There should be a term for the first time you play a story-focused game, before you really get the hang of how to decimate all your enemies, before you know what’s going to happen in the plot, before you fiddle with the “moral choice” mechanics just to laugh at how big a jerk the protagonist can be, or before you find out that the choices you make don’t even really matter at all. This experience relies on a blend of story-oriented and mastery-oriented appeals, where the challenge of the game heightens the sense of drama and tension in the story, and vice versa.
I don’t know what the term for this type of play should be. Personally, I’d like to see it become more the norm for games with narrative pretensions, but it’s tough to pull off. Even story-oriented games seem to have a hard time pulling it off. And, notably, it’s usually absent in replaying a game. I’m not sure it has to be, though.
Replaying a game can rob it of this blend of narrative and perfectionist appeals, but not just because you know the story. Many of us re-watch movies we love from time to time, and those are the same every time we watch them; games, meanwhile, can actually offer different “stories,” from those explicitly presented in the paths they offer to those we make ourselves. No, the problem I’d like to focus on for now is how the way replaying a game can ruin the way that we enjoy a game’s story and realism because of the concessions made to challenge, rather than recognizing that mastery and story can work hand in hand even the second time through.
To be sure, replaying a game can offer its own sort of enjoyment in the sense of mastery it gives the player. In many story-based and role-playing games (like Dead Space, Prototype, and Mass Effect), there’s a “new game plus” option that allows you to restart the game with all the items and powers that you had when you beat it before. Why? Well, it’s fun to start things over feeling powerful already, and to build a character into something unstoppable. Sometimes this even fits into the story better than starting from scratch. Considering that the dialog in Mass Effect indicates that you already start the game with a reputation as an interstellar badass, it feels a lot more intuitive to start with a leveled-up character than with a first-level character who can’t even access most of its own powers and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with an assault rifle.
The problem, however, is that the second time through a game often feels a lot easier, or a lot more goal-oriented, and that throws the useful cooperation between story and mastery into imbalance. It becomes about making a beeline for where we know the best weapons and power-ups are waiting, skipping dialog just so we can get back to leveling, allocating points to be the most powerful at one ability, knowing that this means the game will be hyper-repetitive.
Fallout 3, for instance, doesn’t allow for “new game plus,” but it does become a lot easier to feel powerful when you restart it with a new character after learning the ropes. It’s fairly easy to carry around a huge supply of health packs, ammo, and money; to never worry about radiation poisoning; to max out all your skills; to wipe out a room of enemies with a series of laser shots to the head before any of them even get a chance to pull a trigger. Again, that can be fun, sometimes. But it feels fundamentally different from that first time you play, when you’re never sure what effects your actions will have, when there’s always a slight tingle of danger and thrill of the unknown.
This is where difficulty adjustment presumably comes in. The most obvious response is to suggest that you just raise the game’s difficulty from “Normal” to “Hard,” “Very Hard,” or “Insanity,” tempering your own invincibility. And sure, I do this myself. But that brings me back to the issue of game appeals: Raising the difficulty level preserves a more satisfying feeling of mastery, but often makes it much harder to enjoy on the basis of story. Sometimes the little things that signal to the player that this is a game can really pull you out of the story, like needing to shoot enemies in the head four times before they fall over, or needing to play conservatively because enemies can kill you with a single punch.
It’s telling that my examples keep returning to a sense of mastery or challenge in combat-oriented situations. This is because that is what contemporary narrative games tend to focus on, and what designers see fit to adjust in the difficulty settings. That isn’t all that contemporary games offer, however. They’re also about managing scarce resources, planning careful strategies, potentially even avoiding fighting whenever possible. These are things that often contribute to the sense of playing in a story, rather than a series of action-movie fight scenes. It would be nice to see these things highlighted in replay opportunities.
Sometimes, then, I find myself wishing for a kind of “new game minus.” It wouldn’t be the same as that first time you play because you’d still know so much of what’s to come. Still, there are ways to encourage the game to be played the way you can play it that first time through, with that sense of danger and the unknown, blending the mastery appeals with the story appeals. When I say I’d like to see a “new game minus,” I mean I’d like to see a replay option that makes the practices of “power gaming” itself less feasible, removing the power-ups, making even the skills and powers that seem less crucial feel worth developing in some way, encouraging the player to find challenge in systems other than (or in addition to) combat.
Again, take Fallout 3, for instance. Consider a mode where there are no more skill books or Bobbleheads to boost your abilities; you need to improve by gaining new levels (and recall that you can gain experience not just in combat, but by hacking computers, picking locks, completing non-violent quests, and discovering new locations). It’s a mode where damage isn’t strongly tweakedâ€”because a head shot is a head shotâ€”but where radiation is a real danger, healing supplies are harder to find, and the amount you can carry more closely corresponds to what a real human being could reasonably carry (e.g., the equivalent of a couple six-packs of beer instead of 150 beers). In other words, I’d like to see games get harder with a mode that makes them more realistic.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way: Fallout 3 has a whole community of modders who put such variations into practice, but not every game can be modded. The fact that the game itself needs to be altered to see such ideas implemented is an indication of how rare it is that we see the appeals of storytelling and immersion treated on more equal footing with the appeals of challenge and mastery.
Does this need to be done for every game? No, of course not. I wouldn’t really care if it were there for games like Dead Space, which have a story element to them, but one that isn’t necessarily strongly integrated into the gameplay experience to begin with. The reason I want to see it in games like Fallout 3 is that the context implies that storytelling is kind of a big deal in the game as a whole. The quests present something like a narrative arc with actual attention to pacing and continuity. Dialog has its own front-and-center mechanic, with its own experience rewards. The protagonist’s personality is customizable, and his/her behavior has ramifications in terms of social interaction with other characters and other elements of gameplay (including who decides to attack you and which missions you have to complete at all). We are told that our actions mean something, with moral implications, beyond a straightforward life-or-death struggle. The game already hints to you that character, performance, and story are a major part of the experience, but it doesn’t necessarily follow through with it as far as it could.
The next obvious response to such concerns is that you, the player can always impose your own difficulty adjustments through arbitrary rules outside any the game has set for you. You don’t need to use all the health packs the game provides; you don’t need to traverse an entire game world through a click on a map; you don’t need to shoot every enemy in the head with the best weapon in the game; you don’t need to keep playing after your character dies, but can decide that your character is now dead. And, indeed, I have tried some such “imaginary adjustments” or “gameplay experiments” myselfâ€”hey, let’s aim for the legs this time!â€”but this presents some narrative distractions and frustrations of its own when the game isn’t designed to support such decisions.
My next post, thenâ€”the third (and tentatively final) in this series on how narrative games do (and don’t) encourage story-oriented appealsâ€”will describe how we might actively go looking for narrative meaning in games. I’ve had mixed results with it myself, which is why I discuss this now in terms of what games actively to encourage us to feel. Not every game is a narrative game, and not even every narrative game really encourages us to treat the story as a kind of gameplay itselfâ€”but those that do are teaching us some new ways to think about narrative, and still have some room to explore how that could go further.