Jonas Kyratzes just posted a piece called “Narrative as Gameplay” where he responds to complaints that his games lack “gameplay:”
[Narrative creates] a form of interactive storytelling that I would say constitutes gameplay as much as anything else in games does. In some games, you click on the enemy soldier and the enemy soldier dies, removing an obstacle to victory. In my games, you click on an object and it gives you a description, removing an obstacle to understanding.
This is a very important point, and it deserves further exploration. Most games have a structure composed of a cycle of actions and rewards. You do something you’re supposed to do, and the game rewards you. Classic positive reinforcement. These rewards can be in the form of points (or money, etc.) but they’re most effective in the form of content. If you beat this boss, you get to see the next level. If you pass this test, you get to advance to the next grade. If you explore a side path, you get to see a cool room. If you examine this object, you get a cute joke.
These things are all analogous. There’s different scales to the rewards, but the 3XP you get for killing a rat is analogous to the 20 gamer points you get for an achievement is analogous to the ending cinematic you get for defeating the final puzzle. The challenge may vary, and the reward may vary, but the mechanism is exactly the same. Most games are machines that dispense rewards (i.e. pleasure) when you press the right button.
Kyratzes’s games (especially The Book of Living Magic and Desert Bridge) tend to have a ton of side content like object descriptions that aren’t part of the main beat-the-game path to the end. They have a collection of trickier critical-path puzzles or challenges, and then a lot of incidental rewards that are provided in response to easy actions. This is just like, say, Diablo, which has a set of tricky battles punctuated by a lot of walking around, killing minor monsters, and smashing barrels. In games like Kyratzes’s, you click on the right thing and instead of a spray of gold coins you get a joke or an insight into the world.
I twitted that “restarting a long multi-screen level on death” and “limited lives” are examples of retro mechanics that should stay dead. I thought that I would expand a bit on what I meant.
In part, this is a corollary to my past writings on challenge and punishment. In my definition, challenge is when a task is difficult to accomplish because it requires a high amount of skill, ability, or experience. Punishment is when failing a task imposes a burden on the player, usually in the form of lost time.
Ah, the boss. Since 1975, games with combat have punctuated their gameplay with fights against characters that are bigger, meaner, tougher, or just cleverer than the average enemy. Zelda, most shmups, and Mega Man/Rock Man are well-known for bossy goodness. At its best, the boss fight can be a test of the player’s skill and a climax for each section of gameplay, bringing all of the aspects of the game together in one mano-a-mano battle. At its worst, the boss fight brings the fun crashing down as you scream at your computer screen.
I’ve been playing Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones on GameTap. I loved Sands of Time, and I’m eagerly anticipating concluding the trilogy. Sands was a masterpiece, we can pretend Warrior Within didn’t happen, and Thrones is all-too-happy to maintain our delusion. But there was one moment in Thrones that set my hands twitching and my blood pressure rising.
My first column for GameSetWatch was just posted at their site. It’s called “Love Transcending Death: Challenge Versus Story in Calamity Annie,” and it’s about how that game does something very interesting to help bridge the gap between players who play for challenge, and those who play for story.
The plan is for me to write every two weeks on GameSetWatch. I’m quite excited about being able to contribute to their great site.