Our Needs Change With Us 2


One of the ear­li­est forms of PC games was the “adven­ture” genre, which fea­tured a fixed set of puz­zles, a lin­ear plot­line, and a focus on telling a story. You played a clearly-defined char­ac­ter in a very par­tic­u­lar set of cir­cum­stances, and the core of the game­play revolved around col­lect­ing items to solve puz­zles and talk­ing to char­ac­ters to advance the story. The Monkey Island series or the Quest for Glory games would be clas­sic exam­ples in this vein. Once you’ve played one of these games through once, they have the same replay value as a novel: worth revis­it­ing to soak in the details again, but fun­da­men­tal­ly a very sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence.

The other big genre at the dawn of PC gam­ing was the Roguelike. Rogue (and its inher­i­tors, like Nethack and ADOM) is a lo-fi dun­geon­crawler game where near­ly every­thing is ran­dom­ly gen­er­at­ed. Your char­ac­ter is a spread­sheet rep­re­sent­ed by “@” and you wan­der a cruel, mer­ci­less waste­land of punc­tu­a­tion until you die all too early when the Random Number God spon­ta­neous­ly births a foe far too scary for you to kill. The focus of rogue­likes is on out­smart­ing a com­plex set of algo­rithms through care­ful tac­tics and cal­cu­lat­ed risks. These games are rarely won; they invite you to chal­lenge your­self in new ways and to best your pre­vi­ous records.

My per­son­al tastes tend to favor games on one extreme end of the spec­trum or the other. My for­ma­tive years were spent with King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, and LucasArts adven­ture titles like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. These days, I spend most of my time play­ing games like Dungeons of Dredmor (my favorite rogue­like ever), Dota 2, and Civilization V. I’ve tran­si­tioned from one end of the spec­trum of the other, part­ly because the game indus­try does­n’t make many games on the “adven­ture” end of the spec­trum (Telltale Games are the only high-profile stu­dio mak­ing them these days) and part­ly because I have devel­oped a love for games that empha­size mechan­i­cal design over sto­ry­telling. My needs as a gamer and as a per­son have changed with me. Once I was a child who thrived on struc­tured nar­ra­tives and puz­zles with explic­it solu­tions, now I’m an adult with a need to explore vari­a­tions on the tac­tics and per­sonas I learned from my youth.

In one of my ear­li­er arti­cles, I described art as a cat­e­go­ry of tools that we can use for under­stand­ing the world around us. While I don’t want to cling to this as a dog­mat­ic def­i­n­i­tion, I do believe that art is one of our fore­most meth­ods of mak­ing our shared expe­ri­ences intel­li­gi­ble and com­mu­ni­ca­ble. Great paint­ings cap­ture our most tumul­tuous or serene moments as con­crete and dis­crete expe­ri­ences, mak­ing them acces­si­ble to any­one who spends time absorb­ing them. Songs let us live and rework pieces of our lives as pat­terns to be worn and rewo­ven at will. In a relat­ed vein, games give us a chance to live sto­ries that aren’t our own, and to explore the chal­lenges of sit­u­a­tions we might never find our­selves in oth­er­wise. Games help us learn about our­selves and the wider world through impos­si­ble sto­ries and improb­a­ble chal­lenges.

Adventure games were invalu­able to me as a child. They offered a self-paced explo­ration of slices of fan­tas­tic lives. I could spend days learn­ing what it was like to be Prince Alexander of Daventry or hardass biker Ben Throttle. I could play through sto­ries time and again, sift­ing for new details or gid­di­ly antic­i­pat­ing a favorite moment. On the first playthrough, adven­ture games gave my young mind a series of delight­ful puz­zles, stim­u­lat­ing my crit­i­cal think­ing skills and encour­ag­ing me to read more to get a rich­er under­stand­ing of what I was play­ing. On sub­se­quent playthroughs, I was afford­ed new chances to think about char­ac­ters in light of events yet to unfold in-game, or oppor­tu­ni­ties to vivid­ly relive favorite moments in a way that we never get to revis­it the times that form our most trea­sured mem­o­ries.

