Meaningful Actions.

I like Chess, I would even go as far as to say I think it is a mechanically perfect game. The strength of Chess is that there are no redundant actions, there are no actions without consequences. Achieving a checkmate is not only dependant on the final move but on every preceding move, right back to the opening. Any change in that sequence of moves by either player will result in a radically different outcome.

Every move in Chess is meaningful because every move irreversibly changes the state of the game world and which subsequent moves are possible; all actions have consequences.

Redundant actions are those that are not meaningful, those for which there are no consequences, such actions are literally a waste of time, as nothing is gained from performing them.

The concept, that every action should be meaningful and have consequences, is one that has seemingly been abandoned, or at the very least greatly diminished, in recent years. Often for the purposes of increasing accessibility or pacing, and usually in games that feature some degree of authored narrative.

Consider Far Cry 2, the mechanic of respawning hostiles at checkpoints is implemented to prevent the world from ever becoming safe and thus damaging its representation of a country in the grip of civil war, yet the mechanic causes some actions to become redundant, meaningless. The core mechanic of the first person shooter genre is that of shooting hostile characters. This usually requires a degree of skill and comes at the cost of some form of ammunition. Even ignoring the cultural connotations of the act killing a hostile character is rich with mechanical meaning. They will no longer be around to threaten the player in the future, which leads to a change in the play style of the player over time, as areas of the game world shift from hostility to safety. Additionally the expenditure of ammunition is meaningful, as the quantity of ammunition used in killing one hostile will cause changes in the manner in which subsequent hostiles can be dealt with.

Upon encountering a hostile checkpoints in Far Cry 2 both elements of meaning inherent in that core shooting mechanic become redundant.

Respawning enemies prevent a change in future behaviour as areas do not become less hostile over time. The act of killing does not change the overall state of the game world or the future play style of the player, therefore in this sense the act of killing itself is rendered largely meaningless, there are  no long term consequences. It is in fact more beneficial to avoid enemies as it is to kill them, especially as time is very rarely a factor. The decision to engage these hostile in direct combat is a redundant one. Ammunition can be recovered from the bodies of dead hostiles, so the actual expenditure of ammunition is only meaningful when more is expended that is recovered a  generally rare occurrence, made even more so because some checkpoints contain stockpiles of ammunition.

In a strictly mechanical sense the act of attacking checkpoints in Far Cry 2 is meaningless beyond the immediate short term.  It’s possible that this was an intentional inclusion designed to be representative of a country in the grip of civil war where death is largely meaningless.  I’m willing to give Ubisoft Montreal the benefit of the doubt given the various subtexts at work in Far Cry 2, however this doesn’t excuse the dozens of other games that also include redundant and meaningless game mechanics.

The infinitely respawning hostiles in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, when killing a hundred hostiles has no consequence the act of killing itself becomes meaningless; war can be won simply by continuous forward motion. Dialogue trees in Mass Effect or Fallout 3, when two different options lead to the same outcome the choice between them is meaningless. Vita Chambers in BioShock, when you are eternally reborn any actions taken to mitigate health lose are meaningless.

These mechanics were implemented because they served to increase tension, constrain options or improve pacing, in short they were included to help maintain a specific aesthetic experience; often a narrative focused one. Yet it’s worth noting that almost all the examples I’ve cited have been criticised for in some way being unrealistic. The expectation is that actions have consequences, that choices are meaningful, when this fails to occur the artificiality is made painfully obvious.

Narrative plots are built around the immutability of fate, events occur in a specific manner for dramatic purpose. If an event is included in the plot it serves a purpose, even red herrings exist serve the purpose of being a red herring; nothing is wasted, nothing is redundant.

Games are built around providing choices and feeding back the consequences of those choices. Choices are included if they have some consequence that influence the developing act of play. If choices are included that don’t have consequences they are redundant  and a waste of time on the player of both player and designer.

In order to be meaningful narratives and games depend on the portrayal of both actions and consequences.

All too often when games seek to include some form of narrative the inflexible nature of heavily plotted stories is given prominence over the flexible nature of gameplay choices. As in the examples cited this can lead to redundant choices being included simply because choices must exist in a game but the focus on the plot means those choices cannot have consequences that might move the narrative away from what has been prescribed by the original author.

That actions have consequences and thus carry meaning is something we all learn in childhood. So when presented with a choice its naturally expect there to be a consequence, otherwise why be given the choice at all?

The future of narrative games is not based around more directly authored experiences but around narratives that make use of the fundamental nature of games to present choices that have consequences, and to ensure that those consequences contain both a mechanical and a narrative component.

