What Comes After 100%?

 

The End of One Journey is the Beginning of Another

So, I’ve finished cataloging my Steam library. What did I do to celebrate? I stared at a blank computer monitor for about 2 hours and then depressed, went to bed. I knew it would happen. It always does at the end of a big project. After working so long and so hard on something, you inevitably come to the conclusion at the end that it wasn’t the finished product that you were excited about, it was the journey there. It’s interesting to think that I’ve written reviews for over a hundred games at this point… but that’s all. It’s just interesting. Acquiring the knowledge of the game, experiencing them, figuring out how to record those experiences–while it was stressful–that was the fun part. I will never stop playing games, but I am happy to say that even though I have finished my cataloging, I have not yet purchased a new game to play and I probably won’t for quite some time. I think I will enjoy being free for a time and play the Tier 1 games that I have recorded.

Continue reading “What Comes After 100%?”

Dark Souls

Dark Souls is my favorite game series.  It’s good enough that even disliking Dark Souls II as much as I do doesn’t unseat it (the Valve-verse of Half-Life and Portal would likely be my second). I first heard about it in probably much the same way you have: that it is a remarkably difficult game with a fanatical fanbase. And also like many, I avoided it because I had heard it was so difficult. It was only when Chezni suggested that we co-op some parts of the game that I started playing.  And I died.  A lot.  I hated it.  I thought it was an unnecessarily difficult game – only fun for people who play all their games on hard mode. I preferred wandering around Skyrim, getting lost, and filling my quest log with a laundry list of dungeons to clear – why would I want to play a game that just wasn’t fun?

Slowly, though, I progressed. I learned about dropping from heights to deal more damage. I threw myself against the Asylum Demon until I beat it through a combination of luck and Chezni’s advice. I fought, inch by inch, through the Undead Burg. I figured, to borrow from Zero Punctuation, that “I’ll just keep tanking the rakes and maybe I’ll somehow become really psychotically into being rake-faced […] and I’ll be blatted in the face with rake if that isn’t kind of what happened.” It may have taken me half of the original Dark Souls, but eventually I found myself having fun.  A lot of fun.  So much fun that I kept coming back even after having beaten the game to play through on NG+.  Later, Chezni and I powered through the first few hours of Dark Souls III, which turned out to be just as good as the original (I’m intentionally omitting Dark Souls II in this statement, which I’ll get in to later).  So why did I change my mind, and why should you? Continue reading “Dark Souls”

Skyrim (Completed) – Chezni’s Take

Yes. But.

Unless you lived on some remote electricity void mountain located in some impossibly pronounced country like Arstotzka” (*ahem,* your papers please) then you must have heard the word Skyrim at least once in your life, even if it was whispered out of the mouths of a huddle of the deepest darkest nerds in your frequented place of gathering. Skyrim, took the gaming world by force and its influence is so incredibly powerful that in spite of it being six years old, Bethesda is in no hurry to release the sixth Elder Scrolls game, instead re-releasing the fifth one twice. Ask your average gamer if Skyrim is good and you’ll get a resounding “YES!” from not just the person you asked but also anyone else in the room who’s played the game. I suppose that makes Lepcis and I the un-average gamer, since we might respond with, “Yes but–” There is always a but. Is the world incredibly large? “Yes but–” Does the player have complete freedom over how they level up their character? “Yes but–” Are there tons of magical monsters and creatures? “Yes but–” Are there countless quests and dungeons? “Yes. But.”

It’s difficult to critique this game, for any time you speak out against it, it seems foolish in consideration of the mountain of content that the game presents. A critic of your critique may sarcastically respond “Oh, I’m sorry over 1,000 NPCs wasn’t enough for you,” or “I’m sorry you got bored doing over 400 quests spanning hundreds of hours of content.” The fact is, trying to say anything bad about Skyrim is almost like trying to file a complaint with Mother Theresa–something that is well within your right to do I supposed, but very hard to make stick.

However, I am here to submit that very statement to you. I am here to tell you, that Skyrim in many glaring ways is not a good game. You may disagree with me–and that is completely valid. You may overlook the issues I have with the game and frankly, your tastes may just be different than mine. In spite of this, whether you agree with me or not, I hope to make pleasant conversation, bringing light to several aspects of the game that I find fault with, that ultimately would lead me to not recommend this game to anyone, placing it into Tier 3.

 

(*sigh* Fine, here’s the obligatory caveat dammit; if you have access to mods, then the game is a clean Tier 1 but shutup you, those don’t exist for now.)

 

As it stands, I am a much more a mechanics/immersion driven player, and as such I shall focus more on these topics while I discuss the game. Skyrim is complex enough that you could write an entire book on the subject (considering that Skyrim itself also has several “books” written within it as well) so it helps to limit the scope for the sake of conciseness. If, however, you wish you read up on a viewpoint differing from mine, Lepcis approaches the game from a much more narrative/lore angle found here. Otherwise, prepare yourselves for a primary analyses of Skyrim’s mechanics with a secondary overview of immersion.

 

Why are Mechanics Important?

Mechanics are important because they are a game’s differentiating characteristic from itself and other forms of media. Don’t get me wrong, a game often needs a good story, but a good story on its own is just that–a story. A game often benefits from attractive or stylistic visuals, but attractive or stylistic visuals on their own are just art. Similarly, a game needs a great soundtrack to rest in the back of everything that’s going on within the game, but a great soundtrack on its own is just music. A ball tied to string tied to a cup though? That is a game. A 3 x 3 grid to soon be filled in with X’s and O’s? That is a game. An empty recyclable bottle that is spun in a circle? This too, is a game. The fact is, that without a game’s mechanics–without the rules and the required objects governed by those rules–you don’t have a game, you have pictures or sound or words and so on. These things can be combined to add to a game and make a good game fantastic, but on their own they simply represent themselves. We often use the word “game” to imply the final product of all these things wrapped up into one bundle but truly the mechanics are the “game” part of the game. They are the part that is played. You can’t “play” art. You can’t “win” music. Therefore, borrowing from what was said above, we can make these two statements:

 

A game is a set of mechanics.

Game mechanics are the combination of a set of rules and the things governed by those rules. 

 

In this way, a game can be about music if the music is governed by a set of rules, such as in Guitar Hero. Likewise a game can be about art if the art is governed by a set of rules, such as in Pictionary and so forth. Once again, music is not the game, nor is art, but the game’s mechanics can be structured around both. This has always been a point of my own contention when discussing “games” with people. Someone might tell me that “Her Story,” is a “good game.” Her Story is a terrible game–it barely qualifies as a point-and-click adventure, the mechanics are tedious after a while and there is no defined purpose for the player to fulfill. However, I would probably respond to the person I was talking to with, “Yeah, it was definitely an interesting game. I’m not quite sure what the message was, but it was a fun way to spend an hour.” You see, we actually aren’t talking about Her Story as a game at all, even though that’s how we’re referring to it. What we’re really saying is that Her Story is an engaging interactive media experience that we both enjoyed.

