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Optimising The Fun Out Of Video Games

Civilisation game-designer, Soren Johnson, once wrote on his blog, “Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game.” This was something that I originally considered to be an alien concept – until I realised that I do this, and so does everyone else.

It comes down to an interesting question – what is the objective of a person playing a video game? Why do they do it? Will they take actions in the game specifically to have fun, or will they choose to forgo fun for the sake of making the game easier so therefore to ‘do better’? Johnson, in this quote, argues that the player cannot be trusted to play the game in a fun way, but rather a fashion where they will play better. Some would then argue that the feeling of doing well in a difficult video game provides a kind of enjoyment – which is true. However, I’d argue that this is only a feeling that many players have when they’ve been playing a game for a while, and they initially struggled with it. The feeling they are enjoying is a sense of achievement and progression – it’s good to know that you are getting better at something you once found challenging. If there was no challenge to start with, it is unlikely that any such feeling will be experienced; it’s boring because the game is too easy (of course, some games aren’t supposed to be challenging, and the enjoyment comes from other elements). I’d argue, then, that the feeling of doing well in a game does not correlate to enjoying the game.

My personal story regarding this started about three months ago when I decided to replay Bioshock: Infinite. When this game came out in 2013, I considered it hands-down one of my favourite games – but I could never put my finger on why. I’d been coaxed into reinforcing my resolve that this is a good game when I saw several game reviewers I respected discussing how they didn’t like this game and that they didn’t know why anyone does. I, instead of being stubborn, decided to replay the whole game and reaffirm my opinion – as well as, hopefully, finally put into words what it was I liked about it.

My result? Well, I didn’t like it nearly as much as I remember liking it. I still enjoyed it and managed to play through the whole game in less than two days, along with the Burial At Sea DLC in the following two days. But the interesting thing I found about this game, and what got me thinking about this topic, was the fact that I remember the combat being really fun and engaging. This was not the case on a replay – I found the combat ludicrously easy and, not exactly tedious, but certainly somewhat mind-numbing. You see, the world in this game has a system of ‘skylines’ which are a set of suspended rails above the maps that can be used by the player to quickly traverse around the map in combat scenarios. The idea is that the player can swoop in over a group of enemies to fight them, and then swoop away as soon as they’re in too much trouble. This promotes a fast-paced, aggressive combat style. It’s really fun and was a great feature for the marketing of this game. The devs really wanted players to be flying about the map using the skylines and fighting aggressively and quickly.

The problem is that the skylines are completely unnecessary when it comes down to it. I don’t mean that you can play the game without really ever using them, just that there really is no advantage to using them, apart from when they’re the only way to reach a location of an area. In fact – the game is much easier if you don’t spend your time swooshing about, and actually just stand still – against a wall, with the carbine, head-shooting enemies as they approach.

It’s shocking how many maps in this game allow you to do this – and it how well it works for that matter. The game mechanics even reward this behaviour – unintentionally, I’m sure – with the ‘Booker, catch!’ mechanic. Booker is the name of the character you play as, and so this phrase is shouted at you by your AI companion, Elizabeth when she throws you supplies. Early on in development, she (in an attempt to make her more of a feature of gameplay rather than a cut-scene only type of character) would actually path-find through the local area to supply drops around the map, and then throw them to you as you need them. This was changed – for a variety of reasons – to a system where she just spawns in whatever you need and throws it at you. If you’re thinking that this would surely ruin the combat – seeing that you no longer need to look for ammo or health packs when you’re low on either – then you’d be right. It entirely promotes a slower, more defensive combat style, which this game does not suit because it simply wasn’t designed for it. It is further worsened by the fact that enemies have the aim of a loose garden hose on full blast, providing no immediate threat to anybody. I died once in this game – due to a glitch.

So, as stated the game is easiest played by standing in a corner, behind some amount of cover, and just blasting the enemies with the carbine, which is the ultimate long range, and mid-range weapon in the game. Combined with the shotgun, which is obviously great for short range, and you’re unstoppable if you play the game slowly and less aggressively – which was against the intentions of the developers. There is a boss battle about three quarters through the game involving a ghost woman. It’s supposed to be really hard because it spawns other ghosts that attack you – but you don’t have to worry about them, you just have to go for the main ghost. My strategy? Use charge (which is a kind of superpower you get that allows you charge into an enemy at great speed and do some damage to them) to get really close to the ghost woman ASAP, and then shotgun and charge repeatedly until she teleports away. Only she didn’t have a chance to do that, because I had her dead before Booker and Elizabeth had finished their ten-second dialogue about how we need to kill this ghost-lady – which was kind of funny; the dialogue at the end of the battle started overlapping with the dialogue at the start if the battle.

