Monday, November 30, 2009

I Told Him to Do That: Option Restriction, Choice, and Agency in Bioshock

Have you ever trapped a spider under a glass? Maybe you saw one on your kitchen floor and decided to humanely release it outdoors. So you took a drinking glass and put it down over the spider. Then perhaps you took a sheet of paper and laid it on the floor. As the spider scurried about in its prison, you gradually slid the glass onto the paper, which you could now pick up and take outside.

By doing this, you managed to move the spider where you wanted it to go - all without touching it or influencing it directly. As the spider aimlessly explored its limited circle of freedom, you advanced the walls, closing off space behind it and opening up space in front of it, in the direction you had selected. By choosing to move at all, the spider chose to move onto the paper - to the goal that you had chosen, and of which the spider was not even aware.

This is exactly how many videogames work.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Awesome By Proxy: Addicted to Fake Achievement

When I was old enough to care whether I won or lost at games, but still too young to be any good at them, I decided RPGs were better than action games. After all, I could play Contra for hours and still be terrible at it - while if I played Dragon Warrior III for the same amount of time, my characters would gain levels and be much more capable of standing up to whatever threats they encountered. To progress in an action game, the player has to improve, which is by no means guaranteed - but to progress in an RPG, the characters have to improve, which is inevitable.

As I grew older, this conclusion lay dormant and unexamined in my mind. RPGs continued to be my favorite genre. I relished the opportunity to watch interesting, lovable characters develop and interact in epic storylines. (Comparatively interesting and lovable, anyway - say what you will about Cecil, but his quest for redemption revealed a lot more depth than Mega Man's quest to shoot up some robots.) And I loved feeling like a hero. I saved the world in Final Fantasy IV, again in Lufia II, then again in Chrono Trigger.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Praise of Easy: Lowering the Barrier to Entry

Easy Button


The challenge/punishment confusion is a major source of disagreement about videogame difficulty, but it's not the only one. Even when we have set punishment aside and are very clearly discussing only challenge, we run into trouble. Let's take a look at the question of how much "easy" there should be in games:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Test Skills, Not Patience: Challenge, Punishment, and Learning

You and your friends are dead. Game Over.


Difficulty in games is a popular and thorny subject. Are games easier than they used to be? Does easier mean worse? Are games being "dumbed down"? And how do the dreaded "casual players" fit in?

The problem with these questions is that it is not productive to discuss difficulty as a single quantity. The term "difficulty" as it is commonly used encompasses two almost completely separate phenomena, with profoundly different effects on the player:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Play Me A Story, Part Two: What Makes A Metanarrative?

Part One is here.

Whether you're watching a DVD or playing a videogame, you have control over the progression of the experience. You may hold a remote or you may hold a controller, but the action on the screen will start, stop, pause, and continue, in response to the buttons you press.

The fundamental difference is the degree of choice you hold. With a movie, you can only choose whether to proceed. With a game, you choose how to proceed. Even subtle or trivial decisions, such as on what path to move your character, or which weapon to use on enemies, or where to position the camera, engage you in the creation of your own experience.