Things That Used to Work, Vol. 1

…but don’t work anymore.

Many of the items on this list were inspired by my recent completion of The Witcher, although my (d)evolved sensibilities have been been growing this way for the past several years. Let’s get started:

Multiple Endings

Why It Used to Work: Replayability, simulates your decisions as being meaningful.

Why It Doesn’t Work Anymore: I am not likely to play ANY game more than once anymore (few people even finish the first time), and if I do, it will only be because the underlying gameplay was fun – in which case a different possible ending is at most a cherry to the already-frosted cake. Also, this could just be a personal thing, but whenever I am working on a game with multiple endings, my choices actually feel less meaningful rather than more, for two reasons.

The first reason is that nagging feeling whenever I reach a path-branching decision that one of the two options will be more fun than the other, and I will be stuck with the less-fun one. In The Witcher, it was choosing between Order, the nonhumans, or the neutral path. In Fallout: New Vegas, it was choosing between NCR, Caesar’s Legion, or your own way. The tenor and tone of each faction has their own charm, and in setting up a mutually exclusive decision, I am made responsible for picking the shittier option.

Even if I do replay the game, I am double-screwed. If the 2nd path ended up being better, I feel gypped that I didn’t pick it the first time. If the 2nd path ends up being worse, I am stuck playing a shittier game.

The second reason my choices actually feel less meaningful is that they typically are. No matter what side you pick in The Witcher, the final hours of the game are the same (same location, differently textured enemies). No matter what side you pick in Fallout: New Vegas, you are still battling on Hoover Dam. Different dialog from different NPCs is meaningfully different (enough that I feel like I’m losing something by not experiencing it), sure, but a lot of times it feels like Mad Lib storylines where they just switch around the Proper Nouns in the plot blanks. The last RPG I played with actual, game-changing decisions was Tactics Ogre way back on the PS1.

No Quest Hubs

Why It Used to Work: No one had really thought of it, Kaplan talks about how “the Christmas Tree effect” can leads to poor pacing and less engagement in any individual quest, it is more of a metagame issue.

Why It Doesn’t Work Anymore: I hate revisiting areas I know haven’t changed in any meaningful way. The Witcher does have a Notice Board which acts like a Fetch Quest Hub of sorts, but when I talk about Quest Hubs I mean the principle of being able to completely “finish” a particular zone at your own pace and move on. If a quest sends me to the fields to kill something, return to the city, then sends me back out into the fields to kill something else, my immediate reaction is “Time Sink!”

The term “boomerang quest” is an example of this principle, but it is slightly more than that. If I had to sum it up in a single way, it would perhaps be “inefficient questing.” Don’t send me on quests to kill the cave spiders, then a follow-up to kill the poison cave spiders deeper in, culminating in a quest to kill the spider queen in the deepest parts of the cave, without giving me all three quests first. Let me multitask! Whatever Wal-Mart has done wrong in crowding out smaller businesses and being jank-central, being able to make one trip and pick up milk, light bulbs, and spark plugs in a single trip is of immense value, lower prices notwithstanding.

Blind Choices (and/or Rewards)

Why It Used to Work: Puts a focus on the decision itself, more immersive/less metagame, perhaps enhances replayability through obfuscation.

Why It Doesn’t Work Anymore: Thank you, great hero! Please choose your reward:

  1. A book about vampires.
  2. Your very own hut.
  3. Wreath of immortelles.

Err… what? Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful? I mean, fine, all decisions and choices we make technically have unforseen consequences. But these game designers are literally giving you nonsense to choose between on top of said unforseen consequences. I don’t consider the choice between door #1 and door #2 to be meaningful at all – I may as well flip a coin or roll a die for as much thinking as it requires.

The above is an actual choice that The Witcher presents you with, and it is not the first nonsese choice. I picked the wreath de immortalies due to the time-honored tradition of game designers making the most useless-seeming items the most radically powerful. Plus, I figured that my own hut wouldn’t be very important to gameplay if I could choose not to have one, and I was likely leaving the area soon besides. Turns out the wreath let me complete an upcoming story quest faster than normal. Woo… hoo?