Because I had anticipated that the shotgun and charge combo was the way to go, I’d spent all my upgrades on maxing both out, so by the end I was an unstoppable killing machine – which is actually less fun than it sounds – there was no challenge to it anymore. There is a fun way to play the combat, and then there is an effective way to play the combat – the circles do not overlap in this diagram. By developing these strategies, I’d optimised the fun from Bioshock Infinite.

While Bioshock has these problems, I also consider my attitude towards games to be at fault – to an extent. With the new Tomb Raider coming so soon, I decided to replay Rise of the Tomb Raider in preparation. Now, this game isn’t supposed to be unreasonably hard or anything – the focus of the experience is in its exploration and puzzle solving, with some stealth and set-piece combat sections breaking the experience up. The thing about this game is that the combat sections are frustrating in a way that I don’t really enjoy that much. Perhaps it’s due to my playing the game with a controller and the lack of auto-assistive aim, but I’m not such a fan of the bits where you need to shoot people. I don’t hate it, I’d just rather avoid it if possible.

Well, it turns out that sometimes it is possible. In some sections, it’s entirely possible to simply run past all the enemies until you reach the next checkpoint location – it’s not mind-blowingly easy because you’ll probably have to make a few attempts due to all the enemies shooting at Lara, but I found the challenge of doing that was more fun than the challenge of having to fight all these enemies with the frustrating combat system. Once you reach the next checkpoint, just let Lara die, and when you reload at that checkpoint the game will assume that you killed all the enemies behind you – or at least successfully snuck past them.

This is not the intended way to play the game when it was designed, it’s more me being lazy. But you can’t blame the player, you can only blame the game. There doesn’t need to be a system to prevent the player from doing this.

Halo’s checkpoint system prevents it, but it often leads to what I like to call ‘stingy checkpoints’, where the game will only give you a checkpoint under very specific conditions. I consider the checkpoint system of all the Halo games, from one to four, to be broken (I haven’t played five). It leads to the player legitimately playing the game the way it was intended to be played, but still being in situations where they die and then reload to a checkpoint twenty minutes earlier. I recently played Halo 4, and it’s a big problem still, successfully making my experience with that game worse than it needed to be.

If Crystal Dynamics, when developing Rise of the Tomb Raider (RotTR), had made the combat and sneaking mechanics more compelling and less tedious, I might have felt more inclined to not try to skip those parts of the game – the simple fact is, my method of skipping these sections is legitimately more fun than the way the developers intended me to play the game.

Having said this, I do still believe that I, overall, had a worse experience playing the game improperly than I would, had I had just persisted. I felt little satisfaction, or much of a sense of achievement, in skipping combat sections altogether – and I was messing with the pacing of the game. RotTR is a very linear experience that has been painstakingly tuned to be just right. So while skipping was more fun in the short term, it was probably not as fun as finishing the game more legitimately.

The two examples I’ve given here are very different in nature. My ‘optimisation’ of RofTR felt distinctly cheaty – I knew I was breaking the system. Bioshock was different in that I didn’t feel like my ‘optimisation’ was illegitimate, nor was it breaking the game. Bioshock’s problem was a lack of incentive to play the game any differently to the way that I was, other than a few prompts telling me that I should use my powers and the skylines more – but when my strategy is working really well, why would I change anything? It’s not like I had no fun playing Infinite, it was just significantly less than I remember back in 2013. Although I was a dumb sixteen-year-old back then so my opinion might have just been plain wrong.

I don’t think you can really ever blame the player for ‘playing the game wrong’, you can only incentivise them to play it in the way you want them to. XCOM 2 has a controversial system that limits the number of turns a mission can be played in. This forces the player to think more about what they’re going to do in order to not waste any turns – and more importantly – it forces them to take risks. The game is said to be a lot more fun when the player is using a dangerous strategy, so Firaxis (the developer) made it part of the game. This has been met with some pushback from fans, because it forces everyone to play the game in one way, in a strategy game where the player should be able to handle any mission in any way they want.