Over the years the definition of “game” has melted, similar to René Descartes’ famous “Wax Argument.” At what point does the melting wax of a candle set by the fireside cause it to cease becoming a candle? Likewise, at what point does the conjoining of various add-ons to a game cause it to cease being a game? Or even further; at what point does the very word we use to describe the idea of a set of rules and the things governed by those rules become false?

–Enter Rabbit Hole–

Now it is true that some might say, “But there are many rules and things that are governed by them that aren’t games.” Well, with the exclusion of Rules, or Laws, of Nature (“You win again gravity!“) do not all rules have a winner or a loser? Have we not taken the mundane rules of our world and turned them into a game? What is “Papers Please” if not a game about surviving the oppressive nature of a communistic government? What is “Cooking Mama” if not a game about preparing food? What is “Surgeon Simulator?” We don’t use language to describe it as such, but does a doctor not “win” if he saves his patient? Does an artist not “win” if she releases a successful album? Some may say, “Life is just a game,” to mean that everything is a joke and nothing matters but I say anyway, “Life is a game!” We have goals, objectives, quests, adventures, misadventures, setbacks, downfalls, struggles, obstacles and ultimately an ending. If “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” then how are we not players of the world’s stage-like game?

At some point though, the concept of “game” became lost with the explosion of the gaming market. I will not sit here and argue with you that “The Stanley Parable” is a bad game. I will argue however, that calling the Stanley Parable a “game” is a misnomer. After all, it’s called a “walking simulator” for a reason–primarily all you do is move your perspective from one location of a slightly interactive world to another. Stated again, the conflict is that what we are talking about when we refer to the Stanley Parable is not a game but an “interactive media experience.” When I was five years old, I had a computer program that told a story if you clicked on enough of the little pictures to make it continue. I didn’t call it game, it didn’t call itself a game, and in fact, it wasn’t a game. Nowadays, products like this get released on Steam and the like all the time and word “game” is applied to them without a second thought.

–Exit Rabbit Hole–

So now return and answer the question “Why are mechanics important?” Why, because life is important! But realistically, it is because mechanics are the life of a game. They must be changed, adapted, filtered, mended, tempered, discarded and created in order for a game to thrive, just as a person must do the same things to themselves if they are to live in this world. Basketball is not the same game it was 50 years ago. Mario is not the same game it was 25 years ago. Even Chess, one of our oldest currently-played games is still technically changing. After all, the idea of playing chess against anyone across the world within a couple seconds without actually touching real pieces may have seemed like science fiction to our grandparents but today, we can do just that. This only creates very minor mechanical changes (there is no longer any argument concerning the “when your hand has left the piece” and you don’t have to physically “hit” a timer to end your turn, as the program does so automatically), but they are still changes nonetheless. Mechanics are important because they are the very structure of what a game is, spanning across and beyond human history. Without mechanics there can be no game. Without mechanics, there is no motivation, no goal–absolutely nothing at all.

 

Wasn’t This Supposed to Be About Skyrim?

You can probably see where I’m going with this, but yes, let’s look back at Skyrim. Skyrim may be an entertaining “interactive media experience,” but it is, at best, something that only simulates a game. Large portions of the “game experience” are artificial. Rules are communicated very poorly to the player, if they are ever communicated at all. Balance of the game’s mechanics range from mediocre to down-right awful. Counterplay in certain circumstances is almost completely removed. The worst part about it–the part that makes me grind my teeth the most when I try to critique this game–is that the world absolutely loves Skyrim and that worries me as a mechanics-devoted gamer. It worries me because I think that I must live in a world where my fellow gamer does not desire quality, only the illusion of quality. I feel alone in that instead of recognizing the falsehoods of easily accessed grandeur and inorganic replicated “challenges,” the majority of the gaming world wants to be spoon-fed their magnificence from a prosthetic arm.

Look, if I’m honest, there are plenty of crap games out there with bunk mechanics that offer immediate gratuity for less-than-authentic repetitive action. Sometimes you just want to play a game that gives you sword (or in my case a staff), puts you in a field with monsters and progressively gives you a bigger and bigger sword after you’ve wacked the monsters enough times. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying this kind of game as long as the player understands what’s going on. It’s sort of like a box of Little Debbie’s snack cakes. If you’re hungry, have a few dollars and are short on time, a box of corn-syrup, pre-processed flour, powdered sugar treats are probably going to be awesome. You would never make the claim that Little Debbies had somehow managed to reach the Nirvana of baking–you probably wouldn’t even claim that they were healthy for you or made of wholesome ingredients–but for what they are they taste good in small doses. The same can be said for games of the pre-described nature.

The problem is that Skyrim isn’t described, seen or even rationalized in this way. Instead it’s seen as this Nirvana, this golden pinnacle of gaming that somehow only the “best” games can reach and the rest must settle in the lowly dredges of non-accomplishment. The masses overlook its cardboard-cut-out nature, its shallow design. Sometimes I feel like a conspiracy theorist or a street-preacher when I complain about it. Enough though; I’ve done a lot of blabbering with little backup, so let’s get into the core of some the actual mechanics themselves so I can show you what I mean.

 

Questing – Show Don’t Tell

Quests are horrible. This may come as a bit of a shock to you, but I’m going to say it again. Quests. Of any kind. AreHorrible. And this is why.

My favorite game to this day, is Lands of Lore II. I’m not sure whether it’s as good as I think it is, or if I developed a pseudo-Stockholm syndrome-esque attachment to it after doing nothing but locking myself up in my room and playing it for two weeks straight after the death of my father. Either way, I have so many good things to say about it. The world is beautiful, the characters are engaging and the plot is interesting. More than anything though, I loved getting lost in the world. The game never told you what to do or where to go. Well, I mean sure, there was a plot that gave general agency to the meaning of your actions but the best part about LoL II is just wandering around and discovering things that are hidden in clever and meaningful ways.

Sometimes the things discovered were big but oftentimes they are small. A lightning crystal hidden in the water here, a tiny cave exposed by draining a small pond there–outside of the game’s extremely light “tutorial,” every single thing you find in the game is your own. The game never points you towards any of it, save for the very clues to the puzzle’s answer themselves. Nowadays they would be considered “side quests,” but there are plenty of optional characters to talk to and little “quests” (by the definition of the word) that you can go on but at no point is a reward guaranteed or necessarily implied. The point of doing these quests was simply to discover more of the world. While the motivation to complete them may have been to discover what you’ll get out of it, the acquisition of a new thing was only secondary to how it was obtained. A skeleton key may be stolen from a fellow thief, a dagger may be given to a lost son, a charm may be unearthed from a locked temple; none of these things are mandatory in the game but upon doing them the game becomes more complex and more interesting.

How horrible LoL II would have been if each time something interesting happened, the game had to tell me that I should find it interesting. How horrible would it be if instead of being allowed to discover the interesting bits of the world, the game merely activated variables which gave me access to pieces of text which just laid out all the interesting parts of the locations I visited. The mystery of discovering new things would be lost. The control of being allowed to guide my own hand to my own destiny would be gone. The thrill of finding a new way to solve a quest that you thought was binary would evaporate. “Quests,” as they commonly exist in modern day games ruin large portions of what makes a good game by falling into the trap of telling instead of showing.

