Wednesday, September 02, 2015

What Makes Games Different

Recently I've been pretty sour about games. None of them seem even vaguely interesting to me, even games that everyone is raving about. Metal Gear 5 lets you kidnap soldiers! Mario Maker let's you create fascinating Marioish levels!


I'm burned out on "gameplay". Nothing with "gameplay" is even vaguely interesting. But if a game doesn't have gameplay, sign me up! I love games with no gameplay!

This has really got me thinking about what makes games different from, say, comics.

Obviously, one thing is gameplay. But since gameplay seems really uninteresting to me, what else have you got?

One thing I like is self-expression. Allowing a player to put a piece of themselves into the story is valuable, even if that piece is not very important. It also makes the world larger, at least in the player's head, if they think things could have gone differently.

Sometimes self-expression has no statistical, in-game meaning. For example, Saints Row lets you dress up however, and nobody ever treats you differently no matter what you wear. Even if you run around naked, the only comments you get are from nameless pedestrians. No actual gameplay effect.

Although that kind of "shallow" expression is valuable, there's also self-expression which has meaning in the game world. For example, an RPG lets you choose how to approach situations, who to be friends with, and how to spend your time. The final outcome in the very end is probably unchanged, but your choices affect your experience in getting there. They let you spend time differently, with different people or different challenges.

Sometimes this can be much more delicate. For example, in Space Engineers your self expression is mostly based around how your ships are shaped. This is not something most people think about - I mean, who cares how your ship is shaped? But when you play Space Engineers, it says a lot, because it's deeply linked to what your ship does, who it appeals to, and what sort of thing you are aesthetically trying to say. It also says a lot about your level of skill, since if you are a clumsy designer your designs will have noticeable aesthetics descending from that.

There's also self-expression as a shared endeavor. Group appreciation is a powerful tool, whether it's you getting to see what someone else has made, or someone else commenting on what you made. Fundamentally, this kind of shared experience is only available if your game allows for enough self-expression to make every player's experience quite different.

I think the core strength of games is pacing, in the same way that the core strength of movies is editing, and the core strength of comics is the panels.

Games are adept at both giving the player more control over pacing, and also forcing the player to spend specific amounts of time.

Forcing the player to spend time and effort is a valuable tool for making the rewards seem valuable. In most games, "spend time" is the actual gameplay: you move through Metal Gear doing Metal Gear things, and then sometimes you get a plot reward. But we've turned it on its head for this discussion: the plot reward is only valuable because the player has spent so much time in pursuit of it.

While some games allow you to directly pursue the plot, many games are not so linear. Open-world games and RPGs have a medium of exchange. You spend your time accruing a fungible resource - money, XP, power - and then you use it to achieve the next unlock. Whether that unlock is a plot element, a new costume, or a better sword almost doesn't matter. Your time has been turned into literal money, and spending that money makes whatever you spent it on seem that much more valuable.

I remember playing the oldschool games - Final Fantasy 1, for example. I still remember saving up for "sleep" so that I could blast through the nine-pirate fight near the beginning of the game. It all meshed together - the time spent getting the money, the perceived value of the spell I bought, the actual in-combat value of the spell, and the result of overcoming a difficult combat. This chain of value started with the game's pacing: I couldn't overcome the pirates until I spent some effort at it.

The other half of the affair is how much control the player has over the pacing of the game. This is complicated, because technically I chose what to do and how to do it as I saved up for that spell, but it was obviously the game's core pacing structure that forced me to make those choices.

Player-controlled pacing is important, because every player plays differently both from other players and from themselves at other times. Today I might want to grind for XP in a dungeon, but tomorrow I might want to explore a new town. I may want to switch rapidly from exploring a new dungeon to overworld grinding to town sidequests to chatting with my buddies at base camp.

Moreover, this gives the designer a lot of slack. Since I control my pacing, if I run into three difficult combats in a row, I can decide to head back early. If I run into a string of easy combats, I can choose to press on.

All of this has walls around it. If everything is too easy or hard, the player is just going to be annoyed. And sometimes the game might benefit from getting a bit pushy - the Zozo arc in FFVI was really aggressive, but it's one of the things I remember most clearly.

The New
I think I've come to dislike games with gameplay because the gameplay is never new to me. I've played literally thousands of games over my lifetime, and nobody is really coming up with new gameplay. However, people are coming up with new self-expression and pacing elements!

So those are what I'm interested in. Your rebalanced rehash of first-person-shooting or RPG dungeon crawls is painfully familiar to me. But... letting me trade RPG party members over the internet with other people? That's new! Giving me a home base where I can talk to my party? That's new! These are things which can grow into whole new genres!

So, yeah, hook me up with "walking simulators" and pointless construction games. They're new! That's new territory!

... for a little while longer, anyway.

No comments: