Player Empowerment

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One of the great things about gaming is that it can provide an escape from everyday life. Many gamers seek a feeling of being powerful and important. They want to feel badass and strong, often in contrast to their real life. Games often provide a power progression to give players a sense of improvement as they play. Even if the goal isn’t to provide a power fantasy for the player, having a tangible way to track progression, in the form of avatar skill, is a popular feature. Not every game uses or needs power progression (Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice and Overwatch, specifically, come to mind), but most games do have one. There are good and bad ways to do this, though.

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A problem I often see in power progression systems is making the player so powerful in the end game that the challenge disappears and the game becomes trivial. Bethesda is pretty bad at this. I encountered this in Skyrim and Fallout, but the worst I have experienced is Prey. It is a shame, because Prey is one of my favorite games of 2017 and by far my favorite horror game. Unfortunately, the suspense and uncertainly is trivialized by how powerful the player becomes at the end. When Mimics can be detected with a spectroscope and even the most powerful of Typhon melt underneath the Q-Beam, some of the suspense is gone. The Witcher 3 does this as well. There are so many side quests and optional content that is worth completing. If you complete even half of it, you will likely be far over leveled for the end game. Also, enemies do not scale with the player’s level, so after a while, most mobs littered around the map are trivial and not even worth the time to get off of Roach to fight them.

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Conversely, I would say that Divinity Original Sin 2 handles progressive challenge really well. As you level up, there is always an area or quest that is perfectly suited to be just barely within your ability. The only real walls that block off content, are simply difficulty walls. If you want to charge into the Blackpits at level 6, the game will let you, but you will certainly die. There are encounters and areas beyond your level that, if you are clever, you can access early to get some good higher level rewards, but it also doesn’t break the game, either. If you pick up a sword far above your level, you can use it, but your accuracy is much lower. You never feel too powerful or too weak.

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The ideal system, in my opinion, is to allow players to control their own difficulty, and I don’t mean game-wide, menu difficulty levels, but rather in-game mechanics that allow players to change their own difficulty. There are several excellent examples of this. Super Giant Games do this better than anyone else I have seen. There is an incredible amount of avatar and play style customization in their games, including ways to make the game more difficult. In Transistor, for example, there are limiters that you can install into your transistor. A limiter might increase the health of enemies, decrease Red’s speed, increase the number of bad cells created from enemies, etc. There is so much replayability in these games, partially because the player can make the game as difficult or easy as they wish. Dark Souls 2 has a few good player-controlled difficulty features as well. The Covenant of Champions allows you to play the game as New Game + difficulty. There are rings that limit the number of souls you receive. You can use Bonfire Aesthetics to fight bosses again at a higher difficulty, as well as repopulate the level with enemies.

Ultimately, I want everybody to get the kind of experience they want in games. Some want to feel powerful as they clear rooms of aliens in Doom. Some want to feel desperate, fearful and in danger as they creep through Prey or Resident Evil. I think that some games benefit from players feeling over or under powered, and that most benefit from being balanced. I have a lot of respect for games that can allow the player to customize a game to their own desires. I definitely support any game that increases player choice, especially on a matter where every player would have a different preference.

Open World Games

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When I was younger, I thought that open world games were the best. I would play GTA at friends’ houses and was blown away by the scale. I loved that you, as a player, could decide where to go and which order to accomplish objectives. I love games that offer more player choice. When I got a PS3, Infamous was probably my favorite game. The amount of time I spent gliding along power lines, shooting electricity from my hands and dominating Empire city one block at a time is ridiculous. I still think that having the freedom to explore the world at my own pace is a fantastic feature, but I also know that there are often serious problems with open world games.