Humans are rather finite–we can only take in so much of something before what we already have up in our noggin starts to leak out when we try to put more in there. This is why initially a quest log may seem appealing for both the game player and the designer. “Oh boy, I’ll never forget what I need to do!” says the player. “Oh boy, they won’t get frustrated from not knowing what to do!” says the designer. The truth is, if your game relies heavily on a quest log, there’s probably something wrong with your game.

You see, if your (designer’s) quest is worth making, the player should want to finish it whether the game is telling them to or not. It won’t matter if it’s game-critical. It won’t matter if they get a reward. Your player will look at it and say “I want to do that. I need to know what happens from that. I need to discover that,” and then they will go out and do it. They don’t need to be told to do something. They shouldn’t be told to do something. A player doesn’t turn on a game to be told what to do, a player should turn on a game and be inspired by it to the point where they want to go out and do those things on their own. A player turns on a game to discover a new world for a little while–to be shown a world of adventure, not be told about it. A quest log is nothing more than a to-do list. It bleaches all the fun out of the game by removing any and all forms of self-motivated discovery. It immediately divides all information the player is receiving into two kinds of categories: information that I can get something from and information I can’t get something from and they will never have to think about which is which.

Hear a story about a drunken bartender? Well, it didn’t get added to my quest log, so it’s worthless. Vague mentioning of some kind of gem that I wasn’t really paying attention to? Immediately got added to my quest log in addition to where I need to go to find it, so it must be important. I cannot stress enough how bad of a mechanic this is–how horrible a method of player dictation this is. You’re literally telling the player what they should think is interesting and uninteresting instead of showing the player what is interesting and trusting them. As a designer, you need to have enough confidence in your creation that the player will want  discover the things they think are interesting on their own. Quest logs simply cater to an audience that is too impatient or too stupid to invest themselves into something.

What’s worse is that it ruins the game’s immersion. Players feel this constant pressure to be accomplishing quests and if they aren’t following the pre-laid footsteps of a quest’s pathing they feel as if they aren’t accomplishing anything, which is criminal. A player should feel like each step they take into the unknown is accomplishing something. They should feel that each creature they slay, big or small, hard or easy is a worthy task. Quests logs instead make the player switch “quest on” and “quest off,” which takes away any need the player’s need to think. Players immediately know when a quest ends if it finishes in their log. They know when a quest begins when it gets entered into their log. There’s no uncertainty or anticipation or ability to make your own decisions concerning what you as a player think is worth your time.

When we slay the Talamar at the college, we know he’s dead because the quest told us it was finished. Imagine if the game didn’t tell us–we might be confident that things have wrapped up or we might think, “What if he comes back? What if he finds a way to seek revenge? Is this truly the end?” When we defend a stronghold from the damn rebel scum (because Ulfric is a dick and no one should side with him) we immediately know when the attack is finished and when we can just completely drop our guard, because the quest told us so. We don’t have to think “what if there’s another attack” or “maybe there is a remainder of the guards that I missed planning to sneak in?” No, it’s just a flip to your quest log which says “Yup, you killed all the things, now go back to a camp so you can go to another X,Y coordinate and kill more things.”

Skyrim isn’t the only game that suffers from this, but just consider the effect it has on the world. Reading anything in the game is no longer a method of uncovering the mysteries of the world internally–if what you were reading was important, it gets added to your quest log. Otherwise, you can just throw it away and forget about it. Rumors or stories that you hear characters say are immediately forgotten if they don’t trigger a quest. What’s the point of remembering them? Emphasis in the game isn’t placed on discovery or morality or even just a decency to help people–it’s replaced with getting the blasted check box in your to-do list marked off so you can get your reward and move on to the next one! Any thing you discover in the world–anything that isn’t quest related or doesn’t have a reward attached to it–immediately feels less valuable in this kind of system. All the little detail in Skyrim is overshadowed by the desire to follow the pattern of “do thing, get thing.”

Players want to do something interesting. They want to go on an adventure–they want to change their world and they want to grow stronger. If all of the quests in your game are so numerous and so forgettable that you feel you must rely on an auto-filling quest-book to motivate the player to do them, then you should have never made them at all. A player who is inspired by your world will find something to do on their own. They will remember the things that interested them or excited them and they will venture out into the fantasy world to be their conqueror. Once they’ve completed the things that interested them the most, if you did your job right, they will hunger for more and dive back into the collection of interesting things you’ve set up for them to do. You need to let the players choose what they care about and what they deem worth their time. A quest-book sends the message to the player that they have to do everything. They have to do all the chores and if you’ve played Skyrim for more than a few hours, you really start to feel like all those quests piling up are just that–chores. Frankly, if your quest wasn’t interesting enough for the player to remember and complete on their own volition, it’s either because they were too busy being engaged by some other awesome quest that you put into the game (which is a good thing), or because your quest is refuse and is so forgettable that it isn’t worth anyone’s time.

 

 

Level Scaling

This is the greatest sinner of the bunch, and it’s probably the most mechanics heavy. Level scaling is the DEVIL. Like, if I die and go to Hell, there’s going to be two things going on. Number 1: I’m going to be in my horrid Walmart uniform stuck at a checkout lane forced to listen to the endlessly repeating commercials on the TV above me and Number 2: every time I get better at some aspect of checking out my customers, something will happen so that my improvement is completely removed. My job will be just as hard as when I started, meaning that my accomplishment meant nothing. Taking a look at the latter, the sad part is, is that’s essentially what game developers are telling you when they make their game’s level scale–you have accomplished nothing. In fact, in some cases, level scaling can create the phenomenal effect of your strength going backwards.

I’ll use a simpler example than Skyrim to show what I mean. Secret of Magia also used level scaling. Admittedly, Secret of Magia is one of the worst, under-designed, non-fleshed out piece of crap games I’ve ever played, but avoiding all of that and looking directly at its level scaling system, it exhibits level scaling’s fatal flaw perfectly. Every time you level up in SoM, every single enemy levels up with you at a fixed and uncapped rate of growth. Since the growth rate is fixed and since the stats are built up the same from level 1, if you disregard your character’s equipment, a fight against a monster at level 1 would be identical to a fight against a monster at level 5. The problem is that when you add in equipment, it becomes a whole new beast.

 

 

The first graph here is a simplification of the player’s power in relation to their level and equipment, versus a monster’s power based on level. As you can see, a level one player with enough equipment to equal two more level’s worth of stats would match up against a scaled enemy with a ratio of 3:1, or 300% power over the enemy. Now let’s add 3 more levels to our player, keeping the equipment power the same because equipment does not scale with level. Now instead of a 3:1 ratio, we have a 3:2 ratio or 150% percent power over the enemy. As you can see, in this instance gaining 3 levels actually cut our character’s power in half which is ridiculous.

