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.

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.

Phantasy Star’s dungeons looked like this. Some of them had more than ten floors. None of them had a map.

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?

A Counter Strike LAN party for american soldiers
The infamous piano puzzle from Silent Hill

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 — a game that goes as far as the eye can see. And beyond.

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.

A typical battle in Octopath Traveler

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.

League of Legends: characters, maps and abilities are all part of a complex lore

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.

Dark Souls: really, what chance do we have against him?

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?

Journey: as the name suggests, it matters more than the desintation

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.

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Game Design Student. Fiction is as real as reality has fictions. Based in Cologne, Germany.

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