How to keep video games interesting in the age of information overload?
One of my clearest memories about playing video games back in the 90’s involves magazines. Lots of them. Games like Castle of Illusion, ToeJam & Earl and (a personal favorite and classic) Phantasy Star, demanded great effort in solving puzzles and riddles or defeating annoyingly hard bosses. In some cases, the challenge went even further, as we simply couldn’t figure out what to do next. Since Internet was not something available in a common home, the only way around those challenges, aside from discussing them with friends, were magazines. Getting into a kiosk and seeing the name of your favorite game somewhere in the cover meant that the answers for those complicate questions — especially when you are 12 — could be one read away.
Of course it didn’t always help: “walkthroughs” were a rarity. Most magazines brought articles about very specific aspects or moments of the game, like where to find the most powerful weapons for your party, how to defeat a boss or the map for some complicated dungeon. Cheat codes were also a thing, although not the favorite one if you were only going to get your next game on Christmas and you wanted to enjoy the current one until its last drop. Because of all that, playing games was a social phenomenon: you and your friends would spend months playing, discussing, reading, gathering intel, until you could finally beat the game. And this also made playing an utterly rewarding experience, since progressing on the narrative depended on all that. Therefore, the story became almost automatically interlocked with the gameplay, even if design choices were not exactly favoring that.
All you need to do is to google the game you want and there will be a walkthrough, with every detail from beginning to end. Secret endings are not that secret after YouTube, and even unlocking them is not a privilege for a few curious, high skilled players, but something available for anyone who is willing to search it.
Take Phantasy Star as an example. Remember when you had to find Hapsby, a robot capable of flying a spaceship? Dr. Luveno, who crafted the robot, gave us the directions to the town where Hapsby was supposed to be, but once you got there, all there was to see was garbage and debris. To find Hapsby, you would have to remember a line spoken by an NPC somewhere else. She (or he) said that Polymetryl was a substance capable of dissolving any material but laconian — from which Hapsby was made of. Then, you would have to go after said chemical — at the other side of the planet — and come back. How about defeating Lassic, the main villain? What were the best armor, weapons and shields for that? And where to find them? How to handle dungeons that were complex, multi-leveled mazes? Some of the new tidings came as legends from another world: “A friend of my cousin’s friend who has finished the game said there is a laconian shield hidden on a dungeon in deep Dezoris. Should we go look for that?”. Well, a lot of magazines, discussions, drawing, notes and our parents’ money went on that. Even hearing about new games was something almost “clandestine”. I remember my best friend saying, back in 1993: “Now that we’ve finished Phantasy Star we have to look for this new game called Zelda. Somebody told me it’s the next Phantasy Star…”. For some time, we didn’t even know what Zelda was.
How to make interesting and challenging games in a time when information is plentiful and easy to access?
Twenty years later, internet changed that scenario. A lot. All you need to do is to google the game you want and there will be a walkthrough, with every detail from beginning to end. Secret endings are not that secret after YouTube, and even unlocking them is not a privilege for a few curious, high skilled players, but something available for anyone who is willing to search it. That gave game designers a dilemma: how to make interesting and challenging games in a time when information is plentiful and easy to access?
First, it must be considered that the very emergence of the internet changed gaming a lot. Those first years of the last decade saw the springing of LAN houses and parties everywhere because gaming became a strictly social practice. When playing Counter Strike turned into the Saturday night fun for gamers all around the world, it also put a huge gap between gameplay and narrative. Gaming meant, for a lot of people, to gather friends and play match after match of a virtual, magnified version of cops and robbers. Just like in the traditional children’s game, narrative came more from people’s interactions and internal jokes than from the game itself. Actually, this kind of game had practically no narrative involved. The “social gaming” in early 2000 was almost pure gameplay.