Despite some first steps made in this direction, Masq being a particularly interesting if limited example, there is still some way to go. Until then maybe it’s time those interested in narrative in games start to look for guidance from Chess as much as Chaucer.

The Play Experience.

In the past I’ve taken to examining games and game mechanics in a manner that is open to criticism for being piecemeal. I’ve examined specific elements of a game in isolation, ignoring important mechanics and interactions in order to aid clarity. The obvious problem with this approach is that a game is a complex system of rules interacting over time, and it’s impossibly to present an entirely accurate analysis of any individual mechanic without looking at all the ways that mechanic affects and is affected by all other mechanics. That is a valid criticism, and I think it’s important to understand and appreciate that no mechanic exists in isolation and everything in a game is in some way, either directly or indirectly, connected to every other.

However there is a reason why I have often chosen to approach specific mechanics in isolation, or to otherwise present a limited view of the dynamics of a game. As I have previously discussed games do not exist in any measurable way, the rules defining the constraints of the game are not the game itself. It is only during the act of play that those rules take on a contextual significance, that they are able to enthrall, thrill and otherwise emotionally affect us. Games exist to be played. The experience of play is different for each game and each player.

Though it is important to consider games in their entirety as a system of interconnected rules that is often not how they are perceived when played. Consider any game you have just started playing. After ten minutes how many of the mechanics are you aware of? How many of the myriad relationships between different mechanics do you have an understanding of? How about after two hours, or five hours, or fifty hours? Depending on the game, and how much attention you have been playing, the answers to these questions can differ significantly. Often it is not until the very end of the game that a complete conceptual model of the mechanics and their relationships can be formed.

Play, by its very nature is a process of exploration and discovery.

Consider BioShock, I feel confident that by this point most people who have played the game are aware that the mechanical rewards, in terms of Adam, are essentially the same regardless of whether you choose to Harvest or Rescue the Little Sisters. When analysing the game itself it is important to consider this fact, however when examining the play experience it might be useful to ignore it entirely. During play, assuming you don’t run two parallel games in order to examine the consequences of each choice, there is no information provided on the reward you would have received if you had chosen the opposite option. If you decide to Rescue the Little Sisters you will be rewarded with one quantity of Adam, and if you had Harvested you’ll be rewarded with another. It is implied that there may be an additional reward for Rescuing a certain number of Little Sisters, but unless and until you do so there’s no way to know whether that additional reward exists and what it might be. Even if you choose to alternate between Harvesting and Rescuing in order to gauge the difference in reward there is no way to know that the reward for consistently Harvesting doesn’t increase over time, or if the additional delayed rewards for Rescuing balance out the immediate rewards for Harvesting.

When playing a game what you do not know is just as important as what you do. If a particular mechanic or relationship is not known it’s impossible for that mechanic to influence your actions. When examining games and the manner in which they attempt to convey meaning it is important to understand the manner in which this subjectively understanding of the game mechanics influences player actions and reactions.

Verb Development.

The ability to play a role is one of the manifold reasons people choose to spent time with games over other forms of entertainment. The ability to assume a new identity, to make choices as a different character, to manage the development of that character, is a vital part of what makes narrative games pleasurable and meaningful. So why do we seem to spend a more than trivial percentage of our time in these role playing games studying statistics and calculating the benefits of of a “+1 to Damage” over a “+2 to Attack”, exactly when did playing a role require that the role include statistician?

Math isn’t dramatic, usually, playing a role should be. Games that feature character development options tend to focus on the underlying mechanics, with choices defined by numerical increases to base abilities. How easy is it to really see the affect of a “+2” increase to melee damage? Not very, so these games also make the underlying mathematics visible, with numbers floating from character’s heads as you chip away at their health. This can be entertaining, but is it dramatic?

The problem is down to the verbs these games use. In the majority of role playing games the actual number of verbs that are valid is low. They break down to “move”, “attack” and maybe “talk”. When we make character development choices we are modifying these verbs. We select a “Point Blank Shot” feat and this serves as an adverb, modifying the “attack” verb slightly but still retaining the same core functionality, we are simply changing how and when we can attack; changing the underlying equations.

A more dramatic approach to role playing would be to tie character development choices to new verbs. However to do this would we would need to take a less abstract approach to our definition of verbs, combining adverb-verb pairs to allow “melee-attack”, “ranged-attack” and “indirect-attack” to be separate verbs from simply “attack”; for “move-fast”, “move-silently” and “move-instantly” to take the place of the catchall “move” verb. If we look at verbs on this lower level we can then hook character development choices directly into new verbs.

