Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Lost Value of Mystery

There's been something eating away at me about the current generation's games.  While we have come to largely master the designs of certain genres, and the last several years has brought us a base level of polish and playability that is unmatched in any other, there's something about these games that I'm finding, for lack of a better word, lacking.  It just seems harder and harder to come across a game with some sort of soul to it.

For a while I chalked this up both to the changing games industry and my own changing tastes, plus nostalgia for earlier days.  It's true that the games from my childhood that I love will never be made or remade again, no matter how strong their core designs may be.  After reading Hugo Bille's fantastic article "The Invisible Hand of Super Metroid" about a month ago, those questions about the heart and soul of games began to flare up in me more distinctly, and now I think I've figured out what so many newer titles are missing: mystery.

This isn't really one of my usual design-type articles - rather, it's more a personal reflection on certain design trends, and their cumulative impact on the end play experience.  Continue at your own peril.

A Boy and a Cave

The Legend of Zelda opens with one of the most iconic, but also surprisingly simple scenes in just about all of gaming: a young, green-clad boy in a lightly wooded area, with a cave visible nearby.  For decades, this scene has captured the imaginations of players, and rightly so: the prospect of both the cave and the world stretching out in three other directions present a temptation too great to ignore.  Shigeru Miyamoto famously designed The Legend of Zelda around his own boyhood instincts, and this is reflected immediately in the opening scene.

There are few game openings that are both so simple and evocative.
This scene, like many NES-era games, does a lot with very little.  The simple visual design sets clear boundaries for the player that suggests the available options - up, left, right, or the cave.  In placing the cave, a block of pitch black, both nearest the player's starting spot and differentiating it visually from the other paths, there is an implicit importance placed upon it - if you're going to continue on, you might want to check this place out first (which, of course, is reflected in the near-legendary words of the old man inside, "It's dangerous to go alone, take this!").  Just in case the player doesn't quite get the message, the area beyond this starting screen is populated with easy enemies to subtly encourage the player to check out that cave.

But aside from the good design in this opening, there's something more, something baser about it, something that permeates the entire Legend of Zelda experience - discovery, exploration, adventure, and, most importantly, mystery.  More than anything else, Zelda is driven by that tantalizing prospect of new wonders, secrets, and treasures to uncover on each new screen.  Everything from the always-visible inventory and its first-vacant slots, to the fixed screens the game world is divided up into, serve to give the player a hint that there's something more to come.  And, whether it's blowing up a wall with a bomb to find some hidden items, or stumbling across a new Heart Container, the game always rewards its players - right up to its second quest mode once the game has been won, complete with reconfigured dungeons.

Something to Look Forward To

This fundamental drive to uncover new things is one that gaming has been happy to exploit over the years.  While features and game mechanics are able to keep players entertained, it's the prospect of finding something new and interesting that brings players back once the initial buzz has worn off.  Many of our favorite games are also the most replayable, and why I hold titles like Fallout and Arcanum in such high regard - they do their best to not only provide a great experience for first-time players, but offer enough content and flexibility in both gameplay and story to keep things fun and interesting even five or ten play-throughs later.

Novelty, either in mechanics or in aesthetics (including story) is perhaps the number one driving force in keeping players engaged.  The difference between good pacing and bad pacing appears when we are concerned not so much with "at what exact intervals is it appropriate to give the player new content?" as we are with "what can we give players to look forward to, and how?" Being able to both set up and telegraph upcoming content to players, and then deliver on it, is essential to making sure they play to the end, and choose to play again on a harder difficulty, or jump into the multiplayer mode.

Effective pacing hinges on novelty, to the point where a game like Half-Life 2 is driven almost entirely by how effectively it's able to put new situations and mechanics in the hands of players.
One game that, to this day, still manages to wow me with its pacing, is Half-Life 2.  On the surface, Half-Life 2 is not an especially complicated or interesting game.  It's very easy to approach its core gameplay with the "it's just a shooter" mindset.  However, it's clear that Valve went to great pains to ensure that every single weapon is fun to use and useful within the game world, that all enemies pose distinct challenges to overcome, and that each puzzle poses an original obstacle.  As fun as the basic gunplay is, it's the "what's behind this door?  past this loading screen?  after this story sequence?" that makes Half-Life 2 so fun and exciting to play through even nearly a decade after its release.