Confronting new peo­ple, new ideas, new per­spec­tives, and new places is a huge part of grow­ing up. Many of these func­tions in an adven­ture game are sim­i­lar to read­ing books, just pre­sent­ed with a dif­fer­ent­ly real­ized inter­face. As an adult, I’m a more expe­ri­enced read­er with a broad­er famil­iar­i­ty with dif­fer­ent tropes, arche­types, and clas­sic tales, but I can still gain from explor­ing and embrac­ing new sto­ries and char­ac­ters. Many games, even those not explic­it­ly in the “adven­ture” genre, are built large­ly around this lin­ear struc­ture.

I won’t be so crass as to sug­gest that a lin­ear nar­ra­tive is a good but imma­ture method of struc­tur­ing a game. Great sto­ries give games con­text that make the play­er’s actions mean­ing­ful and sat­is­fy­ing, but I have also stat­ed before that this is a chal­lenge to good game design because clear­ly defin­ing all the ele­ments of a story severe­ly restricts the play­er’s sense of agency. I believe that a good story has to be designed in every detail, but that deliv­er­ing options pure­ly for the sake of hav­ing options lim­its the nar­ra­tive and moral value of a story even though it pads game­play time. The entire adven­ture genre depends on a lin­ear nar­ra­tive to rein­force the traits of its char­ac­ters, and major events need setup details to have any sort of impact on the play­er.

Padding a lin­ear nar­ra­tive isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly unfor­giv­able, but it’s a dif­fi­cult bal­anc­ing act. Quality writ­ing suf­fers when the inter­sti­tial game­play does­n’t direct its focus well. Adventure games thrived almost pure­ly on the power of good writ­ing, and time spent between dia­logue was spent visu­al­ly explor­ing imag­i­na­tive land­scapes and beau­ti­ful art­work.  When I final­ly, years late, played the orig­i­nal Mass Effect, it seemed like an amaz­ing adven­ture game that was con­stant­ly inter­rupt­ed by a real­ly mediocre shoot­er, an RPG skill sys­tem that had no bear­ing on any­thing, and an inven­to­ry inter­face that had all the frus­tra­tion of a JRPG with none of the func­tion­al util­i­ty. The char­ac­ters were sub­tle and well-written, the plot had lay­ers of moral intrigue, and the plot branch­es had ter­rif­i­cal­ly thought­ful dimen­sions beyond the “obvi­ous hero” and “inex­plic­a­ble bas­tard” options present in many games (even if the Paragon/Renegade sys­tem is often just that). Unfortunately, the intrigu­ing deci­sions, crafty dia­logue, and grip­ping devel­op­ment took place in between tedious bouts of run­ning through cor­ri­dors, sift­ing through undif­fer­en­tiable items, and click­ing through gun­fights with all the tac­ti­cal intrigue of a cross­word puz­zle. I loved the story for all of its del­i­cate­ly craft­ed branch­es, but the medi­oc­rity of the ‘game’ por­tion has kept me from ven­tur­ing any fur­ther into the fran­chise than the first title.

Where the “All Plot” style of adven­ture game offers many of the same enrich­ments of a good novel or paint­ing, a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent type of enrich­ment can be found in the open-ended land­scapes of pro­ce­dur­al and sand­box games. The three games I’ve invest­ed the most Steam time in are Dota 2 (750 hours), Civilization V (475 hours), and Dungeons of Dredmor (246 hours). These titles do not have plots or char­ac­ters in the tra­di­tion­al sense, but I con­sid­er them to be tri­umphs of art­ful design.