Skyrim, (and any game with level scaling really) while more complicated, functions in much the same way under the same principles with an additional few aggravations. The same problem with equipment persists, in that because equipment does not scale and considering that half if not more of the enemies in the game do not wear gear (and I’m not even sure if humanoid enemy’s equipment are actually even factored into a monster’s stats) leveling up still makes you weaker against enemies that scales with you. It gets worse though when you add perks to the mix. The perks on their own are not bad–a bit bland, maybe, but in and of themselves they are not the cause of the problem; the level scaling is. You see, by choosing a non-combative perk, you create the same problem as the equipment dilemma. Want an easier time picking Novice locks? That could have been an extra 10% damage on your axe swing, or it could have been halving the cost of your Adept Destruction Magick, allowing you to cast more spells to deal more damage. By picking the Novice pick lock skill, you are no stronger (aside from the 10 points in HP, MP or Stamina) than you were a level ago, but the foes you face will be one level stronger.

What’s even funnier is how Bethesda tried to band-aid fix this problem. It’s clear that someone in the studio caught wind of this problem and wanted to do something about it but the final product just creates a different problem. You wouldn’t necessarily figure it out just from playing the game, but Skyrim has tiered difficulties for certain enemies and dungeons. They essentially have caps both at the bottom and top of their level ranges so that even if your level is lower or higher than theirs, their level cannot be lower or higher than a certain defined integer. To further muck things about, they also decided to that certain tiered enemies wouldn’t show up until the player was a certain level either. For example, Dungeon ABC contains Bandits and Skeever. The Dungeon itself has a level range of of 10-30. This means that if you go into the dungeon below level 10, all enemies will be at least level 10. If you go into the dungeon above level 30, dungeon enemies will only be level 30. Enemies themselves have their own individual level ranges as well–for instance, maybe the Skeever’s is level 10 while the bandit’s is level 30. This means that Skeevers in the dungeon will always be level 10, but if the player enters in at a level higher than 10, the Skeevers will still remain at level 10. The bandits might be a different story though, since they might have tiered bandit archetypes. At level 15, the “Bandit Ruffian” might appear, and at level 25 the “Bandit Chieftan” might appear.

While in theory, this sounds all fine and well, it’s not in practice. As stated, it is a band-aid solution at best which just introduces different problems. Enemy power rankings are still completely variable with no indication to the player what kind of strength the foe they are facing possesses. A level 1 player who a little while ago was happily killing the level 1 scaled Skeevers near Riverwood may stumble into this dungeon and suddenly be beset upon by murderous level 10 Skeevers that look and act identical to the ones he was fighting previously. A level 24 player may run around the dungeon feeling quite powerful, but a level 25 player will enter the dungeon and struggle against the difficulty spike created by the introduction of the new Bandit Chieftan. Once again, by gaining levels the player is punished with absolutely no indication or warning to the player to the contrary, save for a different enemy text name, one that certainly blends in with all the other tiers of bandits that they’ve likely been encountering.

Developers need to get rid of level scaling forever. It creates complete chaos and inconsistency in the world. The player has no real way of knowing what to expect when they enter into a dungeon–but not in a good way. It’s true, as a general rule, the dungeons around Riverwood are a lower level–but this is just a general rule, and it hardly has much of a pattern outside the Skyrim’s beginning area. The developers delved too greedily and too deep; they pridefully tried to create a game that was completely accessible to low level players while still maintaining some semblance of matched difficulty to the player’s power. Instead what they created was an inconsistent mess that rides wild and unpredictable difficulty spikes that ultimately peter out at around level 40, where at that point most of the dungeons are either relatively scaled to the player power or laughably easy.

The fix for this? Keep the damned enemy’s power level consistent you morons! Quit being afraid that if your player doesn’t have access to each and every location in the game right away that they’ll start whining and quit! With level scaling, there is no progression! It takes as much effort to kill a mammoth at level 5 as it does level 25–why did I even bother gaining the 20 levels in between? It’s no wonder I feel empty inside when I clear out another dungeon, because I know that the game gave me a lukewarm challenge that was tailored to my skill level. There’s no need to be afraid or concerned when walking into a dungeon since I’ll always know that it will be scaled to my level–except when the dungeon’s lower level cap is 20 levels higher than me and I’m getting ROFLstomped by bandits and wizards that look identical to the level 1 bandits and wizards I was fighting in the last dungeon! Just make things consistent in power level–make the giants these foreboding doom-creatures that it really means something when you finally get the ability to kill them. Allow a low-level player to slay smaller spiders with relative ease, but make the massive ones truly deadly!

Once the world becomes consistent to the player, they can begin to gauge the power of the things they are facing in relation to their own power. They can begin to understand which dungeons are heavily guarded and which ones are simply filled with bandit rabble. This kind of balance usually leads to a stronger community base since you have speedrunners and game-breaker enthusiasts banding together and asking each other “Just how can a level 1 creature sneak past the troll?” or “How can I get my level 5 wizard to kill the giants guarding the cave that’s meant for high-level players?”

By creating level-scaling, players will never feel accomplished because they never know what to expect. Enemy names, types and even the models themselves almost become meaningless since they won’t know how strong something until they give it a wack, even if it’s the same monster they’ve encounter time and time again. Level scaling is nothing more than a cheap method for the developers to try to instill an artificial feeling of “balance” in their game, when really all they’re doing is washing their hands free of any kind of progression design or real balance, not to mention the complete way it breaks immersion when I’m never afraid to go anywhere or fight anything at level 1.

 

Combat/Equipment/Balance

Herein are miscellaneous complaints that are worth mentioning, but are not necessarily large enough to require an entire section devoted to them.

Melee Combat in the game is incredibly simple–horribly so. If you are a fighter, it’s swing, swing or swing. You might occasionally block, you might charge up a swing, but in the end, it’s just swing or be swinged.

Archery Combat consists of clipping enemies on rocks or trees and then filling them full of an inordinate amount of missiles while they stand there staring at you.

Magic is a let-down. Not only are spells lackluster, but they are rather barbaric in their straight-forwardness. Lightning is laughably useless unless the enemy is using it on you. Frost is ok, but not really worth it in the face of Fire’s DPS. The starting fire spell is one of the most efficient DPS spells in the game, especially if you stutter cast it, which isn’t even a bug–it’s simply a method of conserving mana while maintaining the same level of DPS. You never truly feel like a powerful wizard, no matter how many points of destruction magic you have. Healing magic has a similar problem–the starting healing spell is the most efficient; why bother using anything else?

Equipment is a joke. Medium armor is pointless–light armor is somewhat useable, but once fully perked there is almost no disadvantage to heavy armor for any character. Since classes don’t exist, any character can wear whatever they want. No need to use your brain when equipping things either since everything is a binary progression up to a higher number for defense. Glass armor will always be better than steel. Steel will always be better than iron. The armors are nothing more than numbers.

The problem mentioned earlier concerning equipment not scaling in relation to the player’s level can actually be abused by players focusing on equipment crafting, giving them an incredibly powerful but artificial power boost. Coupled with enchantments allowing magic to be cast for free in addition with the lackluster scaling on spells means that a player wearing armor that lets them cast spells for free will be nearly as powerful as a wizard who has spent all their perks into magic.