Comparing Half-Life 2 to a similar sci-fi shooter like Crysis 2 is interesting, to say the least.  Although Crysis 2 tries its best to give players neat locations to fight in, lots of wordy characters and plot events to take in on a frequent basis, and provides weapon upgrades at reasonable intervals, much of the game revolves around meticulously-animated set pieces and taking in beautiful vistas.  The shooting itself is fun enough, but the enemies you fight don't really develop beyond the few basic types and the odd boss battle, and the weapons never stray beyond the ordinary.  Even the Nanosuit, the game's biggest hook, is never developed over the course of gameplay.  After finishing the first level of Crysis 2, I'd forgive anyone for shutting the game off and saying "yep, that's enough of that."

The 10-Minute Game

When I hop into a modern game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or Gears of War, this generation's equivalent of Halo or Half-Life, I am never struck with a feeling of mystery, not throughout the entire five or ten hours I spend with them.  These games are not lacking for content, and the content they do contain is often beautiful, exceptionally polished and play-tested to the point where just about anyone should be guaranteed entertainment.  Paradoxically, however, I am rarely if ever thrilled or delighted by the prospect of new content in these games, even though by all accounts they have a far higher standard of content.  Why is this?

It's common knowledge that most players don't finish their games.  Depending on the game length, the game genre, and the market, completion rates can range from 15% to 50% on average.  Even though players demand that games be longer and more expansive with each iteration, the data suggests that players are less interested in actually exploring that content and more interested in justifying their own purchasing habits by using game length to determine value.  Developers have done a lot to combat this, and I have to applaud many of them for having the discipline to get rid of sub-standard content - arguably, if it wasn't for this knowledge, most games would still be 12-20 hours long on average, and only about three of those hours would really be any good.

Can you tell me which Gears of War level this is?  What point in the story it's at?  Or which game in the series, for that matter?  It's okay, I can't tell either.
Unfortunately, this need to produce shorter, denser games has also largely robbed them of any sense of mystery.  Rather than introducing game mechanics in a steady, metered fashion, or new weapons to play with, it's far more common to be shown everything a game has to offer within the first 10 minutes or so.  Call of Duty does this.  Gears of War does this.  Assassin's Creed does this (at least, once you get past the very lengthy intro sequences).  Even games that rely on exploration and adventure, like Tomb Raider: Underworld, or 40+ hour RPGs, like Dragon Age II, have fallen victim to this.  While you can keep playing for hours and hours, what's the point when you have nothing new to see or do except shoot the same old reskinned enemies from behind the same old pieces of cover with the same old assault rifles and shotguns (replace with "sword" as necessary)?  Aesthetics, including set pieces, and story, can help to make the monotony more bearable, but also tend to be vacant and empty of meaningful gameplay, and if the story breaks down, there is effectively nothing left to keep players playing.

Halo made itself famous on Bungie's so-called "30 seconds of gameplay", a loop of interactions and mechanics the player would be engaged in over and over again while playing the game.  I think some developers may have taken this sentiment a little too literally - Halo, despite its problems with repeating levels in the late-game, had the sense to introduce new weapons and enemy types one at a time, and then, after original content ran dry, to reappropriate them in interesting situations.  Enjoyed your romp in the tank earlier?  Now try driving it under fire from gunships.   In BioShock, the closest you'll get to this is trying to complete the hacking minigame with a smaller time limit.

Over the Hillside

Many people will justify the lack of mystery in a game like Call of Duty by saying "well, of course there's no mystery, it's a realistic military shooter!", and while I mean no disrespect to the developers, these are little more than rationalizations and excuses.  This effectively says "our game isn't interesting because it isn't designed to be interesting," which, in my opinion, is not a good attitude to have if you're making games.  Realism and real-world settings do not preclude mystery and discovery, and spending tens of millions of dollars creating five-hour theme park rides is just not efficient in my mind.

