Choice, challenge and satisfaction

by berv

Last night I attempted to express my frustrations with grinding in games in the form of an epithet. My first off-the-top-of-my-head attempt was:

The simpler the computer program you would need to play the game for you, the worse a game it is.

Andrew quickly pointed out that Tetris is easily played by a computer and remains a well-designed and satisfying game. And I’m sure many examples exist of games that require complex human input but are still not very good games.

So I was forced to return to the question of what exactly I was trying to express. What I’m looking for is a way to describe why it is I get frustrated by repeating certain tasks but not others (e.g.  digging through the earth in Terraria but not retrying a level in Super Meat Boy for the 100th time).

What I begin to suspect is a key connection to meaningful player input.
To refer back to the Tetris example: yes, it’s a simple game, but it requires the player to make a series of rapid-fire decisions that require not only an understanding of how the pieces fit together but the dexterity and reflex necessary to make them do so. If either of these are lacking, the player fails. At this point, one will either give up, saying “this game is not for me,” or seek to improve their skills and understanding to the point where they may eventually succeed. Throughout this process, demands are made of the player that require their meaningful engagement.

Contrast this with some of the issues I brought up in my recent post about Dungeons of Dredmor. I was frustrated by the need to repeat the essential program I had written for myself again and again until I arrived at an encounter where the program wouldn’t work and I was forced to think about the new challenge.  Grinding through these familiar and repetitive actions demanded nothing special of me beyond the decisions I’d already made. The same holds true, often, of getting from point A to point B in an open-world game. If the world is not sufficiently populated with novel encounters (be they scripted or emergent through procedural generation), travel too becomes a grind. From popping in on me during my year with World of Warcraft,  I think my dad still has the prevailing opinion that most of the games I play consist entirely of walking. If what I want to do is something that’s so easily done as to be completely inconsequential, why do I have to do it? This question gets at the aforementioned Super Meat Boy vs. Terraria dilemma and the key element of challenge. Perhaps an epithet formed around this might be:

If something is so easily done as to be completely inconsequential, it ought not be present as an element of gameplay.

I feel like this better expresses my desired sentiment, though it relies on a clear understanding of the difference between a game and an activity (more on that in a later post, I’m sure). A large part of my enjoyment of games comes from the challenge they provide, in the ways they make me think strategically or hone particular skills. “How do I overcome this obstacle?” is closely tied to “Have I faced this obstacle before?” If the answer to the latter is yes, the question of the former is already answered which, in the absence of a challenge of execution, means I’m not engaged in the way I’m looking to be.  Even in a case where obstacles are repeated, as long as those obstacles require your specific and often dynamic input, they can still present a satisfying challenge. I think again of Super Meat Boy and the ever-present saw blades.  I’ve probably jumped over ten thousand of them at this point, but because I’m always coming at them from a different angle or with different momentum, they continue to challenge and don’t become a bore to dodge.

It seems that my enjoyment of games comes down to novelty. I’ll give any new game a shot and, providing it doesn’t offend my sensibilities straight off the bat, might play it for an hour. It’s often fun to run around within a new set of mechanics and I’m always hungry for new ideas or ways of approaching gameplay. There’s challenge in exploring a new world and satisfaction in testing the limits. What makes the difference is just how long that buffet line lasts: those games that expend all of their ideas within that trial period typically get shelved, where those that continue to challenge me in new ways get played a little bit longer. At the risk of possibly being too concise, allow me to suggest a final epithet:

If the player is not challenged, the game is dead.