Enemy wizards are extremely broken. At this point, I have played several different types of characters and put my stat points into several different areas. I can tell you that if you play as a wizard, you will never even come close to the strength possessed by enemy wizards. Likewise, in a playthrough where I put every single point I had in HP, I was one-shotted at full ~300HP health by an enemy wizard who was using the level 1 lightning spell.

The only time you will be “challenged” by an enemy in Skyrim is when you face one that can one-shot you, or very nearly so. This isn’t really a challenge, since such an occurrence offers little to no counterplay. Additionally, because of the relatively shallow battle mecahnics, any other kind of fight in the game is brainlessly winnable for several reasons. 1. You probably have enough potions to health-spam your way through an enemy. 2. If you need to, you can just heal with your MP. 3. You probably have enough MP potions to MP-spam your way through an enemy or 4. You probably have enough MP potions to MP-spam-heal your way through an enemy. 5. You can probably just run away and shoot an enemy to death with magic and/or the 1000+ weightless arrows you’re carrying. 6. If you get really desperate, you can eat all that odd food you’re probably carrying from when you accidentally picked it up earlier. 7. You probably have an essential ally that will never die with you that you can use to face-tank. 8. If all else fails, you can just run away, heal and come back again. It’s not like the enemies are going anywhere, or your quest has a time-limit.

Dragons are laughably easy to kill.

Dragons can laughably easily kill you with their instant-death chomp regardless of what level you are.

Dungeons have burning torches and fresh fruit.

The majority of the game’s treasure is randomly generated, making everything you get feel like random code and not a unique piece of equipment.

Fast Travel sucks because it takes all the excitement of traveling away. Walking from place to place sucks because there’s nothing interesting or valuable to discover along the way.

I think that’s enough for now.

 

In Closing

Skyrim is an awful game. It’s mechanics are pure garbage, and its immersion suffers heavily for it. Skyrim is the only Elders Scrolls game I’ve played, which makes me sad because all through my life I’d heard good things about the franchise. So I leave you with one necessary and crucial piece of information that will help cement what you’ve read here, as well as what you know about me as an author let it be known: Skyrim is a disgusting puddle of sheeple worshiped fan-hype…

…that I have put 375 hours into because mods are @&$%!*# amazing.

Steam Link

 

BIT.TRIP RUNNER and Perfection in Video Games

Perfection is a tricky thing in video games, and perfection is what BIT.TRIP RUNNER (or, BTR) demands of you.  The best way I can describe this is by saying that BTR feels like an arcade machine; but it feels like an arcade machine that was designed to eat your quarters rather than to be fun (even though there are no lives and no Game Over-s).  It attracts you with colorful lights and interesting sounds tied together by a well-thought-out pixel art aesthetic.  There is a simple control scheme – press space bar to jump and use the arrow keys to execute maneuvers while the screen scrolls ever forward toward the finish line.  It seems straightforward and quite possibly fun.

The problem arises that in BTR, any failure means restarting the level.  The levels are short enough that this isn’t an immediate problem, but as the difficulty ramps, you find yourself playing the exact same parts of levels for 90% of your time to try the tough bits 10% of the time.  This just becomes grinding, since the levels require the exact same set of inputs to get to the point where you failed before.  Aside: there are technically alternate paths for brief sections, but those alternate routes give you no advantage so there is no reason to memorize them.

To figure out why this is a problem, I’d like to talk about perfection for a bit.

Perfection

Let me be up front: I think games that demand constant perfection are taking shortcuts to difficulty and are generally not worth my time.  Take Dark Souls or Legend of Grimrock II, for example.  Dark Souls does not require perfection.  It asks for excellence and an understanding of the rules, but it lets you make mistakes, and few mistakes (well, except in Blighttown) are immediately fatal.  I think this design philosophy becomes clear when, in the progression from the Dark Souls I to III, you’ll die less frequently from stun-lock.  In LoG, the only time you’ll really find yourself in a place that means almost certain death is if you let two tough enemies get on either side of you.

This is not to say that having segments that require perfection is bad or that rewarding perfection would be bad.  Guitar Hero (or my favored knock-off, Super Crazy Guitar Maniac Deluxe 4) is difficult and complex enough that perfection is a worthy goal, but you aren’t required to be immediately perfect.  Beyond that, perfection in the context of music makes sense (and the problems of requiring perfection in music is even the subject of a movie).  In other sorts of games, a segment that requires perfection can be a way to increase tension, as long as it isn’t extensive or represent a fundamental change to the game mechanics (like QTEs).  Speedrunning a game perfectly can show an incredible mastery, but it shouldn’t be the only way to beat a game.

The trouble only arises when perfection is your only path to progress or when using an unfamiliar set of mechanics.  I’ve tried figuring this out with Chezni, and the best thing we came up with was this: perfection is not human.  Failure is a part of learning and growth, and requiring perfection eliminates the possibility of learning anything valuable from a mistake.  This view ties back in to BTR nicely: when I play perfection games, it makes me feel like I should just write a script to beat the game for me.  There is an exact set of inputs that I must enter to progress, and no other set will lead to success – so why should I bother if I have no meaningful input?  (Aside: this is also the reason I stopped playing Klondike: it’s only winnable 80% of the time and even a perfect algorithm can’t save you)  If I watched a YouTube Let’s Play, I would see the exact same thing as if I had played it.  The obvious exception here is that in puzzle games, it’s a challenge that I would have to solve before I could tell a computer to do it – which is the very growth that other such games lack.

Back to BIT.TRIP RUNNER

I couldn’t find any place to put this, but I thought it important to include: the audio cues in BTR take place as the event happens, rather than when you need to hit the button.  In other words, the audio for the rhythm game doesn’t actually help you.  As you may imagine, this becomes quickly frustrating as the screen fills with sprites and makes it hard to tell precisely when you should jump.

The entire challenge in BTR lies in learning the mechanics and then implementing them.  There’s no motivation to do so – you’re learning the mechanics so you can learn more mechanics.  You’re implementing the mechanics so you can implement the mechanics.  In Tetris you’re seeing how far you can get and trying to beat the top score.  In SCGMD4, you want some participation in some good music.  In an RPG you want to hear more of the story.  But in BTR, the exact same game has been played in the exact same way hundreds of times and all you’re doing is retreading the same path as everyone before you.  BTR functions and has a good aesthetic which saves it from Tier Four, but it is firmly in Tier Three for its constant, unyielding requirement of perfection.

Steam link

Game Theory – Having Fun Yet?

An informal look at what makes games good:


LepcisMagna’s take:

This first bit is going to be a bit base logic/philosophy heavy, so feel free to skip to the next section if that’s not your thing.

Objectivity in Art

I think there are two options: either the “goodness” of art is entirely subjective or art is at least partly (and, I would argue, largely) objective.  If the “goodness” of art is entirely subjective, then no quantitative statements can be made about it.  But what of art made with an intended purpose?  If a work of art has an intended purpose, it would seem that we could judge the “goodness” of the work based on its success in accomplishing that purpose.  So it would seem that at least some art – art with a purpose – has some objective qualities.

