Friday, February 15, 2013

Playing By Your Own Rules: Can you improve games by challenging yourself?

I asked this question on Twitter today:

Should game modes or self-imposed limitations that improve gameplay affect critical evaluation, or should the worst be assumed?

To expand on that a bit, it's an idea I got while playing and reviewing the(in my opinion) pretty abysmal Alien Breed.

As I was playing, I was asking myself these sorts of things:
  • "I wonder if forcing myself to stop moving while I shoot would make this a better game?"
  • "What if I forced myself not to use ammo to open doors?" (another major flaw of the game, not mentioned in the review)
  • "What if I spent my 165 clips of ammo and started over?"
  • "What if I only use the starting weapon?" (this actually turns out to be easier, in a few ways)

I tried all of these things, at least for a few minutes. In some cases, it was fun for a few minutes, but it either turned out to have no effect on the enjoyment of the game, or it was simply too much work to give a return on my time investment. Then I realised something: I shouldn't be covering for the game's flaws. Team17's designers should be figuring out the game design that gets players the most enjoyment, not me. I think this is very true, but...

On the other side of the argument, I had an amazing experience with a self-imposed rule. While playing Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, I was getting bored with my own challenges. Playing on expert difficulty, I had been trying so hard to get a good score without alerting guards or killing them, or setting off alarms, or dying(obviously) that I was aiming for perfection, quicksaving every time I got past a difficult section and failing multiple times out of hastiness.

Then, I tried something different. I decided to self-impose a "semi-hardcore" mode, where I would force myself not to save throughout the mission, doing everything possible to survive until the end. Failure would require a restart of the entire mission.

Wow. What an experience. I came out of the next mission with my heart racing. For the first time since my introduction to Chaos Theory, I was actually engaging with Sam Fisher's role again, watching guard walking patterns studiously, sticking to shadows more often, being careful about taking slow steps, and shooting out more lightbulbs.

It was as if I had gone from trying to climb a wall with anchors every few feet to climbing it without ropes. Boy, did my every move matter in those missions. I actually fired my weapon a few times to save my life, and still managed to complete the mission. My success rating wasn't as good as it had been in the past, but I couldn't have cared less. I had scraped through that mission by the skin of my teeth, and it became one of my most amazing gaming experiences.

So... Has playing by your own rules ever improved your gameplay experience? Do you think reviews should address alternative playstyles or personal principles? What about game modes? If a game has a shallow, easy mode and a deeper mode, should a review assume the most cynical playstyle is being used, or assume the better mode will be played by most players?


  1. I've been doing something similar with STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl. I'm only allowed to save when I start or complete a quest, or switch areas. I'm also playing on the hardest difficulty, and have upped the enemy hit probability and hit distance to 100% and 1000 meters respectively (which basically means that every shot they fire will actually do damage if it hits me). It's a really incredible experience that has improved the game exponentially, in my opinion. Not only am I forced to behave much more tactically and intelligently during firefights, but it also makes the game worlds more tense. It feels like how the game was meant to be played (so far. We'll see if it becomes impractical later on). I'm doing something similar with System Shock 2 right now. No quickloads, only resurrection chambers, unless the resurrection chamber isn't activated in which case I can only load a save from the beginning of the level. Again, it's made the experience much more tense than it would be if I were saving every few feet.

    How does a reviewer handle this though... personally, I prefer to critique the developer's intentions in their purest form. If the game was made to be played a certain way, that's how it should be judged because that's how it is (which is a rather non-utilitarian way of viewing videogames, and some people would argue that it's illogical). However, if it ends up being better with some self-imposed rules, I think that should be mentioned and taken into account when recommending the game. Especially if those rules are really quite minor (for instance, restarting a mission on death). If one little change makes that dramatic of an effect, it probably already had a bunch of good decisions in place to begin with that were perhaps just being masked by one less-optimal decision.

    I dunno. It's an interesting question, and I think that it ultimately goes back to whether you care more about how good a game can be made to be, or how good it is to begin with.

    1. Oh, Stalker, how I want to play that game again. I've had some incredibly engaging moments just watching a friend of mine play it, but as soon as I get a better PC, I'll be revisiting that game.

      I really wanted to talk a bit more about how self-imposed limits and harsh death penalties always make for great emergent gameplay in systemic games like Chaos Theory or Stalker, but I figured it would get too long. My next blog post should definitely address systemic game design.

      Have you played Chaos Theory yet? It's one of my all-time favourite games, and it happens to be designed by Clint Hocking, of Far Cry 2 fame. Definitely not as open-ended as the latter, but it allows for a lot of freedom within the confines of each level. Oh, and Amon Tobin's soundtrack is one of gaming's best, in my opinion.

    2. No, but thanks for reminding me. I put it on my Steam wishlist. I'm interested to play more of his games, given how much I enjoyed Far Cry 2.

    3. Maybe this will whet your appetite:

      Honestly, if that song doesn't make you want to be a superspy, I don't know what will. :P

  2. Also, when you play STALKER, I personally recommend using this:

    Although STALKER Complete 2009 is the most popular mod for Shadow of Chernobyl, it makes some changes that I don't like. Some sections of the game become far too easy thanks to the decreased enemy view distance, and the enhanced weather and lighting can tend to make The Zone look less coldly alien and more warm and natural.

    Basically, ZRP is to Shadow of Chernobyl what the Morrowind Code Patch is the Morrowind. It fixes bugs and includes a few choice gameplay enhancements, but lets you pick and chose what you want via a handy front end. It's probably the best choice for people who want a "pure" STALKER experience without having to deal with the bugs of vanilla. It also lets you easily modify some config file variables. As I mentioned, I changed the hit_probability to 100% and the hit_probability_distance to 1000, which honestly feels like how the game was intended to be played.