[In this Gamasutra analysis piece, Connor Cleary discusses the importance of balancing logistical necessities with emotional engagement in gaming, using examples from Assassin's Creed and StarCraft to show that the ways players choose to personalize their game experiences greatly impacts their experience.]
I have heard several people complain that the combat system in the Assassin’s Creed franchise is too boring; anyone who has played either iteration will understand what I mean when I say that you can win any fight with one hand. But if you haven’t played them, here’s a quick explanation: you have the option of simply holding the block button and activating a parry against any incoming attacks, and since parries are also automatic counter-attacks there is no need to fully engage in any battle.
But it should be noted that Assassin’s Creed 2 offers a very wide variety of weapons and gimmicks and tactics to choose from which, if utilized, can produce some really interesting and epic battles. The drawback is that making use of that variety is not the most efficient way to fight.
So you might take some damage if you decide to try breaking the enemy’s arm to steal their spear, or if you try to jump up on a ledge and rain throwing knives down upon your pursuers. These are more risky than the simple block, parry, block, parry, block, parry—but they are also infinitely more fun, and making your own fun is important.
So where exactly does the division of responsibility lie between the game studio and the gamer in creating an entertaining experience? Clearly the game studio has to produce a quality title, and no amount of personal engagement can save a terrible game. But is it reasonable for us as gamers and consumers to expect every iota of entertainment to be served up on a platter with absolutely no involvement on our end?
The short answer is clearly “No.” That is not reasonable. Games are not movies; we are supposed to get involved.
Remembering The Real Sandbox
The longer answer, obviously, depends on the type of game being discussed. A highly linear game generally requires just a suspension of disbelief and a desire to keep playing. Simple silly-fun games—while great—are another story entirely. But as for the open-world type games, there is a reason we have attached the adjective “sandbox” to them.
Remember being a kid in an actual sandbox? An active imagination and a few simple toys were all you needed for hours of fun. That is essentially what the open-world design gives us. But in this case, our sandbox is a finely crafted alternate reality, and our toys are swords and bows and magic, or guns and bombs and gadgets.
We are given the ability to create our own events in these worlds, and to act out those events in ways that satisfy and entertain us on a deeper level. Did someone say something nice to you in Fable II? Go ahead, give them a jewel, or some chocolates. Did someone say something mean to you in Fallout 3? Go ahead, slip a live grenade in their pocket. But if there are no in-game benefits to doing such things, then why bother?
Because it makes you smile.
Sometimes these actions may come back to haunt you—like in Mass Effect or Heavy Rain—but this can also create a more engaging experience. If you’ve ever played Dungeons & Dragons or any similar pen-and-paper RPG system, you probably already know the satisfaction that comes with developing a complex character.
It involves exploring and detailing your invented character’s psychology and background, deciding his or her strengths and weaknesses. But it also means role playing both their virtues and their flaws, even to the potential detriment of yourself or your party—because it’s interactive fiction, and perfect heroes are boring.
Your Own Personal History
Take Dragon Age: Origins, for example: Maybe your Elf character has a seething hatred for Humans (because Humans enslaved the entire Elven race in the past) but is otherwise a good-natured hero. Your sharp tongue with Humans might cause you to miss out on certain opportunities, but it will also contribute to the feeling that this is your story, that you have created a unique experience for yourself.
But this kind of personal involvement actually isn’t limited to sandbox or character-driven games. Our imaginations are powerful story-crafters, and if we’re not afraid to use them we can add deeper immersion to all kinds of games.
A while back, I was playing StarCraft with a friend of mine—let’s call him Greg—and I found out something really interesting about how he plays. We were playing as Terrans (Humans) against computer opponents of unknown race. When we discovered they were Zerg (Bug-like monsters, think Starship Troopers’ arachnids meets the aliens from Aliens), he gasped and said “Zerg!” under his breath. He sounded genuinely scared, so naturally I laughed at him.
Greg later explained that when he plays StarCraft, he prefers to conjure up a little fiction for each round. He says, for example, it’s more fun to pretend that he is the leader of a group of human settlers trying to colonize a new world—rather than thinking like a detached, calculating, omniscient overmind. Because he had invested in that little fiction, the discovery of a Zerg base provoked a sincere emotional response. In taking it upon himself to add another level to the game, he created a more fulfilling experience.
Let’s take another medium as a final example: A psychologically charged movie is going to be a far more compelling experience for the audience members who allow themselves to be fully immersed and emotionally invested—while intentionally ignoring the fourth wall.
The same can be said of games and gamers. Meanwhile, if we spend every moment of our in-game time focusing on game mechanics and calculating how to maximize power and minimize loss, we will be seriously stunting our capacity to be moved and entertained in a genuine and more deeply satisfying way.
To be fair, leveling is important, damage output is important, and having enough money is important—no one wants to be a weak hero who is also broke. But having a fulfilling experience is important too. I think that creating a truly excellent gaming experience for yourself means finding a balance between logistical necessities and emotional fulfillment—and come to think of it, same goes for real life.