R042 of Ideas Without End recently published a series of posts about his disillusionment with video games, concluding with what he’d like to see out of them in the future. He used Dark Souls (my favorite game) as an example of what to do right. The main idea I got from the post is that a great game is one whose reward for playing it is being able to play more of it.
Years ago, I got really into JRPGs. My reasoning was that the “story” was the most important aspect of a game to me, and I liked the stories in JRPGs the most. Nowadays, I can’t stand the stories in most JRPGs, leaving me with little else to care about. JRPGs aren’t particularly fun to play. They can be at times, but when I have to do things like hours of grinding, I grow tired of playing. If the story isn’t rewarding enough to continue, I wonder, “why am I playing this?”
I’m not a completionist. The last two games I reviewed, I did not complete. I was very into Persona 2 for a time, but as it wore on, everything became tiring. A once-interesting story evolved into the same trite “saving the world” BS that it always becomes in JRPGs, and the difficulty became arduous beyond the point of being fun. I made it to the final boss, but by then I cared so little and was so unwilling to keep grinding that I gave up.
Killer7 was very different. I never stopped loving the story to pieces, but the game became more challenging than I was willing to cope with. It wasn’t enough fun to play that I was willing to step up to its challenge. However, I think Killer7 is a great example of a game whose reward for playing it is getting to play more of it. The game has a unique and realized gameplay mechanic which some might enjoy and master. I lacked the patience to do so and didn’t enjoy it enough, but I get why others would go to the trouble.
Since reading r042’s post, I’ve thought about this every time I’ve played a game or watched others do so. I wonder, “what am I getting out of this game? What makes me want to keep playing this?” It’s a primal understanding I have about why I will or won’t keep playing a game. I could easily tell you specific reasons why I disliked a game, but it’s even more interesting to me how I can step back and really get a grand sense of why it is that I don’t enjoy it.
Take Skyrim, which r042 discusses in one of his posts.
A friend told me that he would’ve played Skyrim for 300+ hours if it had the battle system of Dark Souls. More than that, I think Skyrim needs *anything* rewarding to make it better. If it had a gripping and unique story, maybe it would justify the shit battle system. Of course, it’d never have one of those. I can count the number of games that really made me care about the story on ten digits or less. However, were there a real sense of accomplishment from winning battles, like there is in Dark Souls, it would be more interesting. Progress would be marked not by how much time you played the game, but by how well you mastered the gameplay.
Even JRPGs are better about this than something like Skyrim. In Skyrim, the most tactical element is managing your weapons/armor/magic/etc. and stat allocation. In JRPGs, these elements exist alongside the tactics used to win battles. Finding the perfect combinations of summons to breeze through a dungeon in Persona 2 is where much of the game’s satisfaction comes from. The only satisfaction I got from Skyrim was riding around on Applejack thanks to a pony mod. (And, to be fair, I got immersed in the one town I explored, though not as well as I did in five seconds of playing Dark Souls.)
I think I’m lucky not to be a hardcore gamer, because I don’t have to suffer any of r042’s disillusionment. Nor, indeed, the disillusionment of my favorite video game critic, Yahtzee. Unlike him, I don’t play a game every week and find myself drowning in how many shitty games there are. I only play the already-recognized gems handed down by reviewers like him. I generally like all of the games that I play, and I stop playing them when I stop liking them. I’m left with none of the negative emotions towards gaming as a whole that someone who plays them all would have.
I’ve been playing several games lately, but the one worth mention here is Yahtzee’s own recently-released action platformer, Poacher. Action platformers might be the best genre for what r042 calls “real games,” in that they tend to be the most challenging and most rewarding. They’re more streamlined than the likes of Dark Souls, but in Metroidvania games in particular, there’s still a huge amount of player agency in what you decide to do. There are often many things that are not necessary to finish the game, but still actually effect the game, like missile packs and health packs in Metroid. Getting these items is a decision which the player makes and alters the game in a meaningful way, which is important.
Anyway, we have Poacher, and it’s a game which I’m 33% through and don’t want to play anymore. Because Poacher really is a perfect example of a game whose reward is playing more of it, and being challenged further. It is highly influenced by another game that does this perfectly, Cave Story. Both are driven almost purely by gripping gameplay and challenge. And both of them, I couldn’t finish, because I gave up. I reached the final boss in Cave Story and found it entirely too difficult. Poacher is constantly punishing, and I know that it only gets harder as it goes, so I’m pretty much stuck in that one.
What the hell is the point I’m trying to make? I have no idea.