When open world games are announced and they are described as massive play areas that will take dozens of hours to see everything I get excited at the possibilities but also wary of the quality of encounters in this massive space. I find that an open world is only as good as the content that fills it. If the world is mostly mostly empty space or filled with copy-paste encounters, rather than unique and varied content, then it is wasted space. I find that Bethesda games often do this. Skyrim, in particular, is massive, but has so much empty space and samey encounters. I never actually finished Skyrim because I modded to hell, making it crash every five minutes. I know that I could fix this issue by removing mods until I find the problem one, but I realized that I didn’t care enough. I had cleared enough Draugr crypts, bandit camps, Dwarf fortresses, and Thomas the Tank Engine…I mean dragon nests for a lifetime. There was a ton of great content in that game, but it felt like the unique and interesting content took up like 20% of the world, and the rest was wasted space. Fallout New Vegas, while I adore the game, suffers from this too. The map is much more manageable in size, but a lot of the Mojave is just desert. You may encounter a roaming band of Legionnaires or Bloat Flies, but that is rare. I do appreciate that nearly all, if not all, of the content in the game is excellent, though. I never finished Batman Arkham Knight (mostly because of all the terrible Batmobile combat and races), but I think that the scale was far too large for the amount of interesting content.

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There are games that do this extremely well, though. Keeping with the Bethesda theme, Prey does open world surprisingly well. The world, or space station in this case, is fairly small and contained, so every object, enemy and encounter is placed there for a reason. The game is open world, but it has the detail and care of scripted linear games. Not only is none of the space wasted, but the world evolves as you progress. The locations change visually, structurally, and there are new encounters. I don’t need a game world to be massive. I just want it to be populated and interesting. An aspect that I really like in open world games, that I wish was more common, is the ability to access areas and content far above the player’s current ability. The game has difficulty walls, rather than story or invisible walls to funnel players into the right path. Dark Souls, The Witcher 3, Fallout New Vegas, and Divinity Original Sin 2 do this very well.

Two other good examples are Horizon Zero Dawn and Batman Arkham City. The scale of these games are large, but not unmanageable. I found that in HZD, I was nearly always in some kind of encounter. The world was full of machines, tribal settlements, old world ruins and cultists. The locations without enemies, quests or cities were designed to be quiet moments to admire the beautiful world they had created. I never felt like there was wasted space. Arkham City is an excellent example of an open world game. It’s small enough to fill with interesting and different encounters, but large enough to feel like you are really in a city. I think its even more impressive because the map is urban, but doesn’t feel like every third building is copy-pasted. Arkham City also does a great job of making the player return to past areas in order to access new content. It’s a shame when a game never provides an incentive to return to old areas. I also think that Rocksteady did a great job of mixing collectibles, riddler challenges, easter eggs, and the various kinds of combat throughout the map. I want to give a quick honorable mention to The Witcher 3. I’m always heaping praise on that game, but I do think it deserves it. In this case their open world is amazing. It’s beautiful when it wants to be, bleak at other times. It is filled with content(though there are probably a few too many samey Witcher contracts) and nothing really feels like its there to fill space.

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Whenever I play a linear game like Uncharted, Wolfenstein, or Bioshock, I love the detail that the developers put into each level. Nothing is there just to fill space. Any building you can enter, corner you can turn down, or ladder you climb, leads to something you can pick up, interact with, or use. Every camera angle in Uncharted 4 is painstakingly designed. This kind of detail is infeasible in an open world game. While this isn’t a problem per se, it is something that I appreciate. I love to see a game that shows the care the developers put into it.

Ultimately, I think that open world is not an intrinsically good feature. It is just an aspect. The value of it, is entirely dependent on its implementation and usage. I’ve encountered many people who would point to a games world scale and length as a sign or evidence of a good game. I don’t think that it is an intrinsically good or bad feature. Like any other feature, it just informs the gameplay and nothing more.

UI: Has It Gone Too Far?

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Games are essentially the undertaking of conquering optional obstacles to accomplish an objective where all parties agree on the same set of rules. In order to accomplish this goal, the gamer needs to have enough information to know how to overcome the obstacles. This is usually accomplished through tutorials and the user interface. Information is necessary, but there is a point where the amount of information becomes too much. The more information on screen at one time, the less comprehensible the information becomes and eventually it’ll give the player sensory overload.

