When gamification hurts games


#1

So, i’ve recently completed my second playthrough of Dontnod’s ‘LIfe is Strange’ series. and there is a particular section in the second episode that left me thinking…

SPOILERS AHEAD

[spoiler]
So in the end of the second episode, a relatively-minor-until-then side character named kate marsh tries to take her own life in response to harsh bullying and a recent uncovering of a video from a partly in which she was sedated and sexually abused. Using her powers, your character, Max, gets to top of a building and can potentially talk her out of throwing herself to her death.

AND, this is terrible!?

My main gripe with the way this situation is presented, is that it is proposed as a win/lose stuation. Your objective is to keep kate alive. If you win, your prize is an extra scene in episode 4. If you lose, your punishment is that max is sad for like half an episode.

this kind of design REEKS of everything I dislike about gamification. Turning people and the world into some elaborate puzzle,and the idea that if you just put all the pieces together you can “win” any situation . Throwing some obscure details in the environment and then making them inexclicably important a bit later, in some twisted version of chekov’s gun(serious fallout 1 deja-vu from that one). Turning every encounter into a win-lose situation. these are all fairly common in games. Except this time, it was(in my eyes) completely innapropriate.[/spoiler]

So, that brings me to my original point. What moments in games do you think were HURT by giving the player, agency? Do you think there’s a way to fix these sort of scenarios? discuss:

Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that I absolutely DO NOT intend to imply that video games should shy away from suicide. Tali’s suicide on Rannoch left me absolutely WRECKED, and is still probably my strongest memory from ANY game. I just think more thought should be put into the way we approach these topics.


#2

I never thought about this but you’ve totally got a point. The thing about this situation that rubbed me the wrong way was how binary they made it seem. Things like this aren’t win/lose. To me you could say this about a lot of games using the Telltale model. 1979 Revolution: Black Friday also comes to mind, where your actions will change who survives, and since it’s a historical event, it kind of over simplifies a lot of the complexities inherent to this situation.


#3

Laura Dale has an excellent article on this moment. Though her issues with it are much more personal (and completely on point).

As much as I like to see games try and tackle difficult subjects, I think that gamifying some subjects require much more delicate approaches then many developers initially think. The glaringly obvious example if “f to pay respects” in Advanced Warfare. Difficult emotional situations being whittled down to button prompts or “choose the right thing” is far too common in high profile games.

EDIT: other example of games approaching difficult subjects in hamfisted ways: pretty much all Quantic Dream games. Oh, and Bioshock Infinite’s complete mishandling of racism.


#4

It would seem a lot more “gamified” to me if your failing to save Kate resulted in a “game over” or some equivalent. There are a multitude situations in real life that have both a negative and positive potential outcome, and could be easily framed as “win/lose”.

I think presenting this moment of LiS as “gamifying” suicide per se is inaccurate. Your actions and the consequences of your actions all make sense, diegetically speaking.


#5

I don’t think the problem is in the player’s agency, but in the attitude of game towards the player.
The need to show every possibility, every intent, every result with the eagerness to communicate everything to everyone at the end the result can be condescendent or bland or in the case of Life is Strange completely tone deaf.

Personally I’m having an enormous crisis with the way games understand and in some cases impose ideas like “reward” and “fun” with dogmatic necessity and design.


#6

My knee-jerk snarky response is “Press X to Pay Respects,” but I do think there is something there to unpack. Player input in games does not equate to player agency, so when a scene refuses to continue until you have done the one thing that required you to pay attention to what is happening on screen.

That COD funeral could have been a genuinely respectful depiction of soldiers killed for bad reasons, but because This Is A Game, you must participate. It’s the equivalent of your mom dragging you to that funeral and muttering, “now go and pay your respects” when you’d rather not be there at all.

Writing games is extraordinarily difficult, and so few really make use of the medium in a meaningful way. Telltale had a very strong series of games up through Tales from the Borderlands, before they were expected to do a game for every property under the sun. The tech at Telltale is showing its age, and the games are suffering for it, but the rushed writing is the kiss of death.

Yoko Taro and the Platinum Games team have done amazing things with meshing gameplay systems subtly into the terrible secrets of that post-apocalypse. You know when you’re supposed to be engaged, and when you need to sit back and take in some information. You are allowed the time to process that thing you just experience, whether you’re on chapter A or D. Personal agency is a topic very much under scrutiny in NieR: Automata. The right choice isn’t always obvious, and some of us were disgusted at having to make a token gesture at a funeral without taking further ownership of it. It was never a choice to pay your respects. You either press X, or you do not continue. Uninstall the game, you traitor. America is disappointed in you.

Gameification is at its worst when the systems you interact with are not supported by the central fiction of the game. The COD example is one of those ideas someone had in the room that seemed like a whole thought, but did not take into account what the player is actually feeling at that moment. Games should not feel the need to be as openly didactic about an experience that is necessarily different for everyone who gives themselves to it.

