Interesting Choices: Interesting Gameplay pt.2
Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at 9:23PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Dynamics, Interesting Choices

Before you continue reading this article pick a letter (A, B, or C). It's important that you remember your choice. Write it down if you have to. 

 

Consequences and Informed Decisions

So we've already broken down the conditions necessary for interesting choices in part 1. Of course there's still more to discuss. Otherwise this wouldn't be an article series. A key part, according to Sid Meier, of what makes games good is a series of interesting choices. This means that after you make one interesting choice, the game state changes, and you continue to make more interesting choices. It's understood that the player never makes the same interesting choice twice in a row. After all, if all the conditions of the gameplay challenge are similar enough from the first choice to the second that the interesting choices made are the same then the consequence of the first choice must not have changed the game very much. In such a case, I'd question whethter the first choice was actually an interesting choice or if the two choices were connected to the same systemic gameplay series.

Consequences are very important to our examination. We already know that interactivity, action-reaction, and feedback are essential to what a video game is and how players complete the activity. Along the same lines, seeing the results of our interesting choices is important. This isn't a matter of personal preference. According to the definition outlined in part 1, making an informed decision is key. So, the less players understand the changes made to the game state after an interesting choice, the less likely the resulting choice(s) will be interesting.  

Granted, a player may not need to know the position and condition of every element in the gameplay challenge to make an informed decision. In the same way that calculating the cleanness of a game focuses on seeing the result of player actions (as opposed to every action/interaction occurring in the game including those off screen or between non player controlled elements), we need to narrow the scope of what's required for an informed decision. This task is inherently difficult. Even if we wanted to limit the scope to knowing which elements are involved in achieving an immediate advantage toward the goal, we run into the same chain problem as we did when clarifying dynamics. There's no way to purely look at a player choice and determine what kind of advantage (short or long) the player aims for. Strategies are often made of many actions taking into considering multiple potential emergent possibilities. If it's possible to create a long term strategy that takes into account every gameplay complexity, then the definition I was considering can require knowing everything. I don't think this is practical. Also, we know that a single choice can aim for multiple distinct advantages. So, for now we have to settle with something like "knowing all immediately threatening, limiting, and interactive elements" to constitute an informed decision. You can see why defining terms can be so tricky.

The basic idea behind the claim that "good games" are a series of interesting choices includes making interesting choices after mistakes are made. Keep in mind that being well informed or even perfectly informed of the game state doesn't necessarily prevent one from making "interesting mistakes." There's a whole other half of the gameplay equation of actions and influences outside of the player's control. Never forget that opponent(s) can make interesting choices against you. Again, the idea of making a series of interesting choices in a game depends on if the game is still winnable. If there is no possible way to win a game then technically all the options available would be "equally unattractive." 

 

Slippery Slopes and Interesting Choices

The realization that a game must still be winnable to sustain interesting choices presents an odd case when considering games with significant slippery slope design. In a game where falling behind causes you to fall even more behind, at some point even though the game isn't over, there can be no way to win against a competent opponent. For example, take this StarCraft 2 match featuring Machine vs. LiquidTyler commentated by HuskyStarcraft. The position I linked to is actually where Tyler, the Protoss player, loses the match. One of the drawbacks of slippery slope games is that matches are pretty much won or lost before they actually end. Just like when players topple their Kings in Chess, players "gg" out of matches early in StarCraft long before the actual game goal of destroying all of the opponent's buildings occurs. Did the match end before Tyler "gg's" out at 13 minutes? Husky seems to think so (listen up through 1:12). 

The reason I introduced slippery slope games into the discussion is because if a match is practically unwinnable after some point because of the rippling consequences, then all of the choices made after that point are technically not interesting choices. Now we know of a simple way for a game to "lose interest," so to speak. In other words, unwinnable gameplay scenarios have no interesting choices.

 

Delayed Realization of Consequences

I find it incredibly frustrating when games force me to make important gameplay decisions at the beginning (besides choosing difficulty). The reason is the consequences are difficult to understand. For one, it's extremely unlikely that a player will know enough about the game on their first play through to make any kind of informed decision. And secondly, by the time the player learns about the game and the importance of that first decision, he/she may be in a difficult position. After figuring things out, the game can be unwinnable or unappealing forcing you to decide whether to start over or carry on suffering from a poor decision made in ignorance. I'm pretty sure my play through of Kingdom Hearts was made worse because I picked the shield and gave up the staff. If you don't know what I'm talking about watch this. Likewise, I'm not even sure what's happening in Demon's Souls right now. There were so many options the game forced me to choose between right at the start that I still don't understand the consequences of my choices. 

By the way, if you didn't pick C at the beginning of this article you have to read this article series over again starting at part 1 or you'll never reach the end. Doesn't this faux consequence seem ridiculous? Wouldn't you have liked to know what the stakes were before making your choice at the beginning of this article? I think you get my point. 

 

The reason I'm putting so much focus on making interesting choices is because the concept depends on knowledgeable players and clear feedback of the game state. If you do not have these things, then your choices will probably be guesses or poorly informed. Instead of playing with strategy embracing all of the particulars of the gameplay, the best you can do in a strategy game of uninteresting choices is play tactically using the same sort of instinctual maneuvers everyone uses: avoiding the immediate danger and seeking the straightforward goal. It's no wonder why more experienced and more mature choices (in life and in games) require one to think beyond one's momentary whims and desires.  

In part 3 we'll look at how the race to acquire knowledge to make more informed decisions shapes the metagame of competitive games and the interesting choices. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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