If we can say that all art has a purpose, then we can say that all art has at least some objective qualities.  Let’s start by assuming that we have a work of art created without purpose.  The mere act of creation implies purpose – demands it.  Here I must state something I cannot hope to prove but that I hope is reasonable: all effects have a cause.  I think to reject this would be to reject our ability to interpret the universe at all.  If we accept this, then any act of creation has a motivated cause – a purpose – even if that purpose was to be without purpose (which would be a self-contradiction).  The only other way a purposeless work could exist is if its purpose was somehow removed after its creation.  But that still implies that the work had a purpose to begin with, and thus some objective qualities.  I would conclude, then, that all art must then have at least some objective qualities.

Video Games as Art

Since all art has objective qualities, we can measure them and compare them to some standard.  This, I would argue, is the measure of the “goodness” of art.  The reason art appears so subjective is each individual’s different value weightings: some people like sports games.  I do not.  A sports game could be excellent – perfectly crafted, even – and I might still dislike it.  A game could be more or less realistic or fantastic – and each individual’s preference for those qualities would shape their opinion of a game.  A game could have many flaws – poorly balanced mechanics, for example – but still have a fantastic story and setting – making some people love the game all the same.  We all have our biases: in looking at a game or reviewing one, we can only hope to show our biases and state what makes us think a game is “good” or “bad”.  So from here, I’m going to move to a more fuzzy look at what makes a game good.

A Good Video Game

A good game needs to be fun.  That’s probably a little vague.  What I mean by this is that a person playing a game should want to keep playing that game, and that a person shouldn’t be spending time or money to not play that game – I’m looking at you, microtransaction-based mobile game trash.  This is an obvious one for me and probably most people.  What might be less obvious is the idle clicker – Cookie Clicker, Adventure Capitalist, or Clicker Heroes – and to a lesser (but still unforgivable) extent, any game which wastes your time through required grinding.  I used to play these games, but at some point while playing Crusaders of the Lost Idols, something broke within me and I realized I wasn’t really having fun.  These are bad games.  They are not fun.  I don’t mean this in a subjective way – I mean that they are objectively terrible, non-fun games, and that their insidiously addictive nature is actively attempting to waste your life.

These sorts of games give you a mindless or inanely repetitive task. By their very nature, these can’t be tasks that require too much thought or challenge – else you might fail too often and stop playing.  For doing this, you are presented with something that appears rewarding and giving you with the satisfaction of beating a challenge without the actual challenge.  This can be progress through an infinite number of levels, a level up that gets you a hundredth of the way to your next goal, or even something as simple as a satisfying clicky noise.  A very easy tell for this game design mindset is exponential growth (adding more and more zeros to the end of numbers).  Exponential growth means that you end up with bigger and bigger numbers to create the illusion of power – you even find this in MMORPGs.  But it’s all fake – progress toward an unreachable goal is no progress at all, bigger and bigger numbers are just a mindless power fantasy, and a game that with continual non-challenges is just hiding the fact that no one bothered to actually make a video game.

On the other extreme, we also have to consider games like That Dragon, Cancer – which aren’t designed to be fun in the traditional sense, but rather to evoke an emotional response and tell you a story in a somewhat interactive way.  It might be a misuse of language to say, but: catharsis is a form of fun.  A sad game can be fun – as long as it isn’t constantly dark.  To the Moon, for example, is an excellent example of a fun but sad game.  The problem with That Dragon, Cancer, is that it is not a good game in addition to not being fun.  The problem is one of player choice.

A good game needs interactivity.  There’s a line from an RPG guidebook I read – Gamemastering by Brian Jameson (and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, also check out The Game Master by Tobiah Q. Panshin): “[A]ny game that has a predetermined conclusion isn’t a game.”  It’s a bold statement – and hard to swallow from a video game standpoint.  It would certainly make things like Kentucky Route Zero (or any point-and-click game) harder to critique from a gaming perspective.  And it would be unfair to say any linear game can’t be good.  What makes linear games like Dragon Age, Broken Sword, or even Half-Life 2 good is the presence of meaningful input.

Meaningful input comes in the form of either challenge or choices.  A game doesn’t always need meaningful choices if it provides a good challenge, and it doesn’t always need challenge if it provides meaningful choices.  But it does need one of the two.  A game is failing to be “good” when it has too long of periods without asking the player for some meaningful input.  Sometimes, this comes in the form of over-long cutscenes.  Sometimes, this comes from forcing the players to make choices that either don’t matter or don’t make sense.  Sometimes, it’s from reducing the sum of player input to pressing forward.  Yes, this means that visual novels would be bad games, but taking them as games is the wrong approach – we’ll talk more about that later.  A more subtle manifestation of a lack of meaningful input are mechanics like quick-time events, and a fantastically bad example of this is in Tomb Raider.  There, failure of a QTE during a cutscene or jumpscare in usually results in immediate, gory death and a loading screen.  A QTE is not meaningful input because it does not allow for failure.

A good game needs to let you fail.  “But Lepcis,” you say: “I’ve died more times than Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow.  All games let you fail.”  “Ah,” I would say back, “but death isn’t letting you fail.”  During one of our game-night discussions – this time about DOOM – Chezni pointed out to me that death in video games is the video game telling you that it’s retconning what just happened and reversing your progress to the last save.  Like Tom Cruise – or better, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the last few events just never happened because you didn’t do them right.  That’s not meaningful input – that’s railroading.  In our discussion, we were trying to figure out why DOOM was less good than the old Doom games.  Part of it seemed to be that the older Doom games let you fail a lot more – without outright killing you – whereas death comes swiftly (or, on lower difficulties, not at all) in the new DOOM.  In the originals, you’d pay for your early mistakes later because you could be low on ammunition and health – but that’s exactly what letting you fail is all about.

Dark Souls has three truly superb methods of letting you fail.  First, your healing item (Estus) is an infinitely renewable resource.  If you make a mistake in combat, you can use your Estus flask to heal – and it takes just the right amount of time to be a punishment for making a mistake, while not completely preventing you from recovering from that mistake.  If you then make too many mistakes and run out of Estus, you must rest at a bonfire to refill – which respawns all the enemies.  Finally, death in Dark Souls doesn’t blindly reverse your progress: it gives you a chance to regain what you lost at death.  It’s only after two consecutive deaths that you truly lose any progress.  This brings me to a valuable lesson from Dark Souls:  The punishment for failure shouldn’t be stopping gameplay.  That’s why there is Estus in Dark Souls and why there are mushrooms in Super Mario.

Finally, a good game needs to be understandable.  I’m far from an expert – I mean, my degree is in math – I’m barely a passionate amateur.  But I think that the word for what I’m getting at is conveyance.  There should never be a time when all you are left with is a desperate “What do I do?” followed by a quick Google to GameFAQs – or, in the case of pre-internet times, wandering around for fifteen minutes followed by rage-quitting.  The trouble with not having an understandable game comes at several points.  If the game doesn’t introduce mechanics well, you’ll be stuck when trying to apply them later – or even trying to progress at all.  If the results of your actions aren’t clearly shown (at least at first), you won’t be able to figure out what the game want you to do.  If a game is complex without clarity, it will be hard to pick up if you leave it for a while.