On the other hand, the “gameplay spree” was restricted to PC gaming. It demanded internet connection, after all, and by that time, consoles were not yet at that point, at least not full throttle (pun intended) as PCs were. Playstation and Playstation 2, Game Boy Avance, Nintendo Game Cube and Xbox were the main consoles out there. And since they were not competing for “lan house players” attention, they became the “last bastion” (again intended, excuse me for that) for games where narrative still played a big role. We are talking about the golden age of Pokémon, Zelda: The Wind Waker, the first Kingdom Hearts and Devil May Cry. Of course, some of those games, especially for Xbox, tried to emulate what was going on at the LAN houses with a narrative twist, giving birth to hits like HALO, for instance.
But let’s focus on our main dilemma here, which is less about online gaming and more about what is said online about games. Something that started shyly years before, at the end of the 90’s, when dial-up internet connection was available on a large-scale. This was when game forums started (some of them still active today) and magazines ceased to be the only resource gamers had to help them in their journeys.
Here, things were already a little bit different from Phantasy Star. If you played Silent Hill, you probably remember the piano puzzle. A poem on the wall and a piano with some broken keys were the only clues given to the player in a key moment of the story. There was no big boss to beat, no skill to master: only the puzzle in a frightening room with a foggy atmosphere. We had internet by them, but the few sites we could find in a pre-google era (Altavista, anyone?) were not answers to the riddle at all. Some of them discussed the meaning of the poem about birds, and which bird corresponded to each key. Others explained what would happen after the puzzle, without hints on how to solve it. At the end, my friends and I figured which key should be played first. Then, I made two different probability tree diagrams, one for each case of correspondence between birds and keys, and we tried every single one of around 56 combinations, until we reached an answer. That took us two days, several meetings and a lot of fun. We had online references, we had the notion that this was the right track, but still, we had to figure it out because answers were not there to be found.
Few years later, when a friend wanted to catch Rayquaza on Pokémon Ruby, all he had to do was mentioning it on a conversation. People already knew where to find it and how because everyone read about it online before they even got to this part of the game. Later on, the spoilers age would come, to affect not only games, but fiction as a whole. And this third story, as can be easily observed, is shorter, simpler and blander than the previous two.
A lot has happened between now and then: consoles went online, the gap between online multiplayer and offline single gaming shortened and most players got used to the availability of information, recurring to walkthroughs only in extreme cases. But some things got lost in that process: the sense of discovery, the astonishment before the new, the will to explore diegetically more than in other media. And that is the challenge some game designers are now trying to tackle. But how?
Some of the most critically and commercially acclaimed games from the last years can give us clues on that, just like our old magazines did.
More than a possibility brought by hardware (be it online or offline), open worlds, if well crafted, can give “mistery” back to video games.
It is not a coincidence that open world games are becoming more and more popular and main publishers and developers are investing loads of money on it. More than a possibility brought by hardware (be it online or offline), open worlds, if well crafted, can give “mistery” back to video games.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, last year’s Game of The Year, is probably the best example we have so far: the game uses its world to tell the story as the player explores it. It means that you’re totally free, from the start, to do whatever you want, be it confronting the main boss right after finishing the tutorial or go around the huge world of Hyrule, collecting 999 korok seeds and discovering 120 shrines — and, of course, getting better skilled and armed for that final task. The choice, the pace and how the side quests and main story connect: it is all up to the player. Of course there are walkthroughs, maps and clues all around the internet, but they are not useful if what you are looking for is to really experience the game, more than just watch its story.
Fallout 4 stands as another good example of this stream of game design. Since every character is unique and designed by the player, and since almost every item can be modified, the realism and immersion provided makes you want to stay and seek answers there, never out. Also, what you see on “general” walkthroughs might not fit the situation, condition and state you’re in when you go to the forums for help. My only experience looking for answers on the internet was when I got stuck in parts where there seemed to be nothing else to be done, only to find out I was beholding one of the famous Bethesda bugs. Bug solved, the game would go on normally.
Skyrim, Withcer 3, Horizon Zero Dawn and, of course, Red Dead Redemption 2… All good examples of how open world can be used to keep games interesting.