These games main­tain my atten­tion and my effort because they offer nigh-unlimited per­mu­ta­tions. A game of Dota 2 involves cre­at­ing two teams of five unique char­ac­ters select­ed from a pool of over a hun­dred heroes, and the nuances of item pro­gres­sion, skill builds, and tac­ti­cal exe­cu­tion ensure that no two games will ever unfold in the same fash­ion even if the start­ing team com­po­si­tion is iden­ti­cal. A Dota match is a mind-twisting, knuckle-cracking bat­tle of wits and war­fare that keeps me engaged in an intel­lec­tu­al fash­ion so dif­fer­ent from a tra­di­tion­al adven­ture title it’s a mar­vel that we can con­sid­er them both games.

What Dota 2 doesn’t have is an engag­ing story or com­pelling char­ac­ters that grap­ple with thought­ful ques­tions. Heroes in Dota are inge­nious par­o­dies of arche­types, larger-than-life icons from TVTropes pages couched in a plot that des­per­ate­ly strug­gles to turn an absurd­ly inco­her­ent game into a story. While every hero has a back­sto­ry and hun­dreds of lines of voice act­ing to rein­force their iden­ti­ty, the premise of the game is so removed from plau­si­bil­i­ty and coher­ence that most play­ers com­plete­ly ignore the lore of the game. Imagine play­ing a game of chess where you named your rooks after famous cas­tles and wrote a page-long story of their con­struc­tion and you will under­stand the rel­e­vance of story in Dota; while it might be a fun exer­cise that lead to a fond­ness for the pieces, it has no bear­ing on your strat­e­gy and stands com­plete­ly inde­pen­dent of the game­play.

Ultimately, that doesn’t mat­ter. Dota is an incred­i­ble game, a strate­gic mas­ter­piece result­ing from near­ly ten years of mod­ding, bal­anc­ing, and com­mu­ni­ty feed­back. It is a game­play expe­ri­ence made pos­si­ble by an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly quixot­ic his­to­ry, an engine of pure play so inge­nious it couldn’t have been delib­er­ate­ly cre­at­ed ex nihi­lo. It is the peni­cillin of gam­ing, an unpre­dictable cre­ation of serendip­i­tous con­flu­ence.

Games are prod­ucts of arti­fice, delib­er­ate­ly absurd com­pi­la­tions of rules, restric­tions, and direc­tives issued pure­ly for their own sake. To para­phrase Jane McGonigal, a game is a vol­un­tary effort to over­come unnec­es­sary obsta­cles. While games like Civ V are couched in the imagery and ter­mi­nol­o­gy of the rise and fall of cities and cul­tures through­out his­to­ry, the mechan­ics of the game are so abstract­ed from the arc of his­to­ry that the fla­vor text of the game is just as irrel­e­vant as it is in a game of pure nar­ra­tive absur­di­ty like Dota. Concepts like “cul­ture” and “faith” with incred­i­bly var­ied char­ac­ter­is­tics in our daily lives are ren­dered as alter­nate cur­ren­cies that could have just as eas­i­ly been called “social points” with­out dam­ag­ing or con­fus­ing the game­play. While the trim­ming is what helps us learn the under­ly­ing mechan­ics of the games and incen­tivize us to explore the rules in dif­fer­ent pat­terns, the qual­i­ty of a game as such can be quite inde­pen­dent of its aes­thet­ic mer­its. We play games like Dota and Civilization to chal­lenge our­selves because chal­leng­ing our capa­bil­i­ties in self-directed tasks makes us feel empow­ered.

We play games for many rea­sons, and those rea­sons change as we change. The diver­si­ty of titles and styles presents us with a rich cat­a­logue of sto­ries, char­ac­ters, puz­zles, chal­lenges, and amuse­ments. Sometimes, we want puz­zles, sin­gu­lar sto­ries where we can trace a per­son or event to study and learn its intri­ca­cies, like a long ses­sion with a mir­ror. Even today, I stand to gain some­thing from liv­ing the sto­ries of heroes with finite des­tinies, as in BioShock or Dead Space. The dif­fer­ence is that now I am more like­ly to ask “Why am I play­ing this game?” in order to deter­mine whether it is worth my con­tin­ued invest­ment, whether it be for the story and char­ac­ters, or for the sheer mechan­i­cal delight of it.