In puzzle games this challenge is different, but equally important.  The solution to a puzzle shouldn’t leave you with the feeling of “How was I supposed to figure that out?“, but with a sense of accomplishment.  How to do this is truly marvelous, but this paragraph is too small to contain the proof.  Sorry – that’s a bad math joke.  Good puzzle design is hard.  Really hard.  This is why so many point-and-click adventure games are frustrating or simply require Googling.  I am always impressed wherever puzzle design is done well.  Submachine and Covert Front are some of the finest examples of this, next to Portal and Portal 2.

The obvious examples of conveyance in non-puzzle games are things like the Super Mario World 1-1 or Mega Man; and for 3D games, there are no better examples that I have played than Valve’s games, particularly Half-Life 2.  When you first play a game, the easy way out is a tutorial and/or keymap.  For PC games, having something tell you the controls is almost unavoidable given the number of available keys.  And while tutorials aren’t inherently bad (though many are made badly), they aren’t the most elegant way to teach someone your game.  In general, the more information a game provides its players during gameplay the better – Renowned Explorers does this to the extreme, and it does it brilliantly.  In puzzle games it’s the same: as Egoraptor said – a puzzle is something you have all the information for.

With Our Powers Combined

I’ve tried to just list the elements that must be present for a game to be good.  Maybe I’ve missed some, and maybe I’ve included one that I shouldn’t have.  I’m far from fallible.  And a game with all the above elements might still not be good.  In math, we call this necessary but not sufficient.  Perhaps even more important, a good video game can still have flaws.  Dark Souls, for all its wonder and story and mechanics, does still have its issues.

And a good video game doesn’t always have to be taken as a game.  A visual novel or linear adventure like Kentucky Route Zero (and, though I would still argue against it: That Dragon, Cancer) has to be taken as not only a game, but as a book, movie, and game all in one.  Interactivity can be sacrificed as long as the result doesn’t pretend to have interactivity.  This is the trouble with telling a story in a game – it’s a balance between the player accepting the limits of what a video game can do and the video game allowing for player freedom.  It’s what so many AAA games fail at, and what The Stanley Parable, Save the Date!, Undertale, and ICEY succeed so well at.  I highly recommend playing at least the first two of those (I haven’t finished ICEY yet).

A Perfect Video Game

Is it possible to make the “best ever” video game?  No.  The “best video game ever” will never exist because no game can be all things to all people.  A game can’t be both long and short, both realistic and fantastic.  But is it possible to make a “perfect” video game?  I think so.

  • A perfect video game would be one that has all the features it needs and no more.
  • It goes on long enough to do everything it can, and then ends.
  • It implements its mechanics in a balanced (and preferably natural) way.
  • It doesn’t make the player feel as if they are constrained by what the developer expected them to do.
  • It lets the player immerse themselves in a world with decisions that don’t feel forced, but still carry consequence.
  • And, most fuzzily: you can’t think of any way that “it could have been better.”

I think this has been done at least several times – with FTLLegend of Grimrock 2, and the Stanley Parable.  FTL allows you to interact as much or as little as you like in the world.  Legend of Grimrock 2 tells a story, provides challenge and new environments, and all the while just feels good.  The Stanley Parable is an interactive story that always provides you with a third option (the broom closet ending was my favorite!).

I won’t go further, since it’s very hard to really say a game has all of these qualities and my video game experience is still limited – but I wouldn’t imagine there are too many more.  The reason there I believe there are so few is that the bigger, more complex your game is, the harder it is to make everything perfect.  The three games I mentioned are all small games with incredibly well-fleshed-out mechanics.  Doing that with a larger game is practically untenable – you often end up with games like Skyrim that, while fun, are “as wide as an ocean, as deep as a puddle.”  More favorably, you end up with a game like Dark Souls or Dark Souls III (III comes very close, but that might just be my bias), where most things are done fabulously, but there are still flaws to be found.  The flaws may make the game more endearing, but not better.  Thanks for reading this far, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts, whatever they may be!

 

Hmm…now I just want to sneak in a reference to Escape Velocity: Nova.  Oh dear – EV:N has been out for 15 years?  Now I feel old.

 

 

Chezni’s take: (Let’s get ready to Raaaaamble!)

 

What is the Point of a Game?

What is the point of playing a game? Many may answer, “to have fun.” Putting aside the question of “why do we want to have fun in the first place,” it is only natural to conclude that if the goal of a game is to “have fun,” then within the selection of products that can be defined as “games” (specifically video games in our case) there must be a degree of quality through which one can accomplish or acquire a larger or lesser quantity of fun, depending on the product used. Long before Lepcis and I sat down to write out these essays individually, we wrestled long with the concept of a “good” game. “Good” seemed so subjective—a flighty word that when thrown around at a dinner table it can certainly be met with some level of acceptance, but try to prove to someone who disagrees with you why something is good, or even try to capture the concept of good and bad with pen and paper and you’ll find the task to be a messy one.

In the end, “fun” and “good” can be defined by the user to support whatever their argument is. After all, that is the nature of words and their definitions. What Lepcis and I seek to explore and with luck discover here, is not a way to define human words, nor a secret rubric through which we can grade a gamekind. Instead we yearn uncover the Plato-esque shape that the pure form of “game” takes. Just what is the universal truth that is game? Why is Chrono Trigger considered to be a good game? Why is Chrono Cross not? Why do shallow micro-transaction games flourish while unique and thought provoking games lie untouched? What, truly, is the purpose of a game?

 

The Word Fun.

We shall start with the word, “fun.”

Fun, itself, is generally a feeling humans desire, both because it feels pleasant and because it lacks the unpleasant. Fun can stimulate our bodies to produce chemicals that tell us to keep doing whatever it is that we are doing. Fun can make us feel accomplished, or achieved, especially if a goal is completed at the end. It can provide relief from stress—enough of it will make you forget about everything else except what you’re doing to create it. Generally, these feelings and emotions are considered positive, and so naturally a product that is designed and purposed to do nothing but supply this feeling seems to lack a downside.

 

Fun is Vague. Kind of like this Essay

However, let’s appreciate the complexity that is human emotion, the manner in which it is elicited and how quickly fun bleeds into other things. When a child beats another level in Super Mario Brothers, the feeling of accomplishment provided by the fanfare and the game’s visual celebration of the player’s actions creates a sense of value within the player. When an adolescent plays out their sexual fantasies in any of the Sims games, the player feels a rush of satisfaction from the digital fulfillment of what their body’s hormones are constantly urging them to accomplish. When a horror-enthusiast feels the thrill of being tormented by dozens of ghosts in Fatal Frame, their excitement and adrenaline fuels them to proceed further into the horrors of the Mansion. All of these people may describe their actions as “fun,” but in few ways are they similar.

 

The First Purpose of a Game is to Experience a Feeling.

