Thoughts on Design - Toy or Experience?

by Dr Taliesin Coward

Simulations used to be a very prominent form of game. Tank simulators, plane simulators, helicopter simulators, racing car simulators. Red Baron, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Jet Fighter, TOCA Racing, Battlezone, X-Wing vs Tie Fighter, the list goes on. And if it wasn’t one of these, it was the second or even third game in the series, with even bigger and better graphics. Hand in hand with these went other types of simulators. Ones which let you build cities, raise armies, or even manage nations: CivNet, Civilization, Age of Empires, Command & Conquer and so on. And then, slowly but surely, these games all vanished from the shelves, and where once you had been spoiled for choice, there was maybe only a handful of options available (if that).

Games, of course, didn’t disappear, but, to my eye, the type of game available seemed to change drastically. They became more story oriented, more tightly controlled. They even started to become easier and easier, molly-coddling the player to the point that, in some games defeat and death were literally not an option. Then came Dark Souls. I distinctly remember my feeling of shock, then elation, when I discovered that it was quite possible to walk your character off the edge of a cliff and be rewarded with the dreaded ‘YOU DIED’ screen. This was something I hadn’t been able to do in games for a long time. In fact, nearly every game seemed to have an invisible barrier to prevent you accidently blundering off a ledge. Not so with Dark Souls. This was a game that actually let you lose through your own stupidity or incompetence. It didn’t try to make you feel good about yourself, it didn’t try to protect your sense of self-esteem. Instead, it slapped you in the face and challenged you to try again.

Dark Souls marked a turning point. Games started to become harder again, to be less afraid of telling players ‘you failed’. And while it’s been a long time coming, the sims have also returned in force. Not just with a plethora of vehicle-based sims ranging from sport to combat, from hyper-realistic to arcade-y. The civilization/army building sims are back with a vengeance, whether it’s Amplitude’s Humankind, or Relic’s rebirth of the venerable Age of Empires series with Age of Empires IV (not to mention the recent remasters of nearly all the classic RTS games from Command and Conquer and StarCraft, to all three Age of Empire games).

Put in these terms and looking back on it now, it seems obvious to me that the shift I was observing, first as a kid and then as an adult, was not so much of a shift but a cycle, and one which is starting again. But if so, what kind of cycle? Having pondered this question I suspect the answer is whether one believes a video game should be more of a toy, or focus on providing an ‘experience’ to the player. (Put more academically, the Toy-Experience spectrum.)

Now a toy is literally just that. It’s something for the player to play with. It’s compelling and interesting in its own right. In fact, cool toys invariably lie at the heart of pretty much every game I enjoy. It might be a cool gadget, a snazzy gun, a plane or tank (with lots of snazzy guns), a racing car (guns optional – I’m looking at you, Streets of SimCity), or even an action figure. In fact, considered this way, many games can be seen as simply providing a compelling toy (or toys), and a fun environment in which to use it, as well as an excuse to do so. Even games like Prince of Persia, Commander Keen and Tomb Raider can be viewed as controllable action figures.

At the most extreme end of the spectrum, some games provide just the toy itself and leave the ‘game’ or ‘play’ component completely up to the player. Townscaper, and The Architect: Paris are some recent examples. There’s no real rules, no real ‘win’ or ‘lose’ conditions, just the toy and what people make of it.

A significant feature of games that fall more towards the ‘Toy’ end of the spectrum is that they seem not so concerned about what the player will experience beyond enjoyment. Who cares if the player skipped over an encounter or totally bypassed that cool section? Did they enjoy skipping it? Who cares if that weapon is redundant, and there’s another which does the job equally well? Are they both fun?

A good example of this is Rage 2’s Grav-Dart Launcher. In terms of problem-solving ‘tools’ there’s certainly more effective ones available to the player. But in terms of sheer fun, however, nothing beats the spectacle of making a foe riddled grav-darts and then firing the ‘homing’ dart, which attracts all the others, to launch them straight into the stratosphere (or launch them straight into their fellows, if you’re so inclined). That is, it’s a great toy – we’re talking fun, not efficiency here. Put another way, these games seem to trust the players to create their own fun, and are confident enough the toys will survive any ‘house rules’.

While pretty much every game can be said to be trying to give the player a particular experience – whether this be a sense of power, competence, an emotional message, story, or similar – there are ways and ways to do this, and some work far better than others. This is because guiding, or in some cases forcing, the player to react in a particular way by necessity means taking control away from the player. Used sensibly, it can create some incredibly memorable and powerful moments, such as the ‘sucker ending’ in Control, where players believe they have failed and are trapped repeating monotonous tasks (such as collecting coffee cups or photocopying documents) or the brilliant time-traveling story of Quantum Break.