If I decided to upgrade my character with a “Stealth” ability it would allow me to make use of the “move-silently” verb; the “Hacking” ability would open up the use of a “talk-computer” verb. Each object, or character, within the world would be designed to respond to each specific verb and so every character development choice would have a clear and direct impact on the world. This would lead to a more pronounced form of character development as every choice made would open up new interaction possibilities in the world instead of just modifying the interactions already available.

Drama is after all about actions and consequences not mathematics.

I’m not the first person to think along these lines, and in fact there has been at least one game that has tried to follow this approach to character development, I’ve already covered the potential problems that arise when discussing that title.

Redundant?

For a choice to be meaningful, for the making of it to be worth consideration at all, requires that it be an informed one. We need to have an idea of the consequences of any choice, there needs to be a discernible difference between taking one action over another. An uninformed choice isn’t really a choice at all. When random chance is as likely to give you a desired outcome as any act of intent then there is no decision to make and the term choice is a misleading one.

Is clarity of consequence alone enough to make a choice meaningful?

In strictly logical terms having two different choices with near identical outcomes means you don’t really have two choices at all. If both possibilities lead to the same result what is the purpose of selecting one over the other? Redundant choices provide multiple means of attaining the same outcome, so why offer redundant choices?

Removing redundant choices improves the clarity of those that remain. Free of redundancy there is a one to one relationship between actions and consequences. From a logical perspective this feels like a sensible design decision, prune away all non-meaningful, uninformed, or redundant choices.

Of course there is a problem here, one I would hope is obvious, life is rarely logical. Life is full of redundancy, multiple different types of objects that all perform the same basic function, multiple different brands of baked beans or washing powder that all serve the same purpose and cost approximately the same. Why is it important that we have this ability to choose between functional similar but superficially different options? It helps us to define our identity, our character.

Our selection of one particular choice over another is not necessarily about the objective worth of the product we are choosing so much as what it means to us in a subjective sense. We choose because we can, and what we choose says much about our character.

Redundant choices reduce clarity and complicate the logical relationships between choices and consequences. On the other hand such choices serve to aid characterisation, and improve verisimilitude.

So which is better characterisation or clarity? Is it possible to have both? Most games seem to settle for allowing redundant choices but this can lead to a sensation that all choices are fundamentally superficial.

One game that attempted a reduction in redundant options and a focus on clarity over variety was Deus Ex: Invisible War. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to analyse those specific elements in isolation given the provocative nature of that title.

A case of Reductio ad Invisible War? If it was in that game it must be a failure? Or is the general consensus an indication of what happens when you strip away redundant options, a game loses its sense of character, of nuance, and becomes instead mechanical and artificial?

Regardless, the character defining benefits of redundant choices shouldn’t be overlooked.

Global Leveling.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion implements a global levelling system that ensures all characters, loot or weapons in the world are within the same level range as the player at any time. Therefore no area is overly dangerous for you to enter and all loot and weapons located are proportional to your level. The idea being that you are free to explore the world free of the fear of encountering an enemy you have no chance of surviving combat with.

The problem of such a system is that it removes the potential for anticipation, for yearning; it rarely feels like you have earned anything. There is never a situation where the you find a shop stocking a rare and powerful weapon that you “just had to have” but can’t afford, or where you could find an interesting looking dungeon you desperately want to explore, but that you know will be very dangerous. Playing Oblivion you can be left without the motivation to go away and earn the money to buy that special weapon, or to improve your character so that you can finally enter that dungeon.

Different weapon types only become available when you reach the required level, but by that that stage they are no more effective in relation to the creatures in the world than the weapons available at previous levels. When you are free to explore all the dungeons at once nothing feels particularly challenging. You never have to wait for anything so nothing is ever “worth the wait”.

When everything has the same value, nothing has any value. That’s what the levelling system Oblivion is wont to do, make everything valueless.

Traps.

When playing Diablo II it is possible to open various containers (treasure chests, crates, bags etc), which all make a sound upon opening. Containers can be empty, contain beneficial items, or trigger traps. Though trapped containers appear randomly, the sound they make when opened is different to that of standard containers. Since the traps themselves take a few seconds to trigger it’s possible to reach a safe distance thereby avoiding injury. Of course this is only possible if you are being attentive.

The differences between the noise for a ‘Safe’ and a ‘Trapped’ container is not substantial but it is noticeable if you are listening for it. If you haven’t been paying attention, or haven’t learnt the correlation between the different sound and a trap, then you could [come to] believe all containers make the same noise, and suffer for it.

Through a single simple mechanic Diablo II encourages players to pay attention to their environment.

First Aid.

Why does BioShock feature first aid kits?