In real life, the Paragon choice also sometimes the Renegade choice.

About a year ago, I had a friend who was beginning to slide into an addiction to opiates, and I saw my passivity around him about it as tacit enabling behavior. I wouldn’t grill him about going to the bathroom for 15 minutes and coming back, only to nod out in his chair. One incident crystallized my need to NOT be there for him, since he saw my presence as the all-clear to be his addicted self without judgment, because to this day, I don’t judge the physical need.

There were days I would talk to hm about it, try to make him see what I was seeing from outside, but ultimately I felt as thought the only thing that would Inception the idea into him that he should find help, was to stop being around him for over a year. The co-dependency was at such a level that I couldn’t be in his house without hating myself for making the 20-minute drive, again and again. We’ve since re-connected, and although he still struggles with addictive behaviors, he is conscious of his need to change. I won’t take credit for that, but I believe I made the sensible choice.

There might have been different choices I could have made, and if that situation were in a Life Is Strange or a Telltale game, you might have seen them in front of you. But would you make the same choice I did?

Gamefication is dependent on intent. Disregard the posts about gameifying protests, and go to meetings where you learn real protest tactics. Learn to de-arrest people, because those people will need your help if you put yourself in that position. You might need that help yourself. Life is about determining options, and agency, and no amount of theological obfuscation is going to diminish that.

Saving someone’s life isn’t a prize. It’s a gift you give each other. Pay your respects to the living, remember the dead with love.


#7

Oh man, can’t believe I missed this thread, because, oof, have I wanted to complain about the majority of the introduction to MSG:V to someone who can just not read a post and ignore my ranting.

The intro to MGSV is, for lack of wanting a better word, terrible.

Alternating between twenty or thirty cutscenes, and five second required interactions, it demands you pay attention.

Pay attention to what, you might ask? A boring stay in a hospital. It would, if unaltered the first time you see it, potentially reveal some really cool stuff to come, but it doesn’t. Look up. Instead, it offers you none of the critical information it’s demanding you pay attention to. Press space. Once you aren’t bedridden, crawl, injured, on the floor. Slowly. Hold W. You knock stuff over, you fall, over and over again. Watch this cutscene. Hold W. Is the game going to be like this, I wonder? Is recovery going to be a part of progression in this game perhaps? Hold W. Oops, I fell on that trashcan I couldn’t avoid because A and D don’t seem to care yet. Hold W. Watch this cutscene.

It feels like it’s meant to be some kind of tutorial, maybe? It spent five minutes on the W key, I can’t wait to get into the game mechanics, as someone for whom this is my first metal gear. I wonder how stealth works, I’m taking note of characters being introduced or re-introduced in case they ma- Oh, no, they killed him. Hold W. The bad guys will probably matter later. Watch this cutscene.

Oh, I can move perfectly fine now. I guess recovery won’t be a thing. I just had to crawl because, uh, promotional material I guess? Follow the butt. The butt will guide me to the game. Watch this cutscene. Oh cool! Stealth mechanics, now I’m getting taught something I don’t know about the game. I can’t move? No, I can’t move. So it’s impossible to fail, or test stealth here? Watch this cutscene. Hold W.

They keep removing my ability to control the game. Why won’t you let me- Someone grabs my leg. Watch this cutscene. As frustration raises, the game has done the impossible, I’m LONGING for the ability to hold W. Come on, if you’re going to make me- Watch this cutscene.

Oh, I can move again. Hold W. Watch this cutscene.

After fifteen or twenty minutes, I’m handed a gun. Most of the UI has been explained. Most of the controls are simple enough. I think I can do this, although I still have no sense of how stealth works, and I’ve been told absolutely nothing about the story that the doctor didn’t tell me in the first ten seconds. I’m war man. People want war man dead.

At least I know the game is going to be tonally brutal as hell. They made me watch point blank executions. They made me crawl through piles of bodies, hide in them. I watched civilians get murdered for no reason, and this game is going to be rough. The one thing the tutorial taught me must be tone, if not story, or mechanics, surely this was a tonal introduction.

Cut to 15 minutes later sending unconscious people and animals to space with balloons, laughing my ass off.

That intro is one of very few things in games that drives me up the wall. I loved MGS:V on a whole, but every single time I play through that introduction, the angrier I get about how awful, pointless, and disconnected from the game it felt. It constantly swaps between cutscenes, in-character cutscenes I do not control, and short control required sections, sometimes with short bursts of robbing me, without warning, of my ability to control.

Tedious. That was the better word I didn’t want to look for. It was not informative. It was not instructional. It was not entertaining. It was tedious. Just let me watch a cutscene. Or just let me hold W. Micro-bursts of both for that long remains my most hated section in any game I’ve played, even if it’s a game that I absolutely adore as a whole.