All that aside, fostering mystery in game design is not a lost art.  Open-world titles such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Risen give players something interesting to find over every hillside, and despite not being nearly as structured as some games, the mechanics of the skill systems ensure that progress is expressed not just in terms of "how many numbers does my guy have?" but "what new options have I just opened for myself?"  The mountainous vistas of Bethesda's games are, in their own way, just as enthralling as the starting screen of the original Legend of Zelda.

Mountains!  Forests!  Ponds!  Ruins!  Towns!  Games like Skyrim keep the faith by offering something new just over the horizon, whether literally or figuratively.
The games industry is going to have to be proactive in ensuring that mystery doesn't die out, however.  Triple-A games are expensive to produce, and generally becoming less viable every year as development costs continue to grow exponentially.  Social and mobile games already beginning to cut into the "core" platforms, but as so may of those titles are built around five-minute game sessions, and repetitive feedback loops based on frequent reward mechanisms, I have to wonder whether games will still continue to amaze and delight players on a long-term basis.  And, frankly, I also wonder if the only reason players aren't finishing their games is because there's nothing new to see after the tutorial level.

Closing Thoughts

This article has been a little meandering and personal, and not as analytic as I would have liked, but I think the point I'm making is clear all the same: it's not enough to give players a beautiful, kinetic and entertaining experience if your goal is to make a game that is fun not just for a half-hour, but for five, or ten, or twenty or more hours.  Mystery is an integral component of game design, and as development budgets swell and the cost of implementing content skyrockets, I see less and less of it as even the basics of gameplay become more difficult to manage.

Maybe it's unfair to pick on more mainstream games like Call of Duty - after all, they're built to appeal to a particular audience and play it safe.  This is understandable, but it's just no excuse for why a team of artists and designers should, say, work for a month creating, modeling, texturing, and animating a weapon model, if it looks and feels exactly like the ten other assault rifles in the game.  Not only is this a poor way to spend resources, but it actually lessens the impact of all other parts of the game, as the redundancy in content ensures the biggest asset of content - novelty - is lost on players.

Am I just being bitter, jaded, nostalgic and grim?  Perhaps, a little bit.  But I'd like to think that game developers can come up with more than "a different type of AK-47" when brainstorming when brainstorming ways to keep their gameplay interesting.


  1. Agreed Eric.

    Skyrim has its share of bugs, annoyances, and rough edges when you compare it to the level of design detail in a game like Rage - but I have spent over 90 hours playing Skyrim, and about 1 1/2 playing Rage.

  2. I think RAGE's problem is that it never really hints at anything before-hand. It gives you new guns, vehicles etc. pretty regularly, but they always come out of nowhere. Either someone drops a gun in your hands, or someone offers to give you a vehicle if you beat them in a race (whuza?). The exception are the Authority, but they're all build-up with no payoff.

    Skyrim does tend to suffer from not being able to reflect the consequences of your actions, but there's always a new unique weapon to find, a special dragon shout with a cool effect to stumble upon, or quests to complete. The quality of the content may not always be impressive, but there is rhythm to the experience.

    1. Definitely good points. Skyrim's lack of any consequence is pretty apparent when you murder every guard and attempt to assassinate the jarl - and have to pay a fine upwards of.... $1000. Watch out!

      Whereas Fallout 3, when I played a bastard of a character decided to blow up Megaton early on - the consequence was more Megaton. Made my second play through much harder (less weapon dealers, traders, people to steal from).

      The "pull" of both Skyrim and Fallout for me is I could visually see a huge mountain top/New Vegas in the distance, and I could physically walk there if I was so inclined...the sense of wonder you refer to....what's in there?!

  3. That's what keeps me playing Skyrim/Fallout for hours upon hours, the joy of spotting an interesting ruin and then walking over there to explore. Just to find another interesting point a little bit further.

    As for your criticisms of MW (and "realistic" military shooters in general) is I think they're morphing into a different creature altogether. They're primarily about the multi-player experience, single-player is an afterthought (especially in BF3). However (for me at least) they work well in that regard. I can detect some subtle differences in guns (one has a slightly faster ROF, another fires slower but does more damage per hit, etc...) I can't for the life of me think of a good current (or recent) "realistic" military shooter that was all about the single-player story. Possibly the Brothers in Arms series?