Used skillfully, the player will barely even notice the lack of control. A cutscene which sets up the next piece of action (whether it’s a full-blown cinematic or a 10-second piece of dialogue) fits into this category. So too do limitations which the player will either dismiss as making sense, or are aware that they are part-and-parcel of the game itself. The lack of ability to quick-save in games in the rogue-like genre is one example. This entire genre revolves around the fact that players will do multiple ‘runs’, and on each run collect items which can be used to increase the player’s power and abilities (upgrading their ‘action figure’, so to speak), but only at the end of the current run (when the player ‘dies’). To allow the player to save the game before a fight and re-attempt it again and again until they manage to win, would not only break the game, but actually be incredibly frustrating for a player with an underpowered character, as it will take too long to beat the enemy, and they will die all too easily. A similar ‘invisible’ limitation is to prevent the player from leaving the ‘gaming’ area of the map by simply making the backdrop areas just out of reach. There may be a locked door, or an impassable jump or similar.

However, less cleverly implemented limitations (which were becoming the norm prior to Dark Souls) actually reduce the fun of a game. They mightn’t break it, but as a player, one is aware of the nagging feeling that the developer is looking over your shoulder and saying “you can only play the way I tell you.” This might take the form of an arbitrary restriction on quick-saves, the inability to attack particular non-player-characters (NPCs) because they’re vital to the story, even literal invisible walls which prevent the player from walking across an open field. These limitations become most noticeable when they remove an ability the player previously had. At their absolute worst, they reduce the player to a mere mechanical part of the game, dictating to them which buttons to press and when – the much hated quick-time-event which confuses activity with fun (with a notable exception being Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance). In most cases, it isn’t interesting, it isn’t fun, and to use Sid Meier’s words, simply let the computer automate that part and move on. Particularly today, where we don’t have the technical restrictions of yesteryear, these all represent design flaws, whether due to lack of imagination, or practical necessity (budget and time restraints).

This is perhaps best illustrated by one of the most highly regarded games ever made: Deus Ex. While most will point to the multiple pathways through levels, and the branching storyline, other games have these elements, and have not had the impact, nor for the most part, are they as much fun. No, with Deus Ex there is something deeper going on: a desire to avoid obvious and illogical restrictions on players using their toys. The multiple paths and branching story is simply a reflection of this. This can easily be seen by the fact that the game does not restrict the player in the use of their abilities. Does the player want to drive their character (action-figure) off the roof? Sure. It’ll get killed and you’ll have to reload, but why not. Do you want to turn your guns on your own side at the very first mission? Well, it’s totally out of character, doesn’t fit the story arc we’ve built but, fine. Good luck surviving (you won’t), but okay. Contrast this to games where the player cannot fire their weapon at friendly NPCs, or players are prevented from walking off a ledge by an invisible barrier, and the difference is obvious.

It’s important to note that in Deus Ex the player’s options are still in effect controlled (such as getting killed by your own side and forcing a reload), but in a way which is a completely logical and expected consequence. And, significantly, this actually adds to the fun. Why? Because, at that point, for whatever reason, the player has stopped playing the game and started playing with it. It may be they’ve gotten temporarily bored with what’s on offer. They may just be in a silly mood, or experimenting. Either way, they’re still having fun with the game.

If the player then discovers that the game not only accommodates this but even reacts to it, they become delighted. This was part of the joy of Deus Ex – planning out an action which would break any other game just because you could (like trying to save Paul from the nearly invincible Government Cyborgs) and finding that not only did you manage to do it, but the game reacted (Paul then turns up later in the story, instead of being killed).

The same goes for WarCraft II and WarCraft III. If one started playing with the game, funny things started to happen. Clicking on one of your soldiers or peasants resulted in an acknowledgment (“yes milord”). Clicking again resulted in a similar, response. Repeatedly clicking (an action born of mild boredom and silliness), would result in increasingly silly and insulting responses, all the way from threatening the player, to quips (‘Help! I’m being repressed!’) and Star Wars quotes. Should the player still be in a silly mood and attempt to replicate this on some of the fauna populating the maps (like sheep or seals), after 20 or so clicks the animal detonates with the force of a small bomb. It’s almost as if the game is saying “fine, if you want to be silly, we’ll play along”.

Similarly with The Witcher 3 – where the game takes place in a vast medieval world populated with monsters. Should the player, for reasons known only to them, decided to go on a cow killing spree, the game will spawn a huge, deadly, and very, very angry cow god to stomp on the player.

Sure it doesn’t make sense. Fine, it’s silly. Yes, it does totally break the game. But it is, above all else, fun. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what games are about? ■

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