Writing archive

Guestblog: William Hughes on Repetition in Games

— Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

My good friend William Hughes writes for the Onion AV Club now, but P:B fans might enjoy instead his blog, where he’s been known to talk about games in many of the same ways we do here (though we of course don’t always agree). Will’s one of my favorite people, and he’s written for our site before; I’m fortunate enough to have at least one more post from him here to share with you all before his star rises too high for me to reach. Enjoy this guestblog from William on repetition in games.

kirkwall

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Repetition is a curious topic in games. On the surface, it’s a negative—players want novelty, ‘value’ for their money. It’s the reason multiplayer games can continue to thrive years after release—the actions of opposing players breathe new life into the game. But repetition is also a legitimate design technique, a conscious choice made by the designer to have players repeat their actions, or variants thereof. It can be a tool that enhances and deepens the game experience, or one that completely ruins it.

Take a second to put yourself in the shoes of a game designer. From this point of view, novelty isn’t desired so much as it is expensive. Every new character or new map costs you time and energy. It’s even worse if you add a new mechanic to the mix — you’ve just sentenced yourself to checking the entire damn game to make sure your new addition doesn’t shatter balance or open up opportunities for sequence breaking.

No, if you’re a designer, your goal is the appearance of novelty, not the actual fact. You want the player to feel like they’re doing something new, so they’ll keep playing, even as you reuse assets or tweak existing ideas. Heaven forbid players accuse you of your game being too short, of not giving them their money’s worth. So you play a shell game, keeping the player distracted while you switch things around behind the scenes.

Some developers are more savvy at this than others. I’m on record as being a huge fan of Dragon Age 2, Bioware’s polarizing follow-up to their smash hit mash-up of Tolkien (high fantasy setting) and George R. R. Martin (low-fantasy cynicism and grit). One of the things that intrigues me about DA2 is that, instead of sprawling across an entire fantasy world, the game takes place in a single city over a decade of time. That allows characters to grow, conflicts to slowly bubble up, and the player to get a real sense of what kind of place Kirkwall is. It also allows the game’s designers, tasked with putting the whole thing together in a single year, to set the entire game in a single city, with only five major locations to explore. The inhabitants change, the reasons for going places change, and the player changes, slowly learning every nook and cranny of “their” city, but the maps stay the same. It’s an economical decision, but it’s also one that carries real storytelling weight, making Dragon Age 2 a game that tells a story over time in a way very few others can.

On the other hand, I can’t think of a single storytelling reason for the repetition at work in the game’s dungeons, one of the laziest examples of copy-and-paste programming you’ll ever see in a AAA title. Essentially, the designers built five-or-so different dungeon maps to cover every single sidequest in the entire game, and then reused them over and over again to represent different locations by closing certain paths off and making others be open. Not only does it make the game’s dozens of sidequests feel incredibly same-y, it’s also actively confusing, because you can’t trust your memory of a dungeon’s layout to help you navigate. It’s the dark side of repetition, a clear sacrifice of the player’s experience in favor of making the designer’s job easier, and it’s one of my only real caveats about recommending the game to others.

That failing, though, is at least understandable as a corner cut by harried developers. It’s much more distressing when repetition is poorly employed as a conscious choice in a game’s design.

I really, really wanted to like Bravely Default. I liked its bright, cartoony art style. I liked its cast of characters, both the protagonists and their opponents. I loved the battle system, with its deep flexibility and its devotion to player convenience. I even liked the game’s initial plot, a charming, cookie cutter “Let’s go save the crystals” story that harkens back to earlier Final Fantasy games. I liked everything, really, in the game’s first half.

(We’re getting into spoiler territory, now. You’ve been warned.)

The second half of Bravely Default, sadly, is a boring, repetitive nightmare. And it’s honestly unclear to me whether it’s that way because the designers felt the story demanded it, or if they wrote a story about repetition so that they could repeat the same art assets over and over again to pad out game length while still claiming artistic validity.

airy ui

Let’s talk about what happens at Bravely Default‘s halfway point, the game’s first major climax. Once the four elemental crystal have been awakened (your party’s ostensible goal, accomplished by defeating a boss and then doing an annoying button mashing mini-game for each crystal), you fly your airship city into a blazing pillar of light, presumably to close the Great Chasm and save the world.

The world shakes… Your party screams… The screen fades to white…

And the game restarts.

You’re back in the first city, with your characters’ memories intact, in a world where the crystals still slumber. And so, on your party guide’s prompting, and with no better idea of what to do, your characters set out to do the whole damn thing again. Go to the temples (now much easier to access than they were initially). Beat the (same, slightly buffed) boss. Bash the buttons. Awaken the crystals. Fly into the pillar.

And the game repeats again.

There are a few small differences. A sidequest unlocks, allowing you to earn the final class in the game’s Job System. The Asterisk Bearers, the bosses you initially earned said jobs by beating, have altered personalities, and challenge you to increasingly devious and difficult optional boss fights.

But the world itself changes hardly at all. The enemies are a little different, but by this point in the game, you’ve seen every single monster model, and now there’s nothing to fight but palette swaps. You’ve seen all but one of the game’s dungeons. You’re probably max level, and well on your way to mastering most of the game’s jobs. And your party members, in-story, are disgruntled, disappointed, and confused at why they’re not making progress, while their guide, the fairy Airy, goads them to continue.

I wrote, a long time ago, about how games are good at triumph, and bad at most other emotions, because they don’t play into the power fantasy at the core of so much of what we play. I cited Persona 3, and the period after a major plot revelation that throws the entire party’s goals into question and causes them to refuse to go into battle, as a great example of good game design forcing players to experience their party’s feelings.

