Monday, November 26, 2012
Why Gameplay Should be Kept Alive
I just ran across a couple of posts by Adrian Chmielarz (whose name I'm doubtless going to misspell at some point in this article), founder of the late great People Can Fly (developers of Painkiller and co-developers of Bulletstorm), and founder of new studio The Astronauts. I won't say too much, I'll just post them for you to read. They're all short. And yes, the first one is absolute garbage. Keep reading. He explains himself a little further and refines his view in later posts.
As you can see, Chmielarz has gone the Frictional Games route and is decrying challenge as the root of all videogame evil. That's exaggerating, of course. He's not quite going that far. But the point is, he too is calling for the removal of challenges and traditional gameplay in favor of... something else. Something not challenging. Something that looks a lot like Call of Duty and The Walking Dead, it seems. First, let me start off by saying that like Thomas Grip, I don't think he's entirely wrong. It's true that challenges often get in the way of a game's emotional effect or its storyline. Just look at Scratches. And who am I to argue with science? If your brain uses the same energy to cognate and feel, then it would stand to reason that the less cognition you use, the more you will feel (I'm not a scientists, so I don't actually know how this works. I'm just going by what he says). But at the same time, there are instances where challenge is what causes a game to be effective. Where it is what makes the player engage with the game, both emotionally and mentally. FTL, for example. FTL is one of the most memorable gaming experiences I've had in this past year, and the only reason it's so memorable is that it requires you to think. It doesn't try and minimize its challenge like Amnesia, it uses it to arrest your emotions. You have to stay on your toes all the time, and deal with the consequences of your actions. You even feel empathy and sorrow for lost crew members... entities with no personality or reason for attachment. Your decisions caused them to die, and you can't bring them back.
The big problem here isn't with Chmielarz's reasoning, because after the first article he does start to make some sense. The problem is that he ignores a significant portion of gamers who do share gameplay experiences with others. The gamers that don't want hand holding or artificial safety nets, and want a cold, unforgiving experience akin to that of climbing a mountain. Who want to have the very real danger of failure. And he ignores the emotional experience this kind of game gives. Who would want such a thing? Well, the entire Roguelike community, for one thing. Just about everyone who seriously plays the S.T.A.L.K.E.R games. Anyone who turns on permadeath in Terraria or Diablo III. And myself. For a long time I've called for this exact thing. For games that don't pull their punches and let you screw yourself over. Not because I play games to be challenged--I don't. But because there's a raw sense of danger you get there that you don't get in any other medium. A very visceral emotion. Something even more vivid than the emotions you feel while watching a movie or reading a book. More vivid than the emotions created by scripted storytelling. The example I always cite is when I was playing Diablo II a few years ago, and somehow ended up in the very last world with absolutely no equipment. I had to figure out some way of slowly building back up. Suddenly I wasn't just following a predetermined sequence of events. Suddenly it was just me verses a dangerous, unforgiving world, completely outside the developer's safe path. And suddenly the game was much more vivid and memorable. And even after all the scripted setpieces I've witnessed in games like Bulletstorm or all the fake horror in Amnesia,, I still remember that part of Diablo II. Why? Because I found it much more emotionally vivid than anything where I'm just experiencing safe sensory stimulation on a predetermined path. Because I was forced to engage with the game. I couldn't just be a passive observer, consuming the story. I had to actually engage with the game and its world, which is something you can't do in other mediums.
Ultimately, I don't think that moving gaming away from a sport mentality and to an artistic mentality is at all a bad thing. Both Chmielarz and Grip have brought up some interesting points in their respective discussions. And developers learning to use motivating factors that rely emotions rather than on gameplay is only going to make games that much better. But I think this needs to be done with care, not with wild manic zealotry. Not by burning the witch of gameplay. Throwing out significant portions of what characterizes videogames, and what makes them unique, is going to come with as many losses as gains. Not just for the significant portion of gamers who are entirely into games for the challenge (and I'm related to someone like that), but for those of us who find smoke and mirrors to be a comparatively empty experience. An experience we can get by going to the movies, turning on the TV, or opening a book.
This whole thing was written in one of my frenzies of OCD energy, so it may be a little confusing. Here's the point I'm trying to get across: I think challenge can be used to great emotional effect, if done properly. In fact, those are the moments I find the most effective. Eliminating challenge is going to open up doors to all sorts of new opportunities, but it's going to close a bunch of them too. As with so many things, I think the truth here is somewhere between the two extremes.
EDIT: (It should be noted that in regards to challenge, I'm not saying frustration is a good thing, nor that having devices in place to move the player forward is necessarily a bad thing. I've complained about the presence of the former and the absence of the latter in several different reviews. But that doesn't mean that a game can't provide an unforgiving experience where failure is a very real threat and make it enjoyable and emotionally vivid. It all depends on how it's done.)