One of the most important parts of a game designer's job is to help the player understand exactly what the game expects them to do. To properly enact their will upon the game through its mechanics, the player has to know what goal they are trying to achieve and how. If your mechanics are giving opposing messages to the player, it can lead to a lot of confusion and unsatisfying feedback. No one wants to feel like they're playing a game wrong.
I've been playing a decent amount of Hitman: Absolution lately, which I feel absolutely suffers from this issue of mechanical dissonance. It occurs mainly between what I consider the main game and the newly added system of scoring the player for their performance each level. There is another, simpler example of dissonance that I'll touch on later, but for now let's stick to this points problem.
For the record, I don't mean to sound like I'm picking on this game. There's a lot of enjoyable stuff in there, but it is the reason I decided to write this article so it gets to be the poster boy for this problem.
In Hitman: Absolution you gain points by eliminating targets and are deducted points for being caught and generally being a messy and unprofessional killer. On the surface, this seems to stick pretty close to the goal of the game (get in, kill Bad Dude, get out undetected).
This immediately sets a precedent: Your skill is directly tied to your score. The higher the score, the better of a hitman you are. We as game players have been conditioned for decades to make this association. This on its own isn't necessarily bad, but for a game that has always been about exploration and experimentation, this is supremely dangerous.
Example: The game offered me a sniper rifle and a second-story window with which to eliminate one of the Bad Dudes. So I did.
I was awarded some amount of points for doing so. However, there are a few "Signature Kills" in each level that net you big bonus points.
In this instance, tossing the Bad Dude into a vat of oil was the more valuable choice.
Here enters the mechanical dissonance. The game gave me both options, but valued them internally very differently. Why? What makes me a poorer assassin for one choice over the other? Was it because the Signature Kill let me get away without being detected? Perhaps. Regardless, I still felt like the game was telling me I had completed the objective less "correctly" than I could have, leading to bad feels.
The Score Cap
This is compounded by the fact that there is actually a maximum possible score you can get while playing, which pretty overtly says to the player "there is a playthrough that is the most efficient".
Now, in all fairness to games like this, there should be a most efficient playthrough. If you're extra crafty, execute every part of your plan with precision and take a few risks, you can get in and out like a world-class murderer. The problem is that the score quantizes your performance in a way that ends being unsatisfying. There is almost no chance of getting a perfect score in one playthrough.
Actually, there is literally no chance.
The system gets in its own way
So we have this system that scores you based on your successes and failures as a killer. The only way to max that out is to complete a bunch of challenges within the level. Some of these challenges can't be completed on a single run-through of the game. In fact, some of them are in complete opposition to each other. Each level has a "did you wear all the disguises" challenge, and a "did you do the entire mission in your default hitman suit?" challenge. No matter what you do, your score will be less than perfect the first time through (especially if you missed some evidence you should have picked up while fulfilling a contract to murder people... what!?)
Knowing I was being silently scored caused a huge shift in what I cared about in the game.
Subduing a guard (lethally or not) causes you to be docked points. The game literally forces you into situations where you have to do this, but you get a small slap on the wrist for being a bad man. The way you get your record wiped clean is to hide the body. If you do, you're granted a the same number of points you were penalized, effectively neutralizing them.
I can't just drag a body into the bushes, or get it out of the sight of other guards, because that isn't enough to redeem me of the red marks on my scorecard. I have to find an approved body receptacle for that. Am I supposed to care about keeping bodies out of sight? Or am I supposed to care that I got points deducted?
I joked with a friend that the scoring system was "the world's most complex OCD simulator" (which isn't technically correct because it isn't simulating OCD, hush). After a while I couldn't tell if I was cleaning up because it made sense as a hitman to keep a low profile, or because the red score deductions were annoying me. The scoring completely hijacked my internal motivation for doing an activity.
The biggest argument against why any of this matters is "if you don't like the score, don't play with it. It does nothing to prevent you playing the way you want". That's a tough point to refute. In fact, seeing how much I'd beat my friends by on each level was a really nice feeling. Maybe you should be penalized for "playing lazy" and just shooting the Bad Dudes in the head, then sprinting to the end of the level.
I still argue that seeing your performance visualized in this way leads to less interesting player choices. Players will match their valuation of choices the same way the game does. If in a first person shooter, you have a choice between a 6-shot pistol and a machine gun, you pick the choice the game mechanics say is better (machine gun). The game evaluating choices differently is fine if that makes sense mechanically. In this instance, I would argue that it doesn't.
I wouldn't have minded the scoring if it was way more granular in the things it cared about. If it had no cap, and you could eke out a few more points to put you at the #1 spot worldwide by taking more risks, or completing a level a few seconds faster.
The top few hundred spots worldwide are all taken up by people who have reached that max level cap. If it exists to let me rank myself against others, how can I do that when the top 5% all have the same score?
Game design oftentimes loses a lot in translation, and is rarely interpreted by the player the same way it is by the designer. Keeping an eye on all your mechanics to ensure no mixed messages get sent is an important step in the process.
You can read more of my design thoughts on my blog.