Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about games that push back.
It sort of started with playing a lot more board games. Specifically, Eldritch Horror, Robinson Crusoe and Firefly. These games are largely co-operative, in that players are expected to work together against the board and the scenario to achieve their goals. Every turn, the player can take a few actions to advance their board state and when that’s done, the game will reveal events through its decks. Players will then have to deal with the revealed events that can range from mild setback to pants-shittingly awful for the unfortunate.
It’s fantastic. The game can go swimmingly at one point, the final goal just turns within sight, and then a revealed card can send players scrambling for a solution, cursing their luck and just moaning at the unfairness of the system. More importantly it’s fun. It’s us versus the board, and the board is winning, and its creates the kind of memorable emotional pangs that feed directly into the way we remember the stories of these games.
Modern Video games don’t often do this well. A large part of video games seems to be the ever-increasing player skills and resources. The more you play, the more loot you gain, the more the game becomes less challenging. Balance in games is often tuned so the game is just that difficult, enough of a challenge for your current power level, but never bad enough to send you scrambling. The essential trajectory of the modern video game is ever forward, ever upward, until the power cap is reached and the game often becomes boring.
Expansions then just raise the power cap.
I’d like a modern open world game that pushed back at the player that reacts to the player’s actions and activities and challenges his growth through the world. Change the world such it’s rarely safe, do it with events that react to the players actions within that world.
There are a few that sort of do this already though.
Shadow of Mordor hints in this direction with the Nemesis system, even as the system is limited to the Orcish warchiefs. Killing warchiefs moves others higher into the hierarchy, increasing their powers and abilities. It was a great story generator, as we watched the enemy landscape change based on our actions. It’s a pity the rest of the world was so bland even after the Tolkien make-over. Nothing else happened in the world.
Don’t Starve is another game that pushed the player the deeper and longer he got into it. Changing seasons and event spawns made surviving a challenge even after the player managed a rudimentary shelter and some food. If anything, I wish the game allowed for a brief save point at deeper intervals, because once you get the hang of the systems, the first couple of days is a slog.
Alien: Isolation is another that pushes the player well. It’s a horror game and understands that a key part of a horror game is making the player incredibly vulnerable. Even as it gave players more options and tools to deal with its challenges, it would shift the balance of power back against the player. Ben Sones writes a pretty good post about it. It’s a shame the game couldn’t keep it out throughout and shits the ending.
Previously I spoke about how stories can arise from the push and pull of actions, that the player can feel that the story is unique his own depending on how the game responds to his actions.
When we were playing Eldritch horror, it did feel like it was our story, and every time we played those games, our stories were different. Sometimes we’d succeed in preventing the rise of the elder god, even if we had to fight crippled midgets in San Francisco to do so, or unearth ancient artifacts from the amazons. Sometimes we failed and Astaroth devoured the world, even if we had accumulated enough loot to buy over Shanghai and enough magic to lightning strike monsters from across the globe.
We hated the system sure, and we also thought it unfair. But it was fun, and it was meaningful. It meant we had to consider our actions, weigh the risks of whatever actions we took. When the game gets hard, it was challenging cos it felt like we were pitting our wits against it, wondering what sort of horror it would visit upon us if we were to choose poorly.
And all in this, I wonder how we can incorporate that feeling into a modern AAA game, or whether the audience is even there for it. I imagine it might be able to work, in something like the Far Cry series, where the basics and fundamentals of the game lends itself to this constant push and pull between the player and it’s main antagonist.
Man, I really hope i get to write it down at some point.