from it.

Fun from a game often comes from the return on what the player invests into the game. The nature of the investment varies substantially. Sometimes it’s an emotional investment into the characters and their stories. Sometimes the player invests time and effort into improving their skills to overcome challenges and figure out puzzles. Investment may even come in the form of simply walking around and enjoying the sights. Regardless of what type of investment the player makes, the have to make one if the rewards created by the game are to have meaning. Game Corp DX never asks much from the player, including the all-important investment. There is no story to explore, no environment to discover, and little challenge to overcome. Every victory in the game is a tiny mote of success that is only slightly more than the small amount of effort invested in achieving it. Player investment is little more than the time it would take to go do something else. When the player overcomes that hump, they have no reason to return.

I beat Game Corp DX in a couple of hours while seeing all the game had to offer. I have few memories of the game and no desire to return to it. It was never fun for me because my investment never exceeded its convenience. That being said, it has much to teach about ease of play. Game Corp DX has a smooth difficulty curve and deftly teaches its mechanics. I just wish it had something more.

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