In practical terms they don’t serve a purpose, health itself doesn’t really serve a purpose. Because of the Vita-Chambers death is not permanent. Purchasing, or searching for, first aid kids is money and time wasted. The health meter in BioShock seems as redundant as the Power-Meter in Super Mario Galaxy, when death holds no noticeable penalty the concept of health is redundant.

The only exception to this is during the last level of BioShock. During this final confrontation the Vita-Chambers are unavailable and for the first time in the game the health bar is important. One of the core mechanics of the game is abandoned in order to present a boss battle that already feels at odds with the rest of the game. Furthermore, throughout Rapture there are first aid stations that can be used by both Splicers and the player. Such a means of repairing damage makes more sense within the narrative context of Rapture than it does in most games. As monitoring your health is unnecessary, the existence of first aid stations is called into question (Of course allowing Splicers to heal, feeds back into the apparent difficulty of the game itself; removing it could potentially make them easier to kill, but this could in turn be countered by a form of regenerating health).

It all makes me wonder if the entire notion of a health bar (and of a concluding boss battle) was included simply because it is a standard feature of the genre.

If a resources is functionally unimportant it shouldn’t take up interface real estate; serious consideration should be given to whether it should exist at all, is it there for a purpose or simply because of the dictates of convention?

One Life To Live.

One of the first things you see upon setting foot in Rapture is a Vita-Chamber. No matter how many times you are killed, you are always “reborn” at the closest Vita-Chamber free to continue from where you left off. There are benefits to this approach, but also some validity to the criticism that overly explicitly encourages taking a path of least resistance through the game.

I believe that games should be designed to motivate the player to use the tools at their disposal. Playing BioShock I was aware of the potential to game the system, to chip away at enemies with my wrench and stockpile my resources. I could see this was a valid option but I never actively considered it because the varied ways in which I could use my Weapons, Plasmids and Gene Tonics to alter the environment was reason enough to experiment with several different combinations through the course of the game. Even though all I was doing was killing Splicers (or Big Daddies), the methods I used and the way the combat played out was visually interesting and varied enough to be a motivating factor in itself.

The second criticism of the Vita-Chambers is that they made BioShock “too easy”. Difficulty is a subjective matter, I can understand in a logical sense why not dying can make a game feel easier. Yet in any case if I die I can reload a saved game and continue, the amount of time or resources lost dependant on when I had last saved (Which brings up an interesting theory, that of quick-save usage as a manual difficulty adjustment). In BioShock I found the lost of time resulting from being returned to a Vita-Chamber to be on par with that I’d normally experience playing a similar game and using quick-load, but devoid of the associated cognitive break of a loading screen. I consider the notion that “failure must result in death” as an unnecessary hold over from the arcade era of gaming where player’s were required to spend money to continue.

Vita-Chambers work within the mechanics of BioShock and are a better fit with the overall narrative than a checkpoint or quick-save based system. However there is a side effect of their implementation that does bring up an interesting question.

Why does BioShock feature first aid kits?

Motivation.

It’s common for games to provide an array of tools by which you can alter your own character or the environment to better suit a particular play style, but without some degree of active encouragement it’s possibly for a lot of these tools will go unused.

While playing System Shock 2 you are required to manage you resources, it’s necessary to be careful to improvise because it’s rare to have the Ammunition, Health Hypos, Cyber Modules or other resources required to blast through every encounter. Because you’re never particularly well supplied, you are forced to think about you actions, to use your abilities and the environment to gain an advantage.

The outwardly similar title Deus Ex: Invisible War also provides options to be inventive and experimental. There are a number of different means provided for changing the environment, however as resources are plentiful and alternate options clearly indicated, there is rarely any tangible benefit to experimenting. It’s possible to use a clever combination of weapons and BioMods to bypass a particular security system, but when there’s nearly always an air vent available to lead you around the area in question, there’s no advantage to be gained from expending your resources.

Given a choice it’s human nature to aim for the path of least resistance. If you are consistently in a state where you are well supplied, there’s a distinct disinclination to attempt alternate strategies, it makes no sense to try a tactic that might work when you already have one that does work.

Halo: Combat Evolved is a title that subtly encourages experimentation. In a standard first person shooter, there might be a dozen different weapons each with alternate fire modes, however most players will stick with one or two different weapons that are reliable in all situations. By restricting the available weapons to two at a time Halo encourages you to experiment; none of the weapons are universally useful, therefore it’s necessary to keep changing and experimenting with different combinations as rely exclusively on a single pairing rapidly becomes ineffective.

Necessity is the mother of invention: if players are never in a situation were need to try different strategies to survive then it’s unlikely they will be inventive for its own sake.

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