I’m sure people would argue, and perhaps it’s less an issue of gamification of a game, and more, a bad mix of gamification? I think if you had control the whole tutorial, it would have felt fine. If you watched a cutscene that whole intro, it would have felt fine. It was just so long, and slow, and unskippable, and accomplished so close to nothing it’s almost shocking.


#8

I think there’s two interesting issues at play here. The first is gamification in the strict sense of the word in which explicit reward structures shape player behaviours in specific ways. Those intentional influences can be used for dramatic effect but they can also get in the way of experiences. The Extra Credits YouTube channel had a video about the “de-gamification” of games that is worth a watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbHizMGL3vc

However, I don’t think that gamification itself is really the main issue. The second, subtler problem is that even in the absence of explicit in-game incentives, simply giving players control over a character in a story will strongly influence how they interpret the story. The player character is not always intended to reflect the player; many players enjoy roleplaying as villains and in some games having horrible things happen to your character can be fun. The card game Gloom is built entirely around the concept of encouraging players to tell stories about the miserable lives of their characters and it’s quite fun. Directly gamifying role-playing distances players from their characters in a way that still allows agency and (reduced) empathy with the character. That aside, in the majority of games player goals are aligned with the player character and in-game failures are experienced as personal failures.

Telling a story about failure is clearly going to be difficult in a game. Either the failure is pre-determined, which robs the player of agency and conveys a very fatalistic theme or the player will have the option of undermining that narrative in which case players will either never see the intended story about a flawed protagonist or they’ll see it as a bad ending that needs a replay to fix. Neither option is particularly great, so it might be tempting to look at workarounds like making the player character an observer to a different characters failure. The only excuse I can see for a game calling out the real-world skills of a player as the cause of an emotional in-game tragedy is if the game is a legitimate training tool.

That isn’t to say that designers should always avoid making players feel bad about themselves. If it’s done intentionally and thoughtfully, that experience of failure can be very powerful in a way that is unique to games. One of the reasons people loved Undertale so much is that it played on the guilt of killing NPCs in a really unique way (yet notably has a very non-realistic aesthetic that doesn’t use real-world implications to sell its impact).


#9

I saw ‘Life is Strange’ and thought this would be about the bottles.

I didn’t have any major problems with this moment in the game in terms of the execution. I understand the sensitivities of people who have had to try and talk people out of suicide and not been able to, and I recognize that this kind of gamification could be read as placing blame on those people.

My defense is that suicide is a complicated issue that can’t and shouldn’t be generalized according to specific examples. Just because the game presents the idea that Max is able to save Kate, that doesn’t then mean that all suicides are preventable.


#10

I overall really like Life is Strange, but I think one of the “problems” with games tackling difficult subject matter is they are much, much more affecting than other media in some cases. That article linked above is a good example. I did successfully talk Kate out of committing suicide, thank god (literally, since I read her bible), because I’m sure failing would have made that game even more traumatic for me. Other elements of the game were enormously upsetting for me, since the main character’s story was a distorted reflection of my own experiences, including having my best die by suicide when I was 15 and then being groomed and eventually raped by a professor in university.

I think for me the one really, legitimately bad part of the game was the section where Max is in the time vortex shadow world and you have to stealth around bad guys because the gameplay was so frustrating, difficult and unintuitive that it distressed me even further when the game’s content was already so emotionally upsetting. That poorly executed gameplay made the game more traumatic in a way that didn’t serve a story or message.

The content was upsetting, but even as someone whose trauma is so close to some the subjects covered in the game, and even though I sobbed through the last half of the game, the game did give me a safe way to actually work through some of that trauma.


#11

Oh man, episode 5 was fucking nuts! i’ll be honest, I actually kind of liked that section just for how much it doubled down and went ‘FUCK IT’. Honestly the entire first half of that episode was so tacky, with Mr.Jefferson seemingly turning into a supervillain and Max essentialy gaining the ability to travel between universes, that I almost didn’t mind that mini-game. It certainly wasn’t going to get any dumber than Max trading insults with her inner alter-ego in a diner!. but yeah, I totaly get how that could be frustrating and jarring considering what kind of game this is.


#12

After finishing the game and after my best friend played and we could talk about, I totally agree re: the beginning of episode 5. I didn’t think that Mr. Jefferson was a believably villain at all, he was so cartoonishly evil and ridiculous, and I don’t think that was particularly well-written. But at the time, while I was so deep into the game, I didn’t have the distance I needed to see that, so everything was way too close. I think maybe the stealth section was intended to give a break from that closeness, but it didn’t really work that way, at least for me.

