As I sit down to write about my expectations for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I instead find myself gaping at the shopping-list-length genre of the game: Action, stealth, fps, role-playing game (okay, so my shopping lists are kind of short). If genres are supposed to provide some up-front information about the game, what should I be expecting from Deus Ex? Repeated emphasis in reviews on open-ended gameplay and choices (and a similar focus in past games of the series, a long time ago though they may be) leads me to the interpretation that Deus Ex doesn’t necessarily strive to be all these things at once, but instead has the capacity to be whichever the player chooses as they play. In fact, it’s the presence and implementation of choice in a game that I want to talk about. Unfortunately, that on its own is a heck of a long topic, so here I’m going to focus on one type of choice: the implicit choices a player makes while playing (as opposed to the more explicit narrative choices of which some games are fond).
Here’s the rub: we make choices all the time in games, whether it seems like it or not. This may or may not be news to you, my educated reader, so I’ll illustrate with a quick example and get on with it. How many choices do you make if you play Super Marios Bros. (yes, the old NES game)? Let’s bolt past the possibly controversial ‘whether to play or not’ choice and assume you’re already playing. Do you jump on all the enemies? Do you try to get to the end as fast as you can? Do you get every power up? Do you hit every block? Do you in fact try to stylishly accomplish as many of these things as you can without sacrificing the others? Or do you enjoy watching Mario run straight into the most horrible thing you can find as you laugh evilly – who said you were definitely playing to ‘win’? Let me remind you that this is an old, pretty simple game with just running, jumping and the occasional fireball under the player’s control. So we can (probably) agree that there are plenty of choices regarding how you play a game, tempered by in-game incentives (like a timer and point rewards). Many of these choices can be described as contributing to how the player plays the game.
For fans of flashy action games, the Devil May Cry series and Bayonetta are some of the best games for showing awareness of these gameplay style choices (or so I’m told — I have yet to pick one up, but am waiting with bated breath on DmC and Bayonetta 2). The games are not just about winning, they are about winning with style — and not just the designers’ idea of style, yours. Many different weapons and associated combat options provide a large space of gameplay choices (with few being ‘wrong’), and the quest for the stylish win is encouraged through the grading of personal performance on qualities other than just ‘mission success’. Nothing gets a gamer to sit up and pay attention like grades. Before I get too carried away, though, this is a far deeper topic than I’ve got time for here (I’ve got one friend who would happily do an entire PhD thesis on the subject), so let’s get back on track.
With all these choices in gameplay and play styles, is it any surprise then that there are games which try to let the player choose even the genre of game they are playing through the medium of these choices? I’m looking forward to Deus Ex trying to do exactly this. For any of you keeping track out there, I don’t really get into games which have me mindlessly going around shooting and exploding stuff (with the possible exceptions of Gears of War and Borderlands, but I’ll leave those for their own posts), so if I can get through a game avoiding danger and puzzling my way through instead of blasting through it, that’s what I’m going to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against awesome explosions and great shoot-em-up action, and I’m not trying to be some kind of cerebral gaming snob, it’s just not my first choice of game. Naturally I’m more likely to consider a stealth game than the average FPS, but if I can pick up the same game as the guy who grabs every FPS he can get his hands on, and we can both play it the way we enjoy it, all the better. And this is just the first distinction explicitly suggested by the genre list on Deus Ex – maybe you can play the entire game roleplaying a squeamish super-techy hacker (okay, probably not, but something like it). Maybe you can do your best Arnie impression and Terminate the opposition (I already know you can smash through walls, for example).
The ability to play the game your way without the experience getting fragmented or losing identity has become important to me recently, as I’ve had in my mind and on paper a game design that does almost exactly this – let the player choose up front what kind of game they’re going to play. Keep your eyes on the blog and you’ll see more details on that project come to light in the future, but in the meantime, let’s stick to Deus Ex. Hopefully the story, goals and overall feel of Deus Ex will keep the whole thing solidly in one piece, even as I glide invisibly past the guys that you blow-dart into blissful sleep.
In brief, brutal shorthand, there are choices players implicitly make about how they play a game, whether they realise it or not. As long as the game designers have the time and resources to give the player flexibility while maintaining the identity of the game, letting the player express themselves and tweak their experience through gameplay choices is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It’s not easy, and it’s a sign of game designers who are really aware of their game and their audience, but I’ve got my eye on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the folks at Eidos Montreal as favourites for pulling it off. There’s a lot of content here to mull over (and far more out on the web and in game design studios and conferences), and I’m looking forward to hearing what you think in the comments down below. Do you have some personal favorite games that really let you choose the way you play the game well? How about some games that could do better? Do you agree, disagree, or something-in-between (but as a verb) with everything I’ve said up above? What’s your personal style in games, and how aware of it do you feel? Let the discussion commence!
(and then you can head straight over to WILA Deus Ex Part I)
I’ve seen about a dozen people playing pokémon in different ways. Sure, the actual battles are in the same format, but you’ve got pokémon catchers (such as myself), trainers, breeders, battlers, casuals, challengers (that’s my term for those who choose to release pokémon when they faint, not use items, and the like), and everything in between. And that’s without choosing a team of 6 out of 649.
Solid example. I’m something like a Trainer-Battler who dabbles in breeding in order to squeeze that little bit more out of my team. It’s not uncommon for me to reach the end of the main story of a pokemon game with something like 15 pokemon in my pokedex (one or two that I tried along the way but decided weren’t for me, one or two for HM purposes, and then the evolutions of my final team). I don’t even feel slightly guilty for discarding the whole ‘gotta catch em all’ mentality – I know someone else will help the professors in their scientific endeavours (like you and all the other Catchers out there).
