Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

A game is for life, not just for Christmas…

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Merry Christmas, and if you’ve just unwrapped a new game, here’s a sobering puppy-for-life type statistic which is urban legend in the games industry, and might even be true: the majority of console games are played once.

So what? you might think. Most books are read once, most DVDs are watched once, most Christmas cakes eaten once… But I don’t mean finished, I mean played. The majority of console games are opened, installed, booted up, played for a single session (possibly of several hours), then never booted up again. Even though games can afford tens of hours of entertainment; and even though games cost four times as much as books or films.

And that isn’t true of books, or DVDs, or Christmas cake. So why the difference? Is it just because people can get stuck on games?

I don’t think so. I think it’s deeper than that. In fact, I’m not sure there is a difference between the consumption pattern for a DVD, book or a game. I think instead that the difference is in what we mean by the word finished. (And, what is inkle going to do about it?)

The length of a game can be a tricky thing to measure at the best of times. Many games provide a variety of play-modes, from different difficulty levels through to different characters, storylines and abilities to try. Some games don’t even end, like the eternally popular multiplayer side of games like Call of Duty and Battlefield.

So when has a player “finished”? I’d argue a player finishes when they’ve learnt all that they expect to learn: that is, when the game ceases to surprise. The moment when every damn level is the same as every damn level before, that’s the moment when the game is finished. From there, a player either trades it in, or keeps playing in that trance-like addictive state that parents find so worrying. (Or in some rare cases, keeps going to see what happens in the story. But those cases are really pretty rare.)

The best evidence I have for this idea is from playing Assassin’s Creed II. The player takes the role of a member of a secret assassin’s guild in a rich simulation of medieval Florence and Venice. The cities are modelled on their real-life counterparts, and the player is given the task of navigating their streets, crowds, rooftops and canals to complete a variety of missions against the powerful ruling elite.

It’s a game which is remarkable for being almost entirely one long tutorial. The game features a staggeringly large number of things the player can do, but they’re all introduced gracefully so that the game is still teaching new mechanics at 70% complete (the pistols, the extended jump). By that point  most normal games have settled down into a familiar rut and are simply ramping the difficulty curve.

This constant learning made for good fun – each new mechanic introduced a new challenge, opened up a new route, or provided a new way of interacting with the simulated crowds. But despite the breadth, most people I know gave up on the game without reaching its end. And most gave up around the same point – the Venetian street carnival, an extended sequence of (none-too-difficult) challenges in which no new mechanics were introduced. People said, “They felt they had seen all the game had to offer.”

Assassin’s Creed, a very beautiful game with remarkably few assassinations in it, is a great demonstration of the parallel draws of novelty and mechanics. The mechanics in the game are not great: the stealth is fussy, and the running away sequences poorly balanced and quite repetitive. The first game in the series relied on these mechanics, and it got quickly very dry. But the scope of the world in the sequel, and the amount of novelty it is able to offer, is very large, because of the breadth and depth of its simulated cities and citizens.

By way of a quick contrast, Valve’s game Portal introduces a novel concept (creating spatial portals linking the world together in Moebius-strip fashion) which has lots of subtle depth (arising from momentum, angle, timing, that kind of thing), which it then develops with even more novelty in its level design. It’s a great example of the two aspects of a game working together in a mutually supportive way. And most people, I think, played Portal through to its end. (In fairness, of course, it was short, rewarding, and superlative.)

Most games are built squarely around repeatable mechanics – that is, a limited set of things that the player can do, which cause reasonably predictable consequences in the world of the game, with modifiers depending on the luck and skill of the player. It’s certainly true that a game with good mechanics will last, and a game with actively bad mechanics will fail.

Frankenstein, from inkleBut I think there’s another way, and that’s the direction we’re taking over at inkle for our Frankenstein project. A game – or rather, an interactive experience – can instead have simple mechanics, and be founded more on its content, and on the novelty and discovery inherent in that content. You know; the way a book is. It can be built in such a way that to be finished means to be completed rather than merely to be understood.

We hope that when people read/play (“relay”?) Frankenstein, they’ll all get to the bit where it says The End. (And then they’ll sit back, sigh, think, ‘what a great story,’ and post or tweet a nice review someplace.) If they don’t replay it that won’t be a fail. But if they play only the first chapter, think, I get it,’ and put it down, then we will have missed out mark.

On a few months now until we find out!

Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

3 thoughts on “A game is for life, not just for Christmas…

  1. Very interesting way at looking at design. I have fallen into that funk way to many times where I play a game once and think that is all there is to it. Good to see some stimulating ideas on how to counter that once I start getting deeper into game development. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: One-shots? « Lavonardo

  3. This is good argument for making games shorter. Some of my favorite games have been under 10 or even 5 hours long (Portal, for example), and I really appreciate when a game is dense with cool and interesting stuff, with as little padding as possible.

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