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.