I have only played a few hours of the Diablo series over the years. I’ve always found grinding, exploring identical environments and sorting through piles and piles of loot to be tedious. I have a few friends who love the game and I have seen much more gameplay online. There gets to be a point in Diablo where you get to a high enough level that in order to create a challenge, the game fills the screen with dozens and dozens of enemies. I have found myself watching the gameplay and recoiling in horror at how the screen fills with damage numbers, particle effects, and so many enemies that they can barely move around for the collisions. The HUD also takes up half the screen, by itself, so I have no idea how anyone can understand what is happening in the game. It becomes completely incomprehensible. World of Warcraft can fall into this as well, especially with party raids.

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Ubisoft games are infamous for a lot of things, and UI clutter is one of them. Particularly in how they indicate locations in the world. Not only do icons constantly pop up on the screen, compass and minimap, but when you open the map in Assassins Creed or Far Cry, you are usually met with dozens and dozens of map icons flooding the map. It can be overwhelming and even hard to read the important information on the map. In an open world game, the player needs to know how to get around and where to go. If the UI is so overwhelming that it makes the basic information hard to decipher, then there’s a problem. The Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn, games that I adore, are also pretty bad about this, though not to the same level.

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I mentioned that Horizon Zero Dawn overpopulates the map, but the game does have a feature that I never knew I always wanted. There is an option in the menu to turn on Dynamic UI. When you are not in combat or using items, the HUD fades away and simply leaves the entire screen to the bare essentials and the amazing visuals of the game. I love that I can ride across the red rocks of Southern Utah on a robotic bull and watch enormous robotic creatures silhouetted against the sunset without a health bar and equipment obscuring the scenery. It’s a small detail, but I want every game to have this option from now on. I also want to talk some sugar about Nier Automata for a bit. That game does something I have never seen before. Since you play as androids, your UI is treated as software on your hard drive. You can uninstall sections of HUD to make room for other upgrades. You can remove your minimap or your health bar to make room for a damage boost. It was really cool to see the presence of information have a gameplay consequence.

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There is a game called Banished. Not very many people know about that game, but I quite like it. It’s a sort of city builder game set in the middle ages. It’s cathartic until disaster strikes. Anyway, Banished is interesting in this discussion because, similarly to Nier Automata, you can add or remove information from the screen. There are tons of menus full of important information: map, job list, resource panel, message log, etc. You can resize and move these information panels around or even remove them entirely. This is a great feature. At the same time, all of the information on the screen is never really explained. The only way to truly know how to play the game is to try and fail until you learn the mechanics or reading a guide elsewhere. So this game has a great UI system, but does a poor job of explaining it.

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Information is important, but too much information makes it difficult to parse important information from the rest. The UI should never distract from the gameplay. It should only inform the gameplay, not replace it. I love the idea of being able to customize how much HUD you want, but if the system is complicated, the game should be responsible for teaching the player how to use and understand it. It’s a delicate balance, but an important one.

Morality and Choices

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The world is not black and white. It is a wide rainbow of different shades of gray. There’s no such thing as good and evil. Morality is subjective and can be different for everyone. The best fiction, in my opinion, explores this concept. With very few exceptions (Lord of the Rings, for example), I dislike any story that deals with a clear purely good heroes fighting purely evil villains. Those stories tend to be boring, unrealistic, and simplistic. Good stories take human nature and explore both the good and the bad. Morality is a subject that I wish was explored more in games. Most games that explore morality tend to just be telling a specific story, and does not offer choices. The Last of Us is a good example of this. When it comes to offering moral choices to the player, most games don’t touch it, and many that do tend to boil moral choices down into a clearly good choice and a clearly bad choice. The few times I have experienced truly interesting moral choices in gaming are some of my absolute favorite moments in games.

I don’t need every game to allow me to forge my own story through choices. If a developer has a specific story that they want to tell, then they should feel free to. I mentioned the Last of Us briefly before, but I think that it was a masterpiece of storytelling and offering choices could have easily ruined it. The player was not meant to play Joel as they would act in his place. The player was meant to experience this story through Joel’s eyes. His character is specific and unambiguous. Other games that do this are Bioshock, Uncharted, Wolfenstein, and many more. As long as the story is good, I am fine with not having true agency.

