Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. It’s extremely similar to The A.V. Club’s AVQ&A feature. You might even say it’s exactly the same. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
In our previous Q&A, we discussed the overused puzzles and quests that drive us batty. This time, we’re turning the tables by switching the question around: Which game design tropes do you enjoy the most?
Anthony John Agnello
I love having to save someone’s life and not knowing how to do it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I increasingly try to play games in a way that requires as little brute force as possible. It was really Deus Ex: Human Revolution that set me down that path. More often than not, however, that game asked you to simply not kill rather than to actually help someone. That could be thrilling all on its own. There was a scenario in the game’s Shanghai nightclub where you need to hack the club’s sign to expose a murderer. Since I didn’t have much stealth prowess at this point—but still didn’t want to start a fight—I had to trick the game a little, tranquilizing every guard and patron and then leaving to let things calm down a bit. It was a wonderful, natural moment of experimentation. Better, though, are the civilian rescues in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. The game doesn’t even tell you that you can save these four or five civilians you come across. Figuring out how to swoop in and take out the guards without allowing the bystander to be harmed is hard. It requires more deft reflexes and thought than anything else in the game.
I’m going to echo my response to our last question and also crib a bit from something Anthony has written about. I enjoy when I’m given total silence to contemplate the solution. There is much fun to be had within my own brain, and lack of noise is permission to dive right in. I can’t get enough of Fez for its quietness. It’s a puzzle game that requires you to warp your brain and then toss it in a blender, and there are only a few meager points at which you are explicitly told how to rotate the screen or shown a simple path to victory. The rest is just cognitive shift