Games That Are Their Own Reward

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.

25 thoughts on “Games That Are Their Own Reward

    • You haven’t played enough JRPGs. Most JRPGs are the same shit over and over again. There are a few exceptions though.

        • I quite liked Resonance of Fate; the plot was admittedly confusingly told and not often clear, but it had a sense of humour that manifested at times in an almost Kojima-esque absurd fashion, an incredibly rewarding set of gameplay mechanics that took more time to master than most, and a visually impressive setting.

          Also I’m not sure I’m a “hardcore gamer” in that I’ll happily spend dozens of hours perfecting a game, or even that I’m particularly good at games (I’m not – it took me a very long time to beat Taurus Demon, let alone Capra Demon or Quelaag and my Dark Souls adventurer has been stuck on the first room in Sen’s Fortress for months) – what it’s more a case of is I figure if people want video games to be taken seriously as a medium, the way the quality of a game is considered needs to change.

          • A friend of mine rented and played Resonance of Fate. I don’t remember if he liked it or not, I only remember calling it “weird” but I’ll ask him if he thinks I’d like it and maybe give it a shot.

            By the way if you haven’t read them before, I recommend the articles which Michael links to below. I’ve been reading them for hours and, while the tone is very aggressive, all of the points are spot-on and fascinating.

            • I read those articles; I’m not quite sure I agree that all modern games are as unrewarding as he argues, but I do agree there’s a lot more reward in games where the act of competition against the game requires something more than simple time investment. I find the ultimate skill test is competing against another player, myself.

              As to ROF, I think it’s interesting in that for an RPG, it really makes each encounter and dungeon a sort of board-game like puzzle played against the game. Each dungeon takes the form of a series of tiles to fill in; efficient routes give easier progress while more complex routes lead to greater rewards. Similarly the combat is quite puzzle-like; there’s a strong resource-management aspect in how to use your various weapons and upgrades, as well as an aspect of reaction-testing in the air-combo and chain attack mechanics.

              Some people didn’t like the lack of clear goals and high level of abstraction it uses, but I thought it was refreshing to have something that revelled in how abstract it was.

  1. Go play tales of graces f then you can say shit about JRPG’s though I seriously doubt anything will come out of your mouth except praise.

    • Does Tales of Graces F by chance involve saving the world? Because that’s exactly the story cliche I’m complaining about. But nevermind that, I never said I didn’t like JRPGs, I said that I used to love them and have fallen out with them. For years, Tales of Symphonia was my favorite game ever and I think Tales of Vesparia is pretty awesome, too.

    • That was pretty amazing, despite a tone along the lines of the Yoshinoya rant. It does make me want to live in that culture, but like many cultures, I know better than to hope or obsess for it. I’d rather focus on the cultures which I’m already a part of and can be a member of in a fulfilling way.

      I am not a hardcore gamer. I give up. I would like to imagine that I can power through things, but the fact of the matter is that my interests may be too broad to settle into a rhythm of becoming a hardcore gamer. But I have nothing but respect for the culture and look up to it myself.

      Rather than be a proper arcade gamer, though, I’ve often thought I’d dedicate myself to playing one game for as long as it took to master it. Not even all at once, but over years. I know that I’d never get recognized or something as a master when so many masters will have come and gone, but it’s not about recognition (for once). It’s about me wanting to really be a master of a game. And I’d love it if I got that out of Dark Souls eventually.

        • In the case of the insomniac article, it’s just more of the same from him, and sadly more of the worst part of his writing, which is his bitching about people. The way he talks about women doesn’t bother me because he talks the same way about men that he hates. He’s just a general asshole. He says so plenty of times in the article, and he’s already so wrapped up in himself that his opinions don’t matter to anyone but him to begin with. I just ignore the stuff I don’t agree with to get to the interesting ideas, and it’s the same in all of his writing regardless of subject matter.

          As for the article about sexism, it’s certainly true that most people aren’t sexist. So much so that I don’t even notice any kind of sexism problem because I don’t read or interact with any idiots who might be sexist. And if I did, it would be so impossible to take them seriously that I wouldn’t think much of it. It’s like reading youtube comments—at first I think, “is this guy an idiot?” and then I think, “yes, he is.” and I move along.

  2. For other non-traditional JRPG experiences, there’s plenty if you know where to look – Valkyria Chronicles, the entire SMT franchise (even if you didn’t like Persona 2, the other branches might have something for you), Odin Sphere, Demon’s Souls (the predecessor to Dark, and in my opinion superior in some ways).

    I think the point that you seem to bring up (and correct me if I’m misinterpreting you on this) is that games are essentially a reward experience: push buttons, receive shiny colours. And I think r042’s series of posts exemplify one end of the spectrum – players who want to see their button pushing actually result in different and divergent colours. A good number of the high budget game blockbusters are very good on delivering shiny colours, (Skyrim is a good example of this) but not necessarily as great on delivering “divergent ones”, or what players at least think are divergent ones.

    • I’ve played a bunch of SMT games and own a shitload of them, it’s a franchise I’d love to consider myself a fan of though I’m kind of tsundere for it right now. I do think the Devil Summoner games are amazing at breaking free from the other games’ redundancy. I also love Demon’s Souls, though I find it difficult to go back and play because I like Dark Souls a deal more (and am more used to its systems now). I do intend to play through Demon’s after I finish Dark, though. My friend loved Valkyria Profile and I’ve considered playing it because I like tactical games, though I’m not a fan of the game’s visual style. I also own Odin Sphere though I’ve never played past the first level or so (not for dislike of it just I’m lazy). The same is true of Muramasa which my brother owns.

  3. I remember playing Hexsyz Force on the PSP, the plot was the same shit, but the fun part was, I get to choose whether to doom the world or save the world (In other words, Destruction and Salvation) I wanted to get this weapon in the game that would make it lean towards destruction, but the save file got corrupted and I ragequitted.

    • I warn you that this is an incredibly hard game. It will test your patience to the brink as you die, and die, and die, and die, just trying to get through the first level. But if you can find enjoyment in all that death, it’s incredibly fun.

      • Already dying in the first level ? This sounds indeed like a lot of fun ! :) I just googled Dark Souls and according to Wiki it is a Japanese game, which is kind of odd because it’s really looks Western to me.

        I am not a great gamer, but I always thought that Grandia 2 was highly under-appreciated (I won’t say underrated). Yeah, it is on a superficial view another “Save The Earth”-RPG, but the character were a bit edgier in comparison to most Shonen Mary-Sues out there and the design had a very 90’s feeling to it (think of old anime like Orphen) And it was a realy pity that Tales Of Symphonia 02 was bashed by all these weeaboos. I am not saying it is good as Vesperia or the first Symphonia, but it had a very solid plot IMO and entertained me for a weekend.

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