The art of war
Randomness, planning, accountability and luck play a big role in RPGs. One that information alone can not control.
Games almost always involve battle. How those battles work and are systemized can make a game interesting even if you know what to do in every step of the way — or ruin it even if you don’t.
Traditional RPGs (not the hack and slash with leveling that people insist to call RPGs) are the main example here, not by chance. Since they rely on turn-based strategy, every movement must be thought in advance and no battle is equal to the other. Therefore, even if you read everything on the internet and use the recommended armor, weapon and magic, you could still not win, as your foe might unleash a deadly random attack or one of your party members who has the right spell to put it down ends up without enough points to cast it. Randomness, planning, accountability and luck play a big role in RPGs. One that information alone can not control.
The recent Octopath Traveler is a very good example. Its battle system seems to be an evolution from the excellent SaGa Frontier. As a result, longer and more important battles, like the ones against bosses, are a beautiful, almost poetical exercise. You must think who to have in your party. You must think which weapons to use. You must think when to use your points that allow for more attacks or to make your spells stronger. You must know when to heal and if you’re doing that through magic or items. You must know when to use an item that might injure your opponent. And also who is going to use it, with more chances of success. The list goes on and depends a lot on what’s happening right here and now. Information can help you to be well prepared, but only your skills as a good strategist will make you succeed.
Dragon Quest XI, Pokémon main games and Persona 5 are also good examples of how a turn-based battle system, especially if integrated with the narrative, can make games interesting and with a healthy level of uncertainty even if you know every step of the way.
A side note: most people seem to consider turn-based battles and traditional RPG as something less appealing to western audiences than more dynamic, real-time battles. Nevertheless, the facts that Octopath Traveler needed a reprint after selling out worldwide and that Persona 5 was a serious contender to Game of the Year (besides being a smash hit) might be good points to show that this assumption is nothing but a myth. Or, one might say, badwill towards something that demands more crafting and attention than normal. Just like musicals were considered a “dead’, cult genre of cinema until Moulin Rouge and Chicago came out…
Online. Ready. Go.
The idea here is to use the excess of information to your favor: (…) The best way to thrive is getting to know the characters, their special abilities, their lores, the maps and their secret passages. And all that info is spread in comics, websites, books, videos and every possible media, from fan art to canon.
So, the LAN houses had something to teach us after all. As online games started to gain on narrative and incorporate it on their gameplay, new genres sprung. MMORPGs, FPS, Battle Royale, only to name a few. But the big thing here was that, more than playing tag with guns, the time for knowing the characters and their backstories had arrived. Some of the games had a high customization level, like Ragnarök or Tibia, where players would craft and sell charcaters for fortunes.
WoW brought a universe of its own, with tribes, clans, guilds, kingdoms and everything medieval fantasy has to offer. Destiny took it to the outer space. And League of Legends made into one of the most played eSports in the world. DIY games, like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky, also found their way here as well as co-op modes from single player games. And don’t even get me started about what Overwatch represents in online gaming. An interesting exception are simulators, like The Sims. Though they are not online, their logic seems to go a little in this way, although they’re a little loose when it comes to actually building a narrative.
The idea here is to use the excess of information to your favor: what online games have in common is that every match is unique and players, being human, are unpredictable. Although there are clues to be taken and even some quest solutions online, none of them will be enough for a player to succeed. The best way to thrive is getting to know the characters, their special abilities, their lores, the maps and their secret passages. And all that info is spread in comics, websites, books, videos and every possible media, from fan art to canon. Although this tactic won’t fit to every game, it sure explains the path followed by today’s online gaming. And considering how that path is constantly agitated by legends, secrets and rumors every now and then, it is a really good one to go.
Work hard, play hard
Making games so hard that patience and resilience matter more than information is another tactic game designers seem to use very well.