When Blizzard was developing World of Warcraft, they wanted to make sure players were taking regular breaks and not playing the game for unhealthy numbers of hours, so they provided an incentive to players for logging off. The ‘Rest’ bonus gives players an XP boost for players who are logged off, which wears off over time when they are logged in. This also makes it fairer for players who don’t want to commit as much time into the game as hardcore players who may never stop playing the game.

Unlike the XCOM example, this is a well-liked feature of the game. The reason? This is an incentive that acts as a reward for doing something, rather than as a punishment for not doing that thing. When people are playing a game they want to have positive experiences rather than negative ones. The XCOM example punishes players for being slow in the most extreme way it can – failing the mission and making the player start it again. It would be better if the game gave a big reward for players who completed the mission quickly, such as a research bonus or more equipment, but was more forgiving for slower players who don’t want to take too much risk. Players would be more inclined to choose to play the game in the way the developers would like them to, rather than feel like they’re being forced to play the game in a way they don’t want to. The game should dangle a treat in front of your face and tells you that if you want it, you need to play the game like this.

TLDR; the most effective way to play the game should be the most fun way to play the game. That is the goal of a game designer. Unless it shouldn’t.

If this interested you, here’s the video that inspired me to write about this topic:

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Story Telling In Video Games

Story tellers have always been looking for new and more creative ways to express themselves and/or entertain the masses. I think that, if handled correctly, video games can be the most immersive and creative medium of all. But what is the correct way to go about telling a tale in such an inherently interactive environment? Over the past several years, various people and studios have experimented in an attempt to answer this question. The solutions some have come up with have been absolutely amazing in some cases, controversial in others and a complete failure in a disappointing number more.

You may have heard of The Chinese Room. They are an independent developer who has gained some fame for making two such infamous story-based games. The ‘walking simulator’ is a derogatory term which (so far as I know) was invented to describe the games that The Chinese Room is known for. Dear Esther is the first time I’d heard of them myself. This is a ‘game’ which I believe I have complained about before on this blog; the amount of interaction the player has is minimal: hold ‘w’ and move the mouse to point in the direction you want to walk while a mopey man talks in your ears about something. I honestly gave up listening to him after only a few minutes of him complaining. A mistake, it turns out, as the mopey man who talks way too much turns out to be the device by which the entire story is told. You walk around a deserted island until he runs out of stuff to complain about. The end. There is some kind of gameplay here, but I fear it was not intended by the developer; the level design is extremely poor. So much that it presents quite the challenge at times to work out where you’re supposed to next. Oftentimes it leads you to a dead end and you have to, with no indication at all, work out that you’re supposed to do a 180 and go back the way you came for a bit. To get through this harrowing experience, I would throw on some tracks from Spotify to listen to while I held ‘w’ down for 5 minutes straight, and discovered that you can’t actually drown yourself in game – several times. When this torture ended, I remember a great feeling of frustration that I had wasted my time on it. I was shocked to discover that I had only apparently spent 76 minutes on it. I thought it had been hours.

Their next game was Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. I did a review of it at the time. If you can’t be bothered to read that, here’s a summary: if you ignore the very nice graphics and beautiful soundtrack, the only thing impressive about this game is how the story can be so boring throughout, and yet the ending still manages to disappoint you. The story is told in basically the same way, except there is now some kind of gameplay, I’m not talking about the (still as unbelievably terrible) puzzle of a level design, but there’s a confusing light puzzle thing that is remarkably easy to solve once you work out the first one.

Everything about The Chinese Room’s games screams pretentiousness to the highest degree. They are games that feign depth and put on an aesthetic which tries to trick you into thinking that these games are deeper than they actually are. The kind of thing that some people would be scared to criticise because fans could so easily tell you that you ‘just don’t get it’ and that you’re ‘not clever enough to understand’. Well no more!

Gone Home is also a walking simulator, developed by Full Bright. I love Gone Home. It’s the only good walking simulator I’ve ever played. It tells the story of a person going home to the house they grew up in and learning about the events that transpired while they were away. What makes the game good is how much freedom the player is given to pick and choose how much information they want to learn. There’s the base story, which you have to follow, but there’s also so much more detail the player can go into in the form of documents, photos, notebooks etc. The player chooses the pace at which the story is told – this is an advantage of this medium that walking simulators simply must capitalise on if they’re going to tell a story. If you’re trying to tell a story through a game and you don’t want to give the audience the freedom to go at their own pace and skip out on stuff that might not be as interesting to them as someone else, are you sure a video game was the right medium to tell this story? Gone Home’s story is simple, easy to follow and excellently told. It doesn’t try to be anything more than it needs to be – there’s no fluff, it’s not trying to examine the human condition, it’s trying to tell the story of a family and the struggles they’ve had with living together – and yet Gone Home has had a far deeper impact on me than anything The Chinese Room has ever done. I fell in love with the characters and I left the game feeling satisfied, rather than frustrated. Gone Home is up there with the greats.

