Games aren’t always (just) fun

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Agony:
Effective Gameplay in Dark Souls

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     I hate Dark Souls (a video game whose 2011 release can be blamed on From Software, Namco Bandai, and Hidetaka Miyazaki). At every turn, the game punishes you for playing it. And you play it over and over again. Your ex, who is terrible at playing video games, spends every waking moment with his hands gripping the controller and his eyes glued to the television. The game causes arguments, shame, guilt. You hate each other’s addiction and you despise your own jealousy, either of the game or of each other. And you play it… over and over again.

     I hate Dark Souls, but the gameplay is undeniably engaging.

     Within Marc LeBlanc’s categorization of game pleasures, Dark Souls easily satisfies all of the “8 kinds of fun.” The vast, immersive game world is filled with sensory delights. Challenges abound. The course of action throughout the game builds and erupts to unforgettable dramatic effect. The game also allows for extensive player expression, though most choices are ultimately superficial; you have to kill things, you have to die. This in concert with my initial paragraph speaks very literally to LeBlanc’s “masochism” category of fun. Even fellowship can be found in Dark Souls, both with non-player characters and in the interactions with other gamers’ ghostly avatars. All of these are only symptoms of effective gameplay, though. What leads us here? What elements of the gameplay produce this myriad plethora of “fun”?

     Looking only at the mechanics, or the play aesthetics, or even the player strategies (“dynamics” as LeBlanc words it) is not enough to define “good gameplay”. As Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman write in their book, Rules of Play, “… game play itself is a kind of dance that occurs somewhere between the dice, pieces, board, and the rules themselves, in and among the more rigid formal structures of the game.” I would add “strategy” and “player experience” to that list of atomic pieces that game play dances between. There we find the game play, but still, what makes the game play effective? What makes it so engaging?

     In Dark Souls, struggle is the game’s bread and butter. Everything in the game is unforgivably lethal and the danger increases exponentially to your avatar’s strength. Almost immediately, the game presents you with an insurmountable challenge. In that first deadly encounter, you die and you die until you discover (on your own or in a strategy guide) a circumspect path that trains and leads you to (more death and) your triumph. Triumph becomes your goal, your almost singular driving force. The game is merciless and you savor every modicum of progress you acquire. That sense of achievement is the requisite goal found in all games worth playing. The (merciless) struggle is what transforms “achievement” into “triumph.”

     Struggle is only meaningful if you can feel your potential to conquer it. I believe that sense of agency can be inspired by transparency of player effect on the game world. If the player understands clearly how their interactions operate within the world, then those interactions (though endogenous, according to Greg Costikyan) have meaning. I swing my sword, I see its arc, and when a game object falls within that arc my sword makes contact. If my sword’s swing only occasionally makes contact within its arc, that could be confusing and frustrating (unless explained by some kind of dodge mechanic). In Dark Souls, when a tossed fireball connects with a giant skeleton, a red bar indicating the enemy’s health appears and you see the bar recede and a number appears above the bar indicating the fireball’s damage. You perform an action and you immediately see its effect. When done elegantly, this kind of transparency of structure makes for a richly satisfying experience that contributes to good gameplay.

     Games can be agonizing, grief inducing experiences but can still contain incredible gameplay. I will always hate Dark Souls (almost as much as I hate the Mako vehicle from the first Mass Effect game) but I stand by its place as one of the greatest games of its time. Good game play, I believe, does not necessarily induce pleasure, but it must be engaging.

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