People know how to solve puzzles and that is making games boring? Think no more: make games so difficult that only really skilled and polished players will be able to beat it. Timing, accuracy and a deep knowledge of the full set of abilities and moves are not a plus: they are necessary if you plan to stand a chance against a boss or harder foe. Also, you will need a lot of right equipments and leveling up before even considering going against that monster or sorcerer. Making games so hard that patience and resilience matter more than information is another tactic game designers seem to use very well.
The Dark Souls games are an excellent example. Read all you want about it, make your character the best you can: when that giant monsters start breathing fire that kills you instantly or hit you with a surprise tail attack after you finally shielded yourself against its bite, it will be no use. Die and it sends you a lot backwards, losing your money and magic points. You can always take it back, but then you have to go back to where you died. And the monster will still be there… Frustrating as it may sound, the series has a legion of fans. Most of them hardcore gamers. The reason? Probably because the game poses challenges that take their gaming skills to a peak. Not their reading skills. Not their skills to gather intel. Not their skill to find the right steps on websites. But their skill as gamers.
They must know where to jump and where to fall. When to change weapons or use magic. The exact millisecond to attack (and how to defend during three minutes before that). Some of the installments in Kingdom Hearts, especially the first game, draw a lot from that as well, with bosses that could be on Dark Souls, were they not so colorful. At least in that case there are meaningful narrative rewards after the battles.
Platform and Metroidvania games also use a lot of that strategy. Hollow Knight is being praised for how it uses design and difficulty to enhance the gaming experience and its sense of discovery, even if you have a map. Mario Odyssey had moments where controlling had to be absolute, surgical, to say the least. If a person got all the 999 Power Moons, they can probably fly a plane or perform nano-brain surgery. And then there’s Celeste, a diamond of a game… and as hard as a real one.
This is a bold way to go, if you ask me, especially considering all the frustration involved. But if well interlocked with a good story, this tactic can help developing “internet-proof” games, worthy of the best players.
What if losing was impossible? What if the gaming experience is not one of win-lose but one of win-win?
Part of the reason we look for information about games is that we are afraid to lose. We don’t want to be defeated by the machine, seeing our character die or get stuck at some point of the narrative. But what if losing was impossible? What if the gaming experience is not one of win-lose but one of win-win?
A lot of indie, arthouse games have that structure. In Journey, for example, it’s not possible to die. There is no “life bar”, hearts or hit points. It’s only the character and the landscape to be surpassed. You might get delayed. You might get stunned. But you might never die or lose progress. The contemplative experience it is designed to provide is more important than the traditional “beating the game” sensation. And that is precisely what makes Journey a classic.
The same goes for What Remains of Edith Finch. It’s not possible to die, or, put in another way, dying is your main objective. You must explore, you must read, you must get emotional… And that’s the focus of the game. Rather than testing playing abilities or strategies or concealing information, the game wants you to feel emotions that come alive as you play. You could watch the whole gameplay on YouTube and still not get the feelings you get when you play.
Gone Home, Firewatch, Abzû and Bound all go more or less the same way and are equally interesting even if you have all the information about them. It’s important to say, though, that some of the narratives here have really surprising plot twists, and knowing about them might harm your playing experience, even if they are not something that a walkthrough would focus on…
Rescuing that sense of discovery and astonishment from “old” video games is not something we should pursue for the sake of nostalgia. It’s something we should do in order to keep video games fun and interesting as a medium on its own.
All those threads can be, of course, combined, reinvented, intertwined and adapted. Designing games that are interesting besides all the distracting information around means innovating to a point it stands out, capturing our attention without letting it drift away. As the games presented here, a lot can be done and, certainly, a lot is still to come. Rescuing that sense of discovery and astonishment from “old” video games is not something we should pursue for the sake of nostalgia. It’s something we should do in order to keep video games fun and interesting as a medium on its own. As long as we feel like talking about those games with other people, making notes and schemes and putting our brains and hearts to the work, we know that a good job is being done. And there will always be something out there for us to discover.