Walking simulators are quite limiting, however. You can only really tell one kind of story with one – one where the events have occurred and you’re a person walking through the rubble, uncovering the story regarding what happened. Telltale takes a more cinematic approach. I think most people know of or have played their Walking Dead game, at least the first series. It’s the only one I played. Telltale pioneered the episodic approach to releasing a story driven game. They would work on an episode, release that, and then do the next episode a month later or so. This is a pretty good system for them for a few reasons. For one thing, it means that they can have an output and release stuff on the regular without compromising so much on quality than if they had released it all at once. It also gives the players a common stopping point. It means players of the game are more likely to discuss it with each other. If the game was released all at once, it would leave players all at different points meaning that they would avoid discussing the game. By releasing the game in easily-digestible 2 hour chunks, you get the water-cooler effect, where people start discussing what they think might happen next. Then we get the peer pressure in for the people who aren’t playing the game but everyone else is. It’s a great marketing strategy.

In terms of how Telltale tells a tale, it much like watching an episode of a TV show, only you get to make some decisions like how the main character will reply to a question, who they’ll back up in a conflict, should they go to this location and do this or go to the other location and do something else. There’s also a combat system built into most of them which almost always consists of quick-time events and button-mashing, which can be exciting sometimes, but it is almost impossible to fail most of the time. Telltale has made series in this style ranging from The Walking Dead to Minecraft. They have been hugely successful, and I’m not going to sit here and write that they are bad at it; they’re not, they make good stuff, just nothing great.

I think that there are a few things which hold back all Telltale games. For one thing, production value is fairly low – animation is consistently robotic looking, graphics usually leave something to be desired and the soundtrack has never been stunning, but this is what you get when you are splitting you’re resources so much that you can be working on multiple series at once, and when you want to easily port the game to mobile.

Also a problem for me is the implementation of player choice. We know from the failings of The Chinese Room that you need player input. I’m not convinced Telltale actually really has any. I think that when you are given a choice in a Telltale game, you are being tricked. It’s not like the game ignores anything you tell it – it’s more that the choices you make have no real effect on the outcome of the story. Quite often a dialogue choice will come up and it will be designed so that whatever you choose, the same event will occur afterwards. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect Telltale to create such a branching story line so that any choice the player makes will have a different effect on the outcome. I just think that when you have a system like this, you are relying on the illusion of choice you’ve set up to not be shattered; once it is, the player starts to wonder why they’re bothering. I’ve always watched Telltale games being played on YouTube rather than buy them and play them myself.

For a more high production value game in this style, see Life Is Strange. Life Is Strange is the same sort of formula, except it’s a lot more like a normal game; you have a lot more control over what the main character, Max, does. You can walk her around, go exploring and also control time – but that’s more to do with the plot than anything else. This opens up something that is missing in Telltale games – exploration. Like in Gone Home, the player is given more of an opportunity to play at their own pace. If they were to walk into a room, they’d be able to look at loads of things in the room in order to learn more about the world, the characters and pick up hints about the plot. Choices that the player makes actually affect aspects of the game. So far as I know, nothing can change the outcome, but it makes the journey to the outcome so much more interesting, and provides a different experience for each player.

Life Is Strange is also a beautiful game, with pretty good animation, nothing stunning but better than Telltale’s stuff, and a great soundtrack. You may get annoyed with the characters, being that they’re all angsty teenagers, and you’ll definitely get annoyed if you are a teenager yourself because the character’s lines were all clearly written by someone who does not know how teenagers talk to each other – I’ll say this is charming; it did give me a good laugh while playing it.

There are loads of other games I could talk out – The Witcher 3, The Last Of Us, Uncharted – but I wanted to focus on games who’s sole purpose is to tell a story rather than be an action adventure or an RPG. I have seen proof that games can be, when done correctly, an amazing way to tell a story and an experience to remember for the player. But I think that it is so much harder to achieve this than to make a great film because there are so many variables involved. For a story to work as a game it has to be written as a game, and it should not be something that could be directly translated into a film or a book. Story telling in games is hard – but when it pays off, it can make for a groundbreaking experience.