Gameplay, narrative, distraction and pleasure

November 29th, 2008 by Michael

Our main criterium for deciding if a certain element (visual, audio, content, interaction, anything) can become part of the games we design is whether or not the element supports or adds to the narrative or theme that we want to express/evoke. This is why we often choose against interactive elements with outspoken challenge/reward aspects. Because the risk exists that the player loses themselves in this abstract layer of achieving goals and receiving rewards. And since our stories are seldom about winning or losing, such activity would only distract.

But when you’re making a game that takes several hours to finish, the temptation to throw in a bit of gameplay here and there is great. Because you just can’t expect a player to remain focussed for such a long time. We have no ambition to become the Tarkovsky of video games (i.e. great films that nobody sees because they make you fall asleep). And, as we have seen in most testers, the world of The Path is attractive enough to want to spend a considerable amount of time in it.
(Which is something, I might add, we hadn’t expected. We thought The Path would be more suitable for several short play session rather than a few long ones. Maybe it still is and the artficial situation of the tests is giving us a skewed picture.)

Anyway, I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I find myself a lot less hostile towards game-like activities in interactive entertainment than I used to be. And I’m thinking that perhaps the purely expressive interactive experiences should be reserved for shorter titles. Maybe it’s just because I have logged some 40 hours looking at other people play the game, that I wouldn’t mind a bit of distraction. I don’t know. We’re too close to the project now to make any serious design decisions. And we can’t trust everything our testers say either. So I guess we’ll have to simply gamble a bit.

This is not about any major elements anyway. Just a few small things that will only change the experience slightly for some players. Things that, on the surface, only help the player understand the game. But of course we need to ask ourselves if this understanding doesn’t destroy the enjoyment. Because, after all, games are often as much about causing discomfort and then taking that away (the “Schopenhauer method;) ) as they are about giving joy directly.