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COG I: A Good Game, A Long Thought

Caram on Games (COG) is an occasional ramble in which I discuss computer gaming, gaming culture and how I perceive them, in an attempt to talk about a medium that I've always been passionate about, or at least enjoyed. Every part is an exploration of thoughts, meaning that it comes together as it is written- so while they may meander for a while, a point will eventually be reached. Maybe. After a lot of talking. And fewer pictures than befits a visual medium. 

Let's start with the basics:


What makes a good game?

This question has as many answers as there are ways to make a game, and most of them are subjective, dependent on how the individual gamer experiences their play, how deeply they are willing to delve into the details surrounding a game and how much time this will take, expectations towards gameplay and stortytelling, the studio and publisher, familiarity with methods of non-linear stories… This answer becomes more complicated from a publication and development perspective, as it includes many business aspects that the individual consumer does not need to consider- and as an individual consumer, I won't, save the consideration that I won't spend money on a game only to discover I need to spend more money to actually finish it.

But I can answer this question for myself, in three parts:

01. But can you actually eat that Sweetroll?

My first personal answer is "do the story and gameplay systems allow me, as an individual experiencing this game, to experience it in a way that is specific to me, or is it the same experience for everyone?" After that is answered, if I ask the question "did I enjoy the experience?", it may be a good game, but it has not passed my subjective quality test. If I play the game more than once, and it continues to allow for surprises, non-linear twists and the gameplay deepens after the first playthrough, then I may be on to a winner.

This is why I continue to be fascinated by isometric tactical games- XCOM for instance- and cannot consider a game with a linear narrative and many cutscenes I cannot really affect a game's world, save for slaughter- this would include the Tomb Raiders and Uncharteds of this world. If I want to watch a film, that is an option. If I play a game, I expect to affect the surrounding world in ways that are specific to me, who is playing the game, even if this is limited by the games systems to a point. For instance, Papers Please has a highly restrictive setting (you spend most of the game in a kiosk at a border crossing), but every decision you make in that setting has an effect on the game world, and every player will approach the game in a way that is specific to them.

My ready example for this is contrasting the gameplay of vanilla (unmodded) Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks) with the gameplay of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, not having played Mankind Divided). Both are first-person games, set in worlds as open as the technology of the time allows, published in 2011 (ancient, I know), and both were critically well- received for different reasons. The difference between them that is relevant to this comparison is that combat encounters in Skyrim are not puzzles- you rush at your opponents to hack them to pieces before they do it to you, using either melee or ranged weapons, occasionally blocking, or taking a couple of steps back to avoid damage.

In Deus Ex, you decide whether or not to engage in combat when faced with opponents- you are given the option to avoid almost every enemy you meet using the environment. And when you do engage in combat, most encounters will play out much better with a bit of planning and observation beforehand, puzzling out a path through overwhelming odds. No matter how much I like the world of the Elder Scrolls, I will always prefer puzzling my way through encounters to the power fantasy of killing an overlord zombie with two blows. Although Deus Ex is much more linear in the way it presents its world to you, the gameplay situations presented allow for a much more specific experience, and the thought given to most encounters requires a level of personal engagement that I cannot find in, for example, a Skyrim.

Expectations, Technology and Illusions

This may also be due to the promise the games make: Skyrim promises to be an immersive world, in which you can be anything you want, as long as it is epic and Dragonborn. Deus Ex promises a thought- provoking romp through a cyberpunk world in the shoes of Adam Jensen presented as a linear story. The first promises a world, in which stories happen. The second offers a setting for a story that is fleshed out enough to become a world which supports the premise of the story.

My expectations for Skyrim included that, if I want to, I can spend a playthrough establishing myself as a farmer, or as a touring minstrel- that the time I put into the game world outside of the main story will be rewarded with meaningful changes to that world. In the base game, I am limited to killing, talking to people, carrying things from A to B (which includes sneaking around and stealing stuff) and occasionally making things- so many things. Though there is a lot to see, and the game world is an epic reality to behold, and well-constructed on top of that, I didn't find so much to do in it until I began adding those things myself. There is a lot of window dressing in Skyrim- a lot to look at, but a lot of it is decoration, rather than a functional detail within the game, limiting the possibilities of interactions that are specific to the individual player- again, in the base game. I do have to add that it feels cheap to pick on Skyrim for negative examples of interactions with the a game world, as it does offer a great number of them, and most of the objects you find in the game world are dynamic (as in- you can interact with them). However, very few hold any kind of weight beyond passively maintaining the illusion that you have- for example- had dinner: you can cook it, you can eat it, but it doesn't really do anything, even if it is a sweetroll.