Overall, I think Life is Strange was an exceptional game. I cry at movies a lot, but less so at games. I think when games are well done and really tap into your emotions and empathy, they can really draw you in - and have a larger emotional impact than a movie might because you have to interact with them, you have to press a button or make a choice. But I think games that do that are fewer and further between than they could be - and that games that do it can also risk exploiting people’s vulnerability. It’s a delicate balance.


#13

Speaking of gamification and big choices, what did you thin about THAT CHOICE at the end of the game? Did you choose to save chloe? Do you think that ending was appropriate? I haven’t made up my mind about that one…


#14

[spoiler]I sacrificed Chloe. I think that decision was a bit problematic, because it’s a free option but it’s so obvious what the writers want and expect you to do. I think if they’d made it more morally neutral I would have had a harder time with it. But from my own experiences, it was … almost easier to sacrifice her?

I went through something similar to what the article writer above experienced when my best friend killed herself. She didn’t talk to me about it beforehand, but I spent a long time feeling responsible because if I’d just called her that night, or if I’d said one more time how important she was to me, or if I’d … etc., then maybe I could have avoided it. But by the time I played the game, I’d accepted that there was nothing I could have done to change the outcome. And that sure, maybe if I’d done things differently, I wouldn’t have been raped, but what happened also made me who I am now, and if I did something else, who would I be? So going along with the game’s narrative thread of “even if you could change things, maybe you shouldn’t,” it was a fairly easy decision for me.

From a literary analysis/nerdery perspective, I’ve kind of interpreted the game this way: what actually happens in Max’s life is that she witnesses Chloe being shot, and then everything happens, chronologically, exactly as it does if you choose to sacrifice Chloe, where as a result Mr. Jefferson’s evil is uncovered and he’s brought to justice and Max learns about all the awful things that have happened. The rest of the game, with the time travel, is Max’s mind working through the trauma of what she’s seen and learned, and thinking about “what if I’d just …” before finally coming to terms with it. The other possible ending, where you save Chloe, is Max having a psychotic break as a result of what happened and being unable to cope with reality.[/spoiler]


#15

woah, that’s a pretty crazy headcanon. IM INTO IT.


#16

I have conflicted feelings over the idea of “gamified emotion” that’s being discussed here. On the one hand, I completely agree that putting artificial interaction points in front of dramatic moments in games can feel forced and can diminish their impact. At the same time, they’re sometimes a necessary component to keep a consistent level of player interaction in a game — assuming of course that “interaction = investment.” But does it?

I’ve often referred to my love of horror movies and comparing this to horror games, which I have a really hard time playing. I love watching horror games, but being placed in control of a character, knowing my very actions are responsible for whether they live or die, and having to watch the consequences of my mistakes, seeing brutal violence inflicted upon what’s essentially an avatar of myself — that can be really troubling for me. I think that the basic nature of video games requires this level of connectedness. “Press X To Show Respects” is a clumsy and hamfisted execution of this requirement (see also @Anime’s critique of the MGSV opening) but if the alternative is a non-interactive cutscene, which is going to resonate more with the player?

In the case of that scene in Life Is Strange, I felt true investment in the outcome. Like Laura Dale, I was in the minority of players who didn’t manage to save Kate. When she jumped, it really messed me up. I went to bed that night in tears, and dealt with it by telling myself that must have just been a part of the story, and nothing I could have done would have changed the outcome. And then, like Dale, seeing the stats at the end of the game came as a big gut-punch telling me, “You screwed up.” I’m fortunate enough to have not experienced trauma like that in real life, but like Dale mentions, I think it was a mistake — or a necessary evil of game design — to add the community stats at the end, because it undermined what would have otherwise been an incredibly personal story. That, I think, is the identity crisis many games face when they try to craft emotionally resonant stories: they’re forced to either temporarily remove players from the driver’s seat to tell the story they want to tell, or to rely on the tired mechanics of video games to ensure that there’s a consistent level of interactivity and investment throughout.

This is especially true when they’re essentially interactive novels like Life Is Strange. You’re watching a story play out, making key choices along the way, creating different outcomes, but without full, total agency over the minutiae of the characters’ every action. Even so, Life Is Strange hit me a lot harder than many games that do offer more direct player control. Maybe it’s just effective (or emotionally exploitive) writing, or maybe it’s the ideas of fatalism that the game deals so heavily in that forced me as a player to confront the idea that I couldn’t stop some tragedies no matter how hard I tried. But strangely, I felt a much stronger emotional investment in the parts that were about characters and their stories, and felt most disconnected in the parts that felt most like a game (like the time vortex stealth scene @slaughterhouse5 mentions). And that idea really gets back to the topic of this thread: are narrative games hurt by having to include gamelike elements? I think the ultimate answer is “No, but…” — but there’s a precariously thin line between a game that puts you in control to make you feel attached to a character, and one that puts you in control just because it feels it has to.