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.)


  1. I think that many of the examples he mentioned in the first post are so impactful because of the range of difficulty present in the game he mentioned. Soaking in the atmosphere of Mafia II is probably my favorite part of that game (similar to the GTA example), but I don't think the game would have been quite so engrossing had it been a 1950s driving simulator rather than an open-world action game. Part of the enjoyment of an open-world game's atmosphere (or quieter moments in any action game) is being aware of the gameworld's possibility for chaos(and difficulty.

    Granted, Mafia II utterly failed the "open-world" part of its genre, but it had a great atmosphere and good gunplay.

    1. The first article is crap, pure and simple. His definition of gameplay is vague at best, he makes broad generalizations about gamers, his examples are questionable, and the entire thing basically boils down to "this is how I feel so it must be true for everyone." The later posts were much better, though. Once he clarified a few things and actually started having to support his arguments. He does have some good points. And I give him props for recognizing the importance of interaction in videogames.

      But his idea is to basically throw out the baby with the bathwater. He sees only the problems that come with challenging the player, and none of the good. Likewise, he doesn't see any of the problems with a non-challenging approach (which we've talked about before). Perhaps he's the sort of person who doesn't experience the emotional effects that come with having challenges.

  2. Flarp. Flarpity flarpity flarp. That is what I have to say to this.

    ...Fine, I'll elaborate. >.> Firstly, that first post makes me want to hang myself with my own headphones wire. You can't just say, "these games have memorable moments that aren't related to challenge!" and thus claim that all games need to abandon challenge in order to be memorable or have a good narrative. That's stupid. But, as you said, it's best to ignore that and focus more on his elaborations. So, into the abyss!
    Secondly, I applaud this guy for playing Skyrim on godmode. Cutting out most of the point of an RPG sounds way more dull and tedious than managing your inventory, but to each their own I guess. I did lol a bit when he mentioned Skyrim having meaningful choices, but that's just because I'm an RPG-elitist. (Speaking of which, why do all these narrative pontificator types seem to not like RPGs? Did RPGs kill your dog, Frictional Games guy? Did RPGs steal your girlfriend, Polish person whose last name I can't pronounce?)
    That little bit of disparagement aside, I do actually respect this guy from his posts. I respect that he was able to dial back his stuff and realize his first post wasn't great, and to collect quotes from people who agree and disagree with him to post. (Incidentally, I'm glad someone called him out on his stuff about memory being, well, stupid. It's all about context and culmination. Shadow of The Colossus is a wonderful example of this.) I also really like the last quote in that third article. Very well said, imo.

    *Reads Why We Can't Feel and Play At The Same Time* Well crap, right when I was about to forgive this guy for his first post and now I'm annoyed all over again. Don't you bring science into this! But seriously, I didn't read the science article, but I find his interpretation of it iffy all the same. Either that or I'm some sort of super-brained freak of nature, because I've felt plenty emotional during challenging gameplay moments. For example, during the Sacrifice mission in the Expeditions: Conquistador beta. That's a hex-based tactical RPG, but I was emotional during the whole thing because of the story. Or, another example: The Lonesome Road DLC for New Vegas. Again, challenging, but quite emotional as well.

    All I got from the last article is that he's attributing bad mainstream game design to gaming as a whole. Also, the mountain simile has truth to it, but... I don't quite agree. Maybe if you climb a mountain barehanded, but you use tools to climb mountains: Tech! Grappling hooks! Fire! Sherpas! I suppose the difference is that the mountain isn't like, "Here, have a Sherpa so you have an easier time about it", but I still feel like it's a faulty metaphor since you do have aids to climb a mountain, just as you do to play games.

    In any case, I agree mostly with your analysis. Both Adrian and... the Frictional guy (anyone remember his name?) have good points, but my problem is that they're far too sweeping and far too tunnelvision at the same time. They both don't feel analytical, from both of the articles I get the feeling of, "Well, these are my most memorable moments from my gameplay experience. This is how everything should be!". Honestly, Chmeliarz, from these articles, gives me the feeling of someone with fairly limited gameplay experience. Dude, just because you haven't played an emotional game with challenge doesn't mean it's impossible. Basically, I agree with your last statement: Games certainly have a long way to go narratively (and it's a young medium! Look how film was 20-30 years after it was invented!), but this kind of manic reform in an attempt to make the form more legitimate is a bad idea. It should be done on a game-to-game basis, and it should be done with care.

    This does give me lots of fodder for my own articles, though. *Rubs hands together*

    1. Gah crap, this is long and rambly. Sorry about that, folks. Hopefully it makes sense, at least. :x

    2. Woo, that's about the most adamant I've yet seen you, Gazoinks!

      Yes, I agree. Just reading the first post I was ready to dismiss him as a loudmouth fool. The other posts I think reveal him to be more like an enthusiast. He has ideas about things, and states them strongly, but seems willing to admit when he's wrong, and listen to what other people have to say.

      That being said, I still disagree with his opinion. I think what he's done is take one single idea and blindly ran with it, rather than considering it from a broad perspective. He just sees his own feelings on the matter, and isn't considering that some gamers don't always feel the same way.

      (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.)

    3. Hmm... I think I should add that as a Postscript to the article, just to clarify.