Bravely Default pushes it to the extreme. By the time you’ve cycled through the world map two or three times, you’re just as sick of the whole boring ordeal as your characters are. They complain with every awakening, bickering amongst themselves and constantly demanding that Airy explain why the world is not yet saved, as you trudge through the same dungeons you’ve seen so many times before. Even with battles turned off, it’s some of the most repetitive, boring gaming you’ll ever see in an RPG. And, eventually, you’re going to snap.

Yamato

There’s a small nuance to the button mashing mini-game that I didn’t mention before. Airy always warns the party to STOP pushing the button once the crystal has awakened, because over-stimulation could cause it to shatter. Your first time through the cycle, the game stops you automatically. But once you’re into the endless repetition, you’ll find, if you try, that the game allows you to keep pushing the button, in spite of the fairy’s warnings. The crystal shakes, your party members voice their support for what you’re doing, and Airy gets increasingly desperate. Finally, she threatens to kill your party members, supposedly her best friends. Before she can carry out the threat, the crystal shatters. Enraged, Airy transforms from a cute fairy into a gigantic, hideous monster, reveals herself as the game’s true antagonist, and flees to the final dungeon. Your party realizes they’ve been the monster’s pawns the whole time, setting up alternate world after alternate world for destruction at Airy’s hands, and vow to follow her and undo the damage their blind obedience has wrought.

It’s so, so close to brilliant. The idea that the game has been boring and frustrating you, daring you to rebel, on purpose, is one with incredible power (it reminds me a lot of Victor Gijsber’s Vampire, a game which only ends successfully when the players collectively reject the cruel rules of the game universe to forge a happy ending for themselves). The player, and the characters, being trapped in an endless cycle until they rebel against their guide (who is literally a part the game’s UI, sitting on your menu screen and giving you guidance at every step) is a beautiful tribute to the game’s repeated themes of making decisions for yourself and refusing to submit to authority, a subversion of the “Go there, do this” model of gaming that’s on par with Bioshock’s famous twist. It justifies every repetitive moment, transforming them into the game’s way of subtly prompting you to stop doing something that’s boring you in favor of something crazy, even if it breaks the world.

But here’s where the use of repetition, and, with it, Bravely Default, fall apart.

You see, rejecting the cycle of repetition in this way gets you the “bad” ending. The choice is punished with an incomplete story, failure to unlock the game’s “New Game +” option, and a note at the end telling you that the true enemy still lives. In order to find the true, “best” ending, the player has to recant their bid for freedom, continue through every cycle (four times, not counting the first one!), and awaken 16 more crystals with that stupid mini-game. All the while, you and your party are following the advice of a creature that you know to be evil incarnate. It’s self-punishing, it’s repetitive, it’s boring, and it’s a betrayal of every message the game has tried to express until this moment. The only reason I’ve ever been able to come up with for the developers sabotaging their game’s themes and the brilliance of the previous ending, is because playing through the cycles this way pads out play time, adding ‘value’ to the title. That prioritization of ‘value’ over good design dooms Bravely Default to being, ultimately, a failure as a game.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Other games manage to employ repetition meaningfully, not as a concession to strained budgets or a tool to reach some idealized amount of average play time.

I finished Shin Megami Tensei IV recently. My experiences lined up pretty solidly with Michael and David’s — initial exhilaration, which eventually gave way to tedium and exasperation at how much time I was spending wandering around Tokyo, half-lost and never doing anything I really cared about. I want to highlight, though, the moment when the game managed to regain its earlier momentum, with a savvy use of repetition as the key.

There’s a sequence of events that occurs three times near the end of SMTIV (and once more, in two of the game’s four endings). You and your party of demons assault Camp Ichigaya, home of the Yamato Perpetual Reactor, a device capable of breaching the walls between worlds. You battle a boss representing the worst excesses of the world you’re in (technically, in one of the iterations this happens a little earlier, but bear with me), and press a button to activate the reactor. The world goes white, and you wake up in an alternate universe, only to do the whole thing again.

It sounds eerily close to the Bravely Default example, doesn’t it? Going to the same places, doing the same things, only to have your efforts invalidated by a sudden shift to another world. The difference is, while Bravely Default uses the alternate universe conceit as a reason to reuse maps and assets and call them “different,” SMTIV makes its alternate worlds truly dissimilar, with a huge influx of new art assets and new world maps marking each shift to an alternate Tokyo. Where the story differences between worlds in Bravely Default are minor changes to character attitudes, providing some character development but little else, the alternate worlds of Blasted and Infernal Tokyo have massive story significance, shedding vital light on the game’s backstory and preparing the player for the rapidly approaching endgame by showing the final goal of the game’s two warring factions.

Most importantly, while Bravely Default uses repetition for its own sake, out of a misguided desire to shove more ‘value’ into their game at the cost of player enjoyment, SMTIV employs it as a legitimate storytelling technique, giving the player an opportunity to compare and contrast the elements being repeated.

The beginning of the repetition occurs just as the game is racing rapidly toward the moment when the player must pledge an allegiance and pick an ending. By repeating the same basic sequence of events in worlds dominated by Neutrality, Law, and Chaos, it gives the player a chance to compare the three alignments and make their final choice. It’s a gorgeous example of “show, don’t tell” storytelling, dragging the player through the worlds their choices might create, and it’s a perfect demonstration of the fact that repetition in games is only as good, or as bad, as the intent and talent of the designer employing it.