There are some games that are story based but fail to explore any kind of interesting morality. I think that these games have boring and unrealistic stories. Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor is an example of this. The gameplay is fun and the nemesis system was fantastic, but the story, itself was boring. I couldn’t care less about the main character. The outcome is predetermined because everyone knows the Lord of the Rings story, so there are no real stakes in that respect, and there is no exploration into the morality of the characters. Sauron and the orcs are clearly evil, and the humans are clearly good. The only character with any amount of moral ambiguity is Celebrimbor, and he was really just a good person manipulated by evil.

Most games that include moral choices take the simplest and easiest path, that of a binary morality system where you are given a good choice and a bad choice. It becomes more of a role playing decision where you decide if the player character is a good person or a bad person. Infamous does this. I love the first and second Infamous games but when you either choose to be Good Cole or Bad Cole, it doesn’t make you, the player, really think about what the moral choice is. You just decide that you want the evil powers or the good powers this playthrough and decide accordingly. Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic do this as well. You can never truly place yourself in the shoes of the player character because the immersion is broken by an unrealistic morality system. If you were truly in that situation, it wouldn’t even be a question. You wouldn’t ask yourself: “Hmm, should I steal all of the food from the starving people or nah?”.

Occasionally a game will come along that really makes you think about what is the right decision. These are amazing moments. One of my favorite examples of this was in the Witcher 3. You come across a small settlement that was almost entirely massacred. Geralt assumes, at first, that it was some monster that did this, but after examining the bodies, he discovers that they were killed with a sword. He followed the killer’s tracks to a wounded witcher. The wounded witcher reveals that he was contracted to kill monsters by the settlement but after he finished the contract they tried to get out of paying him by trying to stab him in the back. Wounded and furious, he killed most of the settlement. He knows that what he did was wrong and is prepared for you to execute him. But Geralt has experienced the discrimination and hate that most people have for witchers every day. He understands the pain and frustration of the constant mistrust and disdain that could lead to this mindset, and Geralt has not always done the right thing in the past. The player is given the option to duel the other witcher to the death or to let him live. I sat and looked at the screen thinking about the situation for at least 20 minutes. It really made me think and consider every factor. I loved it. The Witcher 3 had several really good moral choices like this.

Prey 2017 has several interesting choices as well. Spoiler warning for any game I mention, by the way. In the end you have to choose if you will sacrifice yourself and any remaining humans on the Talos 1 space station in the chance that you will stop the alien threat from spreading to Earth or if you will find an escape pod and try to return with help. The whole game, you have multiple characters insisting on the correct choice, including videos of yourself before your memory was wiped. Prey does an excellent job of making you mistrust every single person and thing on the space station, including yourself. You have no idea who to believe, so it’s a choice you must make for yourself. Life is Strange has some interesting choices as well. In the alternate timeline where Chloe’s dad is alive but she is paralyzed. After spending time with her, she asks you to help her end her life. The choice is agonizing, which makes it amazing. Some people criticized that moment because since Max immediately changes the timeline back, the choice ultimately doesn’t matter. I disagree. Perhaps it doesn’t affect gameplay, but it is a choice that Max will have to live with. I like to live through the characters I play and empathize with them, so Max’s impossible decision is my impossible decision. When a game truly makes me think deeply about my own personal morality, those are the moments that I remember.

Sometimes games create choices that have potential to create either gameplay or emotional impact, but ultimately fail to. Wolfenstein New Order and its expansion Old Blood have these choices. In both of these, you are forced to choose to save one of two people. Unfortunately, these choices come ten minutes after meeting the characters so you have no emotional investment, and the gameplay doesn’t change based on your decision, so the decision is also not functionally different. These feel like missed opportunities for powerful moments.

Ultimately I love when a game explores human nature and morality, but not when the morality is binary and simplistic. I also love having gameplay consequences to my choices.