My expectation to Deus Ex was, at first, that I would spend most of the game killing people while experiencing a thought-provoking story, only to discover on my second playthrough that most situations offered me several approaches, including the option to play through without killing anyone (except 3 bosses, a design decision heavily criticised by gamers and critics alike). It also presents me with gameplay in which decisions I make will affect how further interactions (in a level, or beyond) will unfold- there is a cascade of consequences to the way you approach any given situation. Even if most of decisions boil down to incapacitate, evade or talk, I never felt restricted by gameplay systems in the way I did decide- within the logic of the game, most things were possible.

Thus, although Skyrim- on paper- offers a greater and more detailed world to play around with, and a story that can be approached in a less linear fashion that Deus Ex's (if at all), the experience created in the former through the gameplay is less specific to the individual player than the latter, save for their choices in location in which to undertake those actions. The story will play out in exactly one way, save for two choices: one is a faction choice, the other concerns distribution of power. Deus Ex's story will also play out in one way, however many choices flavour the journey through the game, and within a given location, they all affect each other. There are no ways to affect the outcome of the narrative, but even so, attempts were made to give each player a subjective closure to their narrative.

To clarify this a bit: there are, from where I stand, four ability choices you make in Skyrim that have an effect on the game world: whether to use light weapons, heavy weapons, ranged weapons or magic. All of these skills are related to combat, and most skills in the game are directly tied to affecting the way a combat encounter will play out. There are few activities outside of quests that are not related to fighting- reading, listening to music, shopping and cooking. There are very few conversations (outside of plot events) with a visible outcome on the game world, save for leading you towards more combat. In a world that claims to offer you all the freedom, it is disappointing that most choices lead to the same fight and that fight will play out in similar ways, no matter how you have prepared for it. So, though there is a personal point in creating a character, their background, training them and roll-playing as them, the game does not reward these choices with any kind of meaningful feedback, nor is the endgame really affected by choices you made in the lead-up.

Deus Ex gives you two initial options: to kill, or not to. The major difference here is that all subsequent decisions are tied, however loosely, to the overall plot, though you can semi-dance if you wish to. But every decision, including how to approach combat, defines the character you are playing as, and how the world around you will unfold in the rest of the playthrough. Though it is not quite fair, as it is not part of the base game, the chapter "The Missing Link" is a beautifully contained example of cause and effect. You cannot eat in Deus Ex, however, but the game does not claim to introduce you to the local cuisine. Even if all the choices lead to the same fight, how you finally approach that fight is determined by previous choices made and abilities gained throughout the course of the game.

To me, it comes down to the decisions you can make that have a noticeable effect on the world that you inhabit, and whether the game gives different players options that will accommodate different playstyles and tastes. Even if those decisions are made within a fixed narrative, does the gameplay allow for an emergent, personal narrative of play that ties the players actions to the narrative, or is it, in spite of superficially offering freedom of choice, maintaining the illusion of freedom?

Most games, even the ones played from a first-person perspective, are played looking over the shoulder of a character. In the current Deus Ex, you are Adam Jensen, thus you approach most situations from how your version of him would tackle them, and all conversation happens in his voice, from his perspective. Your experience is coloured by his worldview. In Skyrim, you play yourself playing a version of the character of the Dragonborn. Though the character is- intentionally- left much more vague than the very concrete Jensen, the world's inhabitants will not fail to remind you that you are this particular character at a certain stage on their Hero's Journey. You are living the story of a predetermined character, even if you can give them a new face.

Immersed, Sunken and Submerged

I'm going to contrast both of those games with a more recent one- Subnautica (2018, Otherworlds). Subnautica is almost unique in my gameplay experience in how first-person it is, even if the game's underlying systems can appear to be very simple when compared to other games.

Subnautica is different from the first two examples in that you are alone, stranded on an alien planet. It is best experienced for the first time without any kind of foreknowledge of the game, and, through the course of a playthrough, becomes a world the player inhabits as their character (contrast with: In the role of their character). It does not include other characters who might situate you in the world- the only sources of feedback on your progress are what you have built and how deep you can dive. Though you can fight, combat is not designed to be satisfying, so that you can't measure your progress by the size of your kills.

Though it does have a linear narrative that guides the player from location to location, this narrative can go unnoticed- or ignored- for as long as an individual player wants to. The game does not offer too much guidance about what you are supposed to be doing, or in which order, leaving the player to discover a world at their own pace. It allows you to influence the world, and decide your impact on it, in the form of a base-building mechanic and includes a limited set of tools to work with.