Gotta say, this was a frustrating read. You keep saying things like “Before I get too carried away, though, this is a far deeper topic than I’ve got time for here.” This comment comes less than a third of the way through the post, and I would have liked to see you go into further depth on the topic of player choice.
Here’s a specific question for you: How does a game implement player choice well? How does a game’s design allow the player to choose how they play the game, without sacrificing quality?
Sometimes, admitting that I simply don’t have the time or resources to do a subject justice is as frustrating to write as I’m sure it is to read. Taking advantage of some of the insights and language from other posts and sources, however, I can certainly add to the discussion now.
How does a game implement player choice well? How does a game’s design allow the player to choose how they play the game, without sacrificing quality?
There are (at least) two major facets to designing player choice in a game: implementing choice so that the choices you intend are what the player has available; and understanding why you are using choice in the first place.
Perhaps this will frustrate you, but for now I’m going to ignore the implementation of choice. It’s incredibly important and deserving study and discussion. One relevant concept off the top of my head is knowing your First Order Optimal strategies (presented pretty well in http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/playing-like-a-designer-pt.-2). And, as you mention D&D, I will say that understanding the difference between the illusion of choice and actual choice is critical as well (this comes up a lot when DMing).
Understanding why the game designer uses choice in the first place, however, is equally important – it relates the tool of ‘player choice’ to the desired effect for the player. While what I say here is far from comprehensive, I think a great use of player choice is to help bridge the gap between players with different core aesthetics (as mentioned in WILA Extra Credits) as well as cover a wider range of paces for different players.
As brief example, WILA Xenoblade Chronicles talked a lot about how I enjoyed the pacing, but at its heart, this came from having plenty of different kinds of content, and the power as a player to approach them at the pace I wanted. This is an example of bridging both the aesthetics and the pace with player choice.
A player who is enjoying Narrative can do so, while a different player who enjoys Exploration can choose to go do that. Both are core aesthetics of the game, but a wider audience can appreciate the aesthetics in the proportion that is appropriate for them personally through the use of player choice.
Similarly with pacing, it’s impossible for a designer to perfectly predict for everyone who plays the game when they might want to push the pace up, or take it easy for a bit. Of course, a good game balances the player’s expectations of the pace, but that doesn’t mean external forces (like a hard day at work, or a week long break) won’t play a part. Here, the player can tweak the pace of the game a bit up or down depending on how they feel at the time (by choosing to, for example, fight an intense battle or walk around just mindlessly collecting resources), while the designer has carefully constructed the pacing of the game as a whole to take the player through the right ups and downs regardless of the player’s choice.
In short answer to your second question, I think there will always be a balancing act between building player choice into a game, and quality of content. You have a limited amount of time/money/opportunity to design all games, and any of that which is spent on ironing out player choice is not spent on improving the quality or quantity of content. However, by understanding ‘player choice’ as a tool, perhaps beginning with what I outlined above, we can apply and implement it more efficiently in games, thus not ‘wasting’ time or money on player choice when we don’t have to.
Hope that is a bit less frustrating. Much of this is open to interpretation and additional examples, of course, but it’s the first direction I would go in exploring this topic further.
As always, thanks for commenting!
Weren’t we talking about something a bit more radical than choosing when to engage in different parts of the game such as exploration, combat and story? I thought we were talking about having options for radically different ways of overcoming the same obstacle, such as through brute combat, stealth assassination ninja-style, sniper rifle assassination, diplomacy, some kind of puzzle game solution, etc.
I think maybe I misinterpreted your first couple of paragraphs, but I thought we were talking about giving the player choice over the GENRE of game their playing at any given moment.
If the player can choose which core aesthetics they highlight (including cutting some out entirely, not just minimising them or taking them out of order) then, at least arguably if not definitively, they’re choosing to play a different kind or genre of game.
As was mentioned both in WILA Extra Credits and the core aesthetics episode of Extra Credits I linked there, core aesthetics might be a more informative, encompassing description of genre than our current mechanics-driven categories (and our current categories could just be bad attempts at scratching the surface of these core aesthetics).
I used player choice in Xenoblade Chronicles as an example of choosing between, say, Narrative gameplay (building the story of the characters through their interactions) and Challenge gameplay (hunting out the biggest baddest thing you can find). The player’s choices in this case are where to go and what to do, but what if we think about how they do it as well?
The game is going to play very much like an action puzzle (speaking to a Challenge aesthetic, perhaps) if the player chooses to craft strategies around taking on enemies much higher on levels than themselves at all times. On the other hand, they could equally spend a lot of time killing relatively easy enemies which boost their power level and then mow down most of the enemies in the game – this grind-and-breeze gameplay probably creates a much less tense experience which plays to stepping into the empowering Fantasy of the ‘Epic Heroes’. Or the player could do something in between, or probably a number of choices in much finer detail than I’m going into here.
As long as the options feel like something different, then it’s not just a decision about what ‘works best’, and the player has choice and control over what kind of game they’re playing (which is quite a lot like ‘genre’). These choices could be different strategies in an RPG or equally different approaches to getting through a military installation in Deus Ex.
That’s more than enough out of me on the subject for now. I hope this addresses what you were talking about. If it doesn’t, then maybe you could clarify what you mean and how it differs?
I also wanted to mention that Dungeons and Dragons, the tabletop game (and any other pencil and paper RPG) is king of player choice. Of course, this requires a talented Dungeon Master, which is a steep requirement.