Thursday, August 08, 2013

Gleeful Gaming

So, I've been thinking about games that make me feel glee.

"Fun" is such an awful term, because it's so vague and wishy-washy. Every game feels different, and most of them are at least somewhat fun. Let's talk about one kind of fun in particular: glee.

Glee is a pretty rare thing to find in games. It's easy to find games that make you smile, or laugh, or shout in triumph... but it's really uncommon to find a game that gives you the kind of lighthearted joy I'm talking about.

Katamari Damacy did it. Playing Katamari Damacy was always such a gleeful experience. At least until they started adding in missions like "pick up all the hot things but not the cold things". At that point, the game lost that gleeful feeling for me, although it continued to be fun in other ways.

On the other hand, Saints Row III started off fun in other ways, but became more and more gleeful as the game went on. I had problems with that game - especially the pacing - but it was one of the rare, treasured gleeful experiences.

Kerbal Space Program is gleeful, too. Building a ridiculous rocket and trying to get to the outer planets with a heavy space station is the same kind of gleeful experience as trying to fly between two bridges in a VTOL while dressed in a pink tuxedo. To me, they feel the same.

But lots of games you might expect to be gleeful, aren't. Angry Birds is fun, but never gleeful. Mass Effect: fun, not gleeful. Racing games: fun, not gleeful.

I think for me to feel glee, there has to be an open constructive element to the game. There can be missions and objectives, there can be constraints, but they have to accept the constructions and choices I've made.

In Katamari's standard missions, exploring the levels is fun because the context is always changing. Even if I come back in a later play-through and explore it again, being bigger or smaller or coming in from a different direction can change the experience so much! By accepting my construction - size, direction - it makes me feel like it's playing with me, rather than against me. On the other hand, in Katamari's challenge missions, it's usually a matter of trying to find the one best path within the time limit. Fun, but highly restrictive and not interested in what I have to say for myself.

SR3 was also gleeful. There were plenty of missions and constraints, but in most cases it let me roll into the mission with whatever character I had built. That includes body, clothes, personality... but also upgrades and weapons. In fact, the irritating missions in SR3 are universally the ones where you have to use the provided weapons to protect the provided NPC health level. These were not simply hard: they were annoying, because they rejected my character choices in favor of providing their own.

Kerbal, of course, almost goes without saying. The whole game is built around letting you provide the construction for the gameplay part.

The three examples I gave are very goofy, but I don't think goofyness is actually a core part of feeling glee. I have felt glee at non-goofy games.

For example, Dragon's Dogma. Not a goofy game, but I felt a lot of glee running around that world. Again, that's probably because the gameplay accepted my constructions, accepted my choices.

As a counter-example to show the fine detail of how this works and fails to work: Sim City games do not make me feel glee. Their simulations are too aggressive, and rather than accept my choices, they punish me for choosing things they don't like. So it's not gleeful at all, although it is fun.

"But Kerbal has that kind of system, too!" you say. Well, that's true: in Kerbal, it is very easy to build a rocket "the way you want" only to have it explode violently. But in Kerbal, the iteration is very short and the punishment is hilariously fun. If you do something Sim City doesn't like, you spend ten hours getting slowly punished for it. If you do something Kerbal doesn't like, you explode five feet off the launch pad and watch all your rockets go spinning off every which way. Moreover, you can then go right back to your rocket design and tweak it, while in Sim City that's not as easy to do due to the difficulty of editing a city and the very long delays before you get a good grasp on whether something is working out.

In all of these games, the times when I lose that gleeful feeling are the times when the game steals my time away because of something I didn't realize would happen. The big annoyance in Dragon's Dogma? Falling off a cliff and having to revert to a save from fifteen minutes ago. In Kerbal? Landing on the Mun only to find that the hatch "is obstructed" by something and won't open. In Saints Row 3? Hm... I don't think I ever felt irritated at that game, except at the low number of clothing options.

As far as I can tell, here are the tenets for making me feel glee:

1) I must be able to construct my avatar. Not necessarily entirely freely, but with very little effort. Whether this is in customizing clothes, building my rocket, gaining skills, or just changing my size and position in a lasting, meaningful way.

2) Challenges, whether implicit or explicit, must accept my constructions.

3) Failure should be fun, and not set me back more than 5 minutes unless I've personally chosen to make the situation last more than that long.

4) Let me choose what I want to try to accomplish, when.

5) Don't distract me.

As a side note, all the games I've spent 80+ hours on have made me feel glee, and nearly all the games that make me feel glee I spent 80+ hours on.


Ellipsis said...

This is an interesting distinction. I don't know if I would always call this feeling glee, but I think similar conditions apply to games that get me to invest in them. The general test for a game with promise is that I spend time thinking about it when I'm not even playing it, and that usually only happens if there is sufficient recognition of my choices that I have the ability to come up with new ideas (even when I'm not playing) and then try them out, knowing there is at least a chance I'll stumble upon something that works surprisingly well.

Sometimes, this is even possible with twitch-based games, and I found Devil May Cry 3 was like that for me. The original American version is so hard that I'm sure many players were simply scared off (and I don't blame them), but if you took the time to get through the initial frustration and seeming grind of the game and reached a certain level of mastery, there was a point where you suddenly realized that all of these bizarre, difficult-to-wield weapons synergized in unexpected ways, and you went from being a victim of a brutally difficult game to an artist of destruction. The key was that at some point I trusted that the game would actually reward my investment in it.

Craig Perko said...

I think investment's a major factor, but I think it's important that we're talking about investment of personal choice and personal taste.

A lot of games allow you to invest a lot of time and effort into them, but they don't give back in the same way. For example, many RPGs.