My first experience with the game was very specific to me and the situation I found myself in at the beginning of the game: Faced with a crashed starship, a planet covered in an endless, possibly bottomless, ocean and a fear of diving in, I noped out and shut the game down. Upon starting it up again, I spent half an ingame year gingerly exploring my surroundings and expanding my radius of action, my initial fear turning first into wonder, then into familiarity and finally into a level of comfort in and with this world that I discovered for myself, rather than be guided through it by ingame mechanics.

I discovered and built a set of tools that made my life easier, set up a base that I ended up calling home and chose a "Salty Reggie" as my favourite dish. After I discovered a certain location, I became worried that I would be dying soon, and started looking for a solution to my situation with some haste. I do not recall making any kind of decisions because the game had ever-so subtly hinted that this is what I should be doing. I was making my decisions in a way that made sense to me personally due to causes and with effects that were in line to what the game world had led me to expect, based on the knowledge available to me. The way I approached Subnautica was very specific to me as a person outside the game, from start to finish, and the world had been designed in a way that allowed- within the rules it set- for me to do so, and the satisfaction and sadness I derived from finishing it was personal, rather than projected upon my in-game avatars win-state. It felt like leaving a home you have carefully built for yourself, and a place that you have made familiar, for a much more uncertain reality.

To contrast: by the time I got to the endgame in Skyrim, I had seen the sights, heard the sounds and slain more than a couple of dragons. I was tired of repeating the same actions (combat, mostly, and some sneaking to avoid it) on what increasingly felt like a collection of stick figures with health bars, not really having a reason to vary my approach to them. I had played the game for about 40 hours, and wanted to get to the end of the game and put it to rest, and return to that world later. When it was over, the game was telling me I should be rejoicing and happy, but somehow, I was not. I did not feel that I had accomplished anything specific to me, discovered something really new, or found my way through insurmountable odds. I watched the final huzzah, thinking to myself. Okay, good for them. In spite of the considerable time poured into the game, I never felt like I was at home here: in spite of owning several houses, accumulating a large collection of books and having a number of functional, but faithful companions, I was not a part of this world. At the end of Deus Ex, I was disappointed by the ending(s), but immediately rushed in to New Game+ at a higher difficulty- this was a world that still left me a lot to discover, I wanted to try a few other dialogue branches and by then, I had discovered that I had been shooting my way through a game that was meant to be played stealthily- a worthy challenge. Unlike Skyrim, which did not promise anything except more Skyrim, this game was going to offer me a completely different experience the second time.

I believe that Subnautica illustrates my first criterium well: though every player will experience the same game world, possibly using the same set of tools and engage in similar activities, it includes several systems and design choices that make the individual experience a very subjective one and allows for interactions with the game world that allow each player to develop their own, specific relationship with the world we collectively inhabit separately. While the landmarks are similar, each player will have their own set of connotations and events connected to them, ranging from "nothing happened" to "I remember dying here". Choices (well- one choice I know of) related to the narrative play out depending on how you choose to approach them and though everyone will ultimately get the same ending, they will arrive at that ending having affected 4546B in ways that are specific to the person playing at the time they are- the game you are playing develops as you play it. It is worth returning to a second time, having acquired experience in that game, to experience it again as a seasoned survivalist, which changes a lot about how you approach the goals in the game. The difference to Deus Ex and Skyrim is that Subnautica did not become a game until I finished it the first time- up to that point, I was too busy surviving on an alien planet to realise I was playing.

From this long thought, apart from my original definition, I derive three gameplay related terms: Situational Agency, as found in Deus Ex's freeform encounters set in a fixed narrative; Suggested Freedom, which is what I encountered in Skyrim in spite of its many theoretical possibilities that never quite became an actuality; and Emergent Play, which is how I would define my experience in Subnautica- this term, not mine, describes gameplay decisions puzzled out based on what is presented in the game, and usually some physics. To a certain degree, all of these terms hopefully apply to any game, and they do not appear on opposing corners of an imaginary triangle, but the way they are blended in a particular game defines the way it plays out.





Links & Notes

Joseph Anderson: A Critique of Subnautica on the good and bad sides of Subnautica.
Joseph Anderson: Fallout 4- One Year Later on gameplay loops and crafting video game stories
Noah Caldwell-Gervais: The Complete Skyrim vs. Dragon Age on two approaches to making RPG's
Chris Davis: Prey- The Illusion of Choice  on how offering many choice sometimes renders choice meaningless.
Mark Brown: The Rise of The Systemic Game on how games systems allow for experimentation

Reading: The significance of Subnauticas cascading Failures mostly because it gave me the word "cascading"


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