There’s a lot of debate going on among people who are apparently experts at predicting the future, people who actually buy the things and people who make them about what the role of video games in the future is going to be; and what their nature is.
From my understanding of how these experts fall into different camps, I’m not sure I completely go along with any of them. Now, over the course of a series of articles, let’s have a look at some of the main reasons why I’m disillusioned with video games.
What makes a game a game (and why this matters): Angry Birds is more of a game than Modern Warfare 3… if you take the single player experience into account only. This statement sounds pretty shocking, but there’s a simple logic behind it. Angry Birds is a game combining learned skill (knowing what each bird can do at any given point, and applying this to a known situation), and chance (the fact that even if you know what to do, things may well happen differently for reasons beyond your control). It’s the luck element of Angry Birds that makes it so compelling for many people; the combination of working out over repeated attempts how to solve clearly defined puzzles and then how to do so more efficiently.
Triple Town is a very interesting one too; it is a simple game of chance based around making the most of resources you have limited control over. In board game terms you could even compare it to Settlers of Catan, which is based around collecting the right combinations of randomly allocated resources and doing the best you can with them. So with a heritage in game design based on Solitaire and Settlers, when I see someone claim Triple Town isn’t a game (usually because it’s on the mobile), I am naturally sceptical of their argument.
If that’s why Angry Birds and Triple Town are games, why is MW3’s campaign not one? It’s because there’s so little unknown about it; the player is almost passive for good sections of the game. You can play two, three, or even a dozen games of Triple Town and while the core mechanic remains the same (collect resources, convert them into points), you will get different situations emerging as you get, or don’t get, what you need. The same with Angry Birds. A level might always have the same arrangement of blocks and birds, but will play out in subtly different ways each time. It’s you versus the game’s elements of chance.
Let’s compare this with Modern Warfare. If someone talks about their game experience playing Angry Birds they’ll probably bemoan their bad luck and say “it took me X goes to do it, you have to do this, this and this.” Someone else might say “Ah but you don’t need the blue bird there, if you aim the green one there.” When someone talks about the single-player of Call of Duty they’ll probably say “and then I escaped the sinking submarine on a jetski and the big epic music played as we took back New York” etc. Which sounds more fun? Call of Duty, of course. Exploding submarines is far better than trying to work out the most efficient combination of birds to destroy the blocks.
But the Call of Duty player probably watched all those things happen but had less agency than the Angry Birds player. He probably dutifully pressed buttons when instructed to by the computer to be granted the chance to see the nex bit of the story. There were enemies in pre-ordained places that acted largely the same each time, so if he died five times to the guy behind the door he would throw a grenade in the sixth regardless of whether his character would have expected a guy there. That’s the thing – if you watch a “good” playthrough of modern games from the perspective of a film, you’d be forgiven for thinking the character was psychic whenever someone’s controlling him, and a blithering idiot when the plot needs it.
When you’re in control of your man in Call of Duty, enemies die before they know you’re there; you know there’s going to be a guy in X, Y and Z location and you prepare for this. But as soon as you reach the big glowing GO HERE marker, all that goes out the window. You have to do something, be it point the big rocket at the tank (which will do its merry thing until you do this) or press the button (if it’s your turn to press the button) to move on; and then you’re at the mercy of the cutscene, and if the cutscene says you’re going to lose to odds you could easily have taken down while you’re in control because the plot needs it then that will happen.
And there’s my conclusion. When you’re in control, Call of Duty‘s missions are as much a case of pattern recognition as, say, Angry Birds. But the game takes so much control away, through cutscenes, lack of route choice, big shiny waypoints that spell out exactly what you need to do and is going to happen, that you have a curated and controlled experience that will play out the same every time because it needs to for the plot to happen. Now a game should be a test of skill and chance that offers differing outcomes each time you play it; where your actions put you completely in control of a situation you might not be able to govern on a macro-scale. Not being led from pillar to post and being able to solve its challenges before you should even know they’re there. Angry Birds and Triple Town don’t have this disconnect; like it or not, they are pure games mixing skill and chance; not films interspersed with ultimately immersion-breaking pattern-recognition sequences.
In short, then, a game is at its most gamelike when there is the least differentiation between things done by the player and things not done by the player, and the more skill is involved in it. I’ll be explaining what all this means, and what makes a good game good, in other parts of this series.
Join me next time for more pondering about game experiences, in which I talk about Skyrim, Dear Esther, and Dark Souls. And probably some other things.