What keeps you play­ing?

About Jarrod Hammond

Jarrod Hammond doesn't always blog, but when he does, he does it for the Ontological Geek. He spends the rest of his time gaming on his PC, or apologizing to his wife for spending too much time on his PC. He lives in Kansas City, MO.

2 thoughts on “Our Needs Change With Us

  • Eric Swain (@TheGameCritique)

    I know that your tastes may have changed, but you do seem to har­bor some love for the pure adven­ture game style of game and lament there is not much choice beyond Tell-Tale. A posi­tion that stems more from igno­rance than any­thing else. It’s true there aren’t many high pro­file devel­op­ers cre­at­ing adven­ture games these days, but if I may be so bold to rec­om­mend some.

    Wadjet Eye Games has pub­lished numer­ous superb clas­sic style point and click adven­ture games in the last few years. Gemini Rue is one of the best sci-fi sto­ries I’ve seen in years in any medi­um. And Primordia made it into my per­son­al top 5 games last year. I’ve also heard great things about Resonance though I haven’t got to play it myself yet. and there’s no harm in check­ing out Wadjet Eye’s own devel­oped game The Blackwell Bundle.

    I also high­ly rec­om­mend Analogue: A Hate Story, as anoth­er great sci-fi tale that takes one of the more mun­dane tasks in games (read­ing logs) and builds an entire com­pelling games around it. Cognition is an episod­ic crime thriller that has got­ten bet­ter with each episode. To The Moon is anoth­er indie adven­ture game that has lit up a num­ber of crit­ics and brought them to tears. Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! on iOS has slight RPG ele­ments, but no grind­ing and com­bat is more of what hap­pens given the sit­u­a­tion.

    Last year was also a ter­rif­ic year for explo­ration adven­ture games, includ­ing a new sub­genre, the First Person Walker. Dear Esther, Thirty Flights of Loving, Proteus, (and for Third Person Walkers) Bientot l’ete and Journey.

    That’s noth­ing to say of the truly exper­i­men­tal stuff being done in Twine or the Interactive Fiction com­mu­ni­ty at large.

    As for your ques­tion, I treat games as works like I would in any other medi­um. It is the whole and div­ing into the mean­ing that keep me play­ing. Though the mas­tery you speak of in the hours you’ve dumped into your games flab­ber­gast me. I can­not imag­ine spend­ing so much time on a sin­gle game with so many out there to expe­ri­ence.

  • Eron Rauch (@eronrauch)

    I come from an art back­ground, so I tend to access game the­o­ry from the lin­eage of avant art the­o­ry (Fluxux, Dada, Happenings, Situationalists, etc.) but I’ve start­ed won­der­ing if there is a branch of academia/philosophy/theory that address­es sports? Particularly with the rise of high-profile eSports, such as DOTA 2, LoL, Call Of Duty, and SC2, I won­der what approach might deal more with the psychological-phisiological as well as social struc­tures that exist in orga­nized sports rather than the tra­di­tion­al canon based on con­sole and PC, adven­ture, PRG, FPS single-player gam­ing? I mean, chess is so often talked about in rela­tion to video games by games the­o­rists, but as Eric above says, he “can­not imag­ine spend­ing so much time on a sin­gle game with so many out there to expe­ri­ence.” It feels like these sports-based approach­es might in many cases help to explore themes such as mas­tery, skill, pub­lic spec­ta­cle and social con­tracts (like glad­i­a­to­r­i­al com­bat in Rome or why peo­ple spend decades only play­ing chess or poker)? Just a thought to add anoth­er inter­est­ing layer of com­plex­i­ty to the whole debate of video games/art/theory!

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