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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.