I find it interesting that I’ve begun enjoying Popcap-style arcade games more than AAA titles. It’s not as if I find major releases overwhelming or intimidating; I grew up playing shooters, RPGs, flight sims, and adventure games — really anything I could get my hands on. Plenty of these I still consider masterworks.
However, these days, given the choice between BioShock and World of Goo, I’ll take the latter almost every time.
There are some exceptions to this, which I find revealing. I found Assassin’s Creed to be endlessly entertaining, for example, which was puzzling at first until I realized that the things I loved about it were the same things that made me love Plants vs. Zombies: the clarity of its choices.
In the sort of games I enjoy, the player is less concerned with fast twitch reactions and more with tactical and strategic choices within a fairly structured and comprehensible environment. Assassin’s Creed, for example, takes place in tight environments which the player can strategically improve through the rescue of civilians and the scaling of towers. Its combat, though hardly turn-based, allows for planning, strategic positioning, and improvisational combos. Altair has low-profile and high-profile modes, which are clearly delineated and have distinct effects on the environment. Even the hiding spots on the rooftops, as silly as they first appear, provide clear goals for chase scenes.
On the other hand, in a shooter like BioShock, although a great deal of customization is available and enemies can be fought in a variety of creative styles, the gameplay remains chaotic and based on high-speed tactical reactions. The player never really knows the kind of opponents or terrain he will encounter as he presses forward, and so most of his choices are made on the basis of personal taste rather than game mastery. Mastery, in this case, is the development of real-time physical skills like precision accuracy. In this way, many modern games most closely resemble a sport.
This sort of gameplay has always seemed less gamelike to me, possibly because I just don’t like games making physical demands on me. When someone headshots me again and again as I round a corner, the frustration I feel comes from a part of me that finds it somehow unfair that one can win this game through physical skill rather than intelligence. If someone destroys me in chess over and over, on the other hand, I’ll congratulate them on an interesting and profitable game every time. I even enjoy being beaten by someone better than me in a case like this, since I enjoy watching a master at work and I enjoy learning.
However, my gut feeling that most shooters and physical-skill-based games are less gamelike also found some grounding in a piece by Keith Burgun, in which he breaks down the relationships between puzzles, contests, and games:
Now, I’m not claiming that shooters or sports aren’t games. They clearly are. However, in these games the focus is placed much more on the competition side than on the choice side. Or rather, choices just don’t take center stage. Compare this to a boardgame like Settlers of Catan and the difference becomes obvious. Not only does Settlers bring choices to the forefront, choices are what the game is composed of. Apart from rolling the dice and collecting resources (which is automated at the beginning of each player’s turn) everything a player does involves making a choice between a handful of clear and well-defined actions. The consequences of these actions are also spelled out carefully and in turn provide a new set of interesting choices.
The winners of games like these are ultimately the players who make the best choices, not those who are the most agile or quick-fingered.
It’s no surprise to me that boardgames greatly excel videogames in this arena. Without the common crutches of videogames: beautiful effects, music, voice acting, and so on, boardgames have been forced to rely purely on making interesting systems of choice. That is almost the entirety of what a modern boardgame designer thinks about while designing: the choices, over and over, hammering them into a configuration that will be consistently interesting and fun.
The variety that boardgames have produced in this realm is staggering. Dominion, Puerto Rico, Space Hulk, Ingenious, Go, Agricola, Dune, Power Grid, Thurn & Taxis, and so many others are examples of finely crafted game systems that offer genuinely original forms of player interaction. Think about this: while most videogames require very little in the way of instructions, boardgames take significantly longer to get a handle on. In my experience, this is simply because, mechanically speaking, most videogames are remarkably similar, while boardgame designers pride themselves on coming up surprising and innovative rules time after time.
While every so often a videogame does come along that shakes up what people thought a videogame could be, boardgames overthrow accepted conventions routinely. Within the boardgaming community, most people don’t consider a new boardgame to really stand out unless it tries something startlingly new.
I suppose this is why I’m inclined to regard modern boardgames as generally superior to modern videogames, at least as far as they are games (some videogames might offer better overall experiences than some boardgames, but these experiences are often ones that are not particularly gamelike in nature). If choices are what make an experience a game, it seems to me that the value of a game (as a game) lies in how interesting, difficult, and fun those choices are.
The obvious question at this point is: should videogames adopt the choice-focused principles of boardgames? This doesn’t seem to have a clear-cut answer to me. Videogames do offer experiences that boardgames cannot, just from the fact that they can compute so quickly. In some of these cases, say Unreal deathmatches, adding more deliberate, strategic elements would destroy the game’s appeal, so I certainly don’t advocate overhauling games that are fun and that work. Even if Unreal is more of a sport than a game, sports have their own appeal. So perhaps the most useful approach is simply for videogame designers to begin learning from boardgames, which provide a uniquely intense testing ground for raw game mechanics, and considering them outside of their physical context.
The gameplay of boardgames, while often mechanically brilliant, remains constrained by the computing powers of human beings and their tolerance for huge amounts of cardboard. What would be possible if their principles were unleashed in the digital realm?