Thus, I subject that fun is a phantom; an illusion. Fun is a vague word used, perhaps, at one point to describe a precise place in the emotional dimension of human experience, but now exists as a word so diluted through use that it has lost any concrete meaning. In evidence of this, I will define fun as “a desired feeling gained from an input of some kind,” and since we are dealing with video games specifically, I will say “a desired feeling received from an outcome of a video game.”  Fun has become, as so many things are, an unclear attribute of human existence. It is a lens through which we peer at the world around us. Video games are a part of our world; the fact that they are digital makes our conquest in them no less. This does not, however, mean that our understanding of such conquests necessarily carry the weight that the game’s implications are intended to convey to us—after all, the social media and cell phone markets are bulging with an endless supply of packaged fake accomplishments, cheated of any actual sustenance—but that is part of our responsibility as gamers, nay, as people to challenge the validity of the products we consume. Regardless, if fun is the primary purpose of a game, this means that with a game we input our time, effort, thoughts and so many other parts of ourselves in order to receive a feeling that in most cases is designed to make us feel good.

 

Games are like Drugs.

By this notion, games are simply a tool humans use to manipulate their emotions. This is not to say that a game cannot be educational—nor is this to say that a game cannot increase the player’s skill in one aspect or another—it is just that the majority of games are not designed with this as their primary function. At best, the only thing that a player can be left with aside from a feeling is maybe a message or an idea but even these messages and ideas are only meaningful or impactful to the player when accompanied by a strong emotional tie to something within the game. Otherwise, the player will just forget them and move on.

Don’t be disheartened though, since so much of what we as humans do is just an act of satisfying one emotion over another. A person who volunteers at social welfare organization satisfies their emotion of mercy and kindness. A successful businessman that does nothing but work his way to the top satisfies his feelings for power and accomplishment. A girl who reads books in a library satisfies her feelings of wonderment and curiosity. In so many ways, we are governed by our desires and our actions upon such desires. We can choose to ignore some feelings that we dislike and possibly through good habits create other feelings that we wish to have, but no person can nor should live a life in which they don’t ever act upon their feelings. To do so is considered heartless or soulless.

 

A Soap Box Call to Self-Esteem.

Gamers, this is our greatest defense against an outside world that may ridicule us for our passions. This is our greatest refuge when the world tells us our hobbies are a waste of time—when in our weakest moments, we may tell ourselves that our passions are a waste of time. Gaming is no less a legitimate method in which we explore our world, in which we learn, feel, love and live, than any other activity in the world. What matters is how we do it and what we do it with; how and what we play.

 

The Second Purpose of a Game is to Receive a Message.

Now, this rabbit-hole of thought that we have plunged into does have a purpose—the purpose being that we can now identify the primary function of a game: to create a feeling within the player. There are 2 other purposes for a game, but these fall under lesser categories. The first is to send a message to the player. This can be as simple as “Good always wins,” or can be as complex as “Good is a relative concept who’s meaning changes depending on the enactor of good and its witnesses, which is often overlooked because humans don’t like asking inconvenient questions if they believe that they have the moral high ground.” Both messages are A-OK to have in a game but both will lead the player to thinking along different lines. As a game designer, your game will always send a message—as players, we need to ask ourselves “Does the message matter to us,” and if not or if so “Are we okay with being exposed to it?”

 

The Third Purpose is to Grow.

The other secondary purpose of a game is growth. The growth itself can come in a couple different forms. The player can grow in skill. They can grow in knowledge. They can grow in the ability to problem solve, think out of the box, or even grow in friendship with other people if the game is multiplayer. Regardless, a game that does not allow the player to grow isn’t a game at all—it’s just like an average calculator. The average calculator has inputs and outputs just like a game, but you can’t make the calculator perform the function of 2+2 better than it already does—it will always return the result of 4. Thus, a game cannot exist without growth of some kind. The question we as players need to ask ourselves concerning the purpose of a game is “Is there growth at all, how are we growing, and is the growth desirable?”

 

Seeing Past the Looking Glass

Take a game as simple as Adventure Capitalist for example. Now, Lepcis and I despise any kind of “idle” or “clicker” game, but I must admit that for a while I spent the odd in-between minutes of many of my days tapping away on my phone, increasing my imaginary Adventure Capitalist funds in the most mathematically effective way possible. I enjoyed playing the game—I enjoyed the somewhat clever references and relatively witty popups for achievements—but eventually I got to a point where I forced myself to stop. I came to the conclusion that all I was doing was running through my same predetermined mathematical formulas for success, running through the same process of resetting from the beginning with a faster growth rate—I was perfectly trained by the game to be part of absolutely nothing more than a few equations that ran on their own and simply required a few button-presses to increase their rate.

The feeling of the game was “enablement” or “empowerment” or “success.” These feelings made me happy, and so I continued to play. The message however was just “get more.” This is not necessarily a taboo message when it comes to games (after all, every single point-based game out there has this at the core of its message) but it is not a deep or meaningful enough message to justify a large amount of value in a game on its own. Lastly, the growth that the game created in the player was the ability to recognize completely stabilized investment procedures and the most effective manner in which to increase one’s funds. While this may sound complicated, it really wasn’t. While it may sound like it contains real-world application, it does so only minorly. Once you’d figured out the basic never-changing return rates on any of the investments, the game was no longer about logic, but a game about pattern—the same pattern over and over and over again.

In the end, my conclusion was that if I were to continue to spend time playing Adventure Capitalist, I would be agreeing to hand the limited time I have on this earth over to set of math equations in exchange for not growth, not a good message, but simply to make myself feel good. Now, I don’t mean this as a political statement, but if I may draw the comparison, I believe that those who do little else in their life other than sit around and get high or inebriated essentially agree to the same thing—and I value their decision as little as I would have valued mine, should I have made the decision to continue playing. I did not.

 

Discrediting Myself to Gain Credibility

Now, this is not an attempt to take a moral high ground, nor is it an attempt to create a hierarchy whereupon I am telling anyone how they should live their life. Remember, our goal is to identify what a “good” or “perfect” game is in a universal, pure understanding. If you are a hedonist, what do you care if a game is actually good or perfect? By the logic that if it feels good then it is good, there would be nothing wrong with the continued play of Adventure Capitalist—the fact that it did not provide anything of value other than a feeling would be irrelevant. However, the subjective view of humanity does not create reality. It merely creates a human’s view and understanding of reality.

Now, as I am not God, I cannot prove to you that emotions, messages, and growth are universally valuable. I cannot write out an equation that would compel any critic to take my side. In truth, I am no different than the Hedonist, in that I witness the world around me in a subjective manner and create conclusions based around this subjectivity. However, in light that I cannot nor can anyone prove these things, I will boldly choose to make a statement claiming to define them, admitting that anyone with a different opinion has just as much right or reason (as long as reason had been used) to disagree with me and posit a differing viewpoint. The statement concludes as follows:

 

Finally, The Point.

 

“A good game creates a healthy emotion, gives a thought-provoking message, and promotes continued growth within the player.”

 

“A perfect game is identical to a good game, with the exception that there exists realistically no change that could improve the game in any way—only make it different, or add more to what is already there.”

 

A good or perfect game encapsulates many of the best aspects of human potential and creates a platform through which to truly live. It is our job as gamers to choose the healthiest and best products for ourselves to ingest; to settle for less is to devalue ourselves and the medium that we claim to love so much.