After having played some adventure and RPG games lately something struck me: repetition in games have almost the same problems as trial-and-error do. This is not really a shocking conclusion, since repeating things in a game is basically what you do when stuck in a sequence of trial and error. But since the repetition is not a direct consequence of being unable to progress, and that not all repetition is bad per se, I figured it was worth looking into a bit.
Most of the time the problem arise when doing an action several times causes the same response. Mostly, this does not apply when doing things to dead objects, like shooting a bullet on a wall. We expect that if we shoot the same bullet at the same place twice, the same response occurs both times. However this is not always true. For instance, many games use randomized particle effects for sparks from the hitting bullet. In more complex system, like water splashes, this is even more common, and while it might not be directly noticeable if they repeat, it can unconsciously lead to the virtual world being seen as less “real” (what I really mean is sense of verisimilitude, but more on that later) . So even though it does not constitute a large problem, we do run into trouble even when repeating consequences for very simple interactions.
The problem becomes more jarring when the object of interaction is a supposed to be an intelligent agent. This is very common in RPGs and adventure games during dialog, where the same question generates the same answer regardless of how many times you ask it. Adventure games are generally a little bit better than RPGs and often have NPCs giving a summary instead of the exact same response and more frequently terminate threads of conversation. Even so, a big part of dialog in both types of games have actions being met by the exact same response no matter how many times they are repeated.
There are of course a reason why it is like this. The player might have forgotten some information and need to hear it again, forcing dialog to be repeated. Or there might be some compulsory puzzle that requires the player to trick or persuade a character, which forces the player to redo the same conversation if unsuccessful at the first attempt. I think these reasons expose two problems that narrative focused video games have: reliance of “info dumps” and puzzles as core activities. Info dumping is a form of exposition that one tries hard to avoid in other media, yet is very common in video games (often forming the core storytelling device). It is something that I think needs to be considered more (and I am well aware we have been using it too much in our own games). Puzzles is something I have talked about having negative effects before and this is yet another argument to why we should try and cut down our reliance on them.
Another very common form of repetition is that of having the same kind of gameplay scenario repeated several times throughout the game. Sometimes this can be a core part of the experience, but most of the time it is just a form of padding and an attempt to prolong the time it takes to finish the game. There are tons of examples of this and two that spring to mind are the vent sections of Dead Space 2 and the spirit capturing in Sword and Sworcery. I felt that both of these activities would have been a lot more interesting if not repeating so much. You quickly become very familiar with them and they eventually loose much of their first
There is a deeper reason why repetition is so common in videogames. Many games base their interactions on traditional games and software systems where reproducibility is a corner stone. You do not want to use a paint-tool and not know what expect when pressing a button, and the only way for you to get this knowledge is to is for consequences to repeat themselves. In traditional games, you need to have systems that a human player can keep track of, and thus the consequences of actions must be easy to comprehend. Videogames carry baggage from both of these directions, and thus it is not strange that video games contain a large share of repetition.
As you might have guess I think this sort of repetition can be quite bad for videogames that focus on story and narrative.
As I said earlier, the repetition has pretty much the same issues as trial-and-error. Since they are both about doing the same thing over and over, this can feel pretty much self-evident and not worthy of much discussion. However, while trial-and-error elements are more easily pointed out and can be directly addressed, repetition is more subtle and not always as obvious. Many of issues with repetition are also commonly seen as limits of the medium (or at least our current technology) and thus not really addressed. I do think these problems can be overcome though, and a first step is to figure out what give rise to them.
Mechanics gets apparent
By having something repeated over and over to players, they will quickly start to notice patterns and short after figure out the system below. What this leads to is that the player will no longer focus on what the system is trying to represent (eg. dialog with a person) but will instead see the mechanics that it is built from (eg. the abstract dialog tree). Repetition does not force this onto the player as trial-and-error do (where the player often is required to learn the system in order to continue). But since many of the things that are repeated constitute a big part of the experience, the problem piles up. Like I mentioned above the repetition can include entire scenes and the player might go through a section in a go (ie no trial-and-error). But then when a very similar sections is repeated throughout the game, the underlying mechanics become more and more visible. As an example I think the enemies in our own game Amnesia have this very problem. This problem is very subtle though as it only applies on longer play sessions and can thus more easily slip by.