It is not as though I want WoW-like quest rewards, because there isn’t really any choice there either: something is an upgrade or it isn’t (and you probably can’t wear the other options anyway). When I think about meaningful choices, I remember back to the original Deus Ex when you’d come across upgrades like the cloaking device. Thermal or Electromagnetic? That was a meaningful decision because it shaped your gameplay in a way that had no “wrong” answers. I liked sniping people, and since I couldn’t snipe robots, easily sneaking past them (and cameras) was way more useful. There were plenty of humans/robots in the later stages so it could have gone either way. I wanted both and yet I was almost as fine with just one.

That, my friends, is a good choice to present to players. And they didn’t hide it behind a door or questionable language. You knew exactly what each did, and more importantly, you trusted the designers to present a scenario in which either would be equally useful.

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Posted on October 17, 2011, in Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’d wanna know which book. We talkin’ The Vampire Lestat or one of them ones with the sparkly teenagers snoggin’ and bein’ angsty?

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  2. Do you know I just wonder if the things that used to work worked because the games supported them holistically. The game as a whole kept you interested and immersed through features which analysed individually seem bad design.

    Over the last 10 years MMO and CRPG design has been all about streamlining, making games more accessible, more digestible, more quick to extract something of “value”. And that’s become something of a dog chasing its own tail, running faster and faster in an attempt to catch it, ultimately futile.

    I just wonder if you can pull features like this out of their context and assess them as bad or out-dated.

    @ Ratshag snogging, definitely snogging. At least it isn’t teenage cthulhus snogging and being angsty. (“I crossed starry wastes for untold eons to arrive on this planet and you’re busy doing your hair!!!! I’m going to slash my tentacles,”)

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    • I think old games were good because they were better than the games that came before them. Things like Blind Choices were mysterious and immersive because choices at all were new and mysterious. A gaming classic that came out today for the first time would probably not end up being considered a classic.

      It is not so much that my enjoyment of older games is changing (those memories are firmly set), it is more that current games can no longer draw water from those same wells. Remember in FF6 when you had to choose between turning the Esper Ragnarok into a sword or leaving him as an Esper (thus teaching you Ultima)? That was sorta a Blind Choice too. In 2011, Blind Choices just aren’t as fun anymore.

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  3. In my opinion you just aren’t immersed enough in the narrative. The fun in games like the Witcher is almost exclusively in the immersion. The gameplay is mostly bad. This also applies to Call of Duty and games like that. If you aren’t immersed enough, the game is not good.


    Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful?

    You should differentiate between ‘meaningful’ and ‘frustrating/not fun’. Any choice which makes a difference is meaningful. But it can be the kind of choice you feel like you shouldn’t have to make. Often the only thing that saves your from the “shouldn’t have to make this choice”-meme, is the immersion, by the way.

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    • I felt plenty immersed in The Witcher, my problems with the combat notwithstanding.

      The funny thing is, I would almost say that story choices at all break immersion for me. Even if I quiet down the metagame voice in the back of my head (“One or more of these options leads to an worse gameplay experience”), the existence of a choice literally takes me as a player out of the narrative and puts me in an arbitrary position of power. Am I suppose to be Geralt of Rivia, or am I suppose to be playing Geralt of Rivia? I enjoyed the dialog trees in the Fallout and Baldur’s Gate series, and Dragon Age: Origins to an extent, but most other times they seemed to only detract from the narrative, and my immersion therein.

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  4. As an aside, the “no quest hubs” is no more painful than in DDO’s Tanglewood somethingorother. Seriously, go in kill some orcs. OK, now go in and poision this guy. Next, go deeper in and kill some spiders. Uh, ok, back again kill some more Orcs. And lastly – go kill the head Orc! Bravo!

    I don’t mind to run instances over by my own choosing, but for the love of all things holy please don’t send me in deeper to the same cave 5 times!

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  5. Really nice break down. I like how you structured the article. I will have to borrow it some time when I need to make comparisons in this way :)

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