There is another aspect to this, that makes the problem even more severe. Once you figure out the mechanics of a system it can damage events that you experienced when you did not have this understanding. For instance, if you feel like a conversation is really meaningful, and then later on find this same character reduced to mechanics, it will change the way you view your prior experience. It will be very hard to still feel the same sense of meaningfulness when looking back at the conversation. Your mental construct of an aspect of the game’s world has now been reduced to a mechanic and when you later summarize the experience you have had, this can severely reduce any emotional attachment you might have had to earlier happenings. As this piles up, it will slowly degrade the experience and makes you less emotionally connected to the game’s world.
Decrease in Verisimilitude
What verisimilitude means is basically how real and truthful the fictional world feels. This does not mean how well it replicates the real world we live in, but how much a it feels like it represents an actual place. In most narrative media, giving a strong sense of verisimilitude is really important. As I said, this does not mean that everything should be “just like in real life”, but instead follow the fictional world’s internal logic somehow. What this means in games is that when encountering a virtual element, such as a character, we do not need for it to behave exactly like in real life, but simply to behave in such a way that it evokes feelings of verisimilitude.
This means that we can tolerate dialog selection and similar, while other things are instant deal breakers. I think one of these deal breakers is the repetition of a responses. If a character repeats the same sentence over and over, it is very hard to see them as nothing but a simplistic automaton. We can quite easily disregard our knowledge that there is not a sentient mind shaping the responses, just like know something is not really happening in a movie. But when the information that the experience is feeding us (in this case the repeated voice response), the very thing that is supposed to support the view of an intelligent being goes straight against its purpose.
Not only dialog is affected by this but plenty of other aspects. For example, whenever you have to go about clicking on the same hot-spots over and over in an adventure game, it also significantly reduce the feeling of verisimilitude.
Decrease in effectiveness
This point is almost identical with what happens in trial-and-error. Certain scenes and events simply does not do well when repeated. For some events it is simply that they are very emotional, and it will be hard to feel the same way once again. You will grow desensitized and less prone to reacting to it. Just compare a movie filled with gory sequences to one with a single visceral scene. The latter will pack a much harder punch. Other times it might be that the event or scene is set up like a magic trick – it only works when you are not expecting what will happen. Finally, it might simply be that the passage is too boring, sensory intense or similar that you cannot bare to take further viewings. Other media rely on things like these hard-to-repeat moments a lot, but since games are so prone to repetition, they are much harder to put in and/or to have the same emotional value.
So how do we overcome these issues? I think there are a few things to keep in mind when designing that makes them a lot simpler to avoid:
- Not a approach the experience as a competition. The less goals we set up for the player the less likely we are to need to repeat things for the player or to make them repeat their own actions.
- Make sure that the story is understandable without the need of info dumps. If the player is required to have story related information repeated to them, then I would consider that bad narrative design. The story should emerge simply out of playing.
- Skip the notion that players need to learn a system. I think this is mainly historical baggage from how software works for more practical application, where mastery of the system is essential. Creation of narrative art does not have this requirement though, and I think we should instead make the player focus on the representations (graphics, sounds, etc) that the system provide.
- We must demand more of the player and give them more responsible. We must teach them them live in our virtual worlds instead of trying to beat our game systems. As most games reward players for combing the virtual world for goodies this is not the easiest of tasks though. Our goal must thus be to undo this and reward roleplaying instead.
These small rules does of course not solve everything and there is a lot of hard problem connected with this. For instance, conversational responses is an incredibly tricky problem and the same is true for narrative devices in games.
Still, I think just a little change in our thinking can take us a long way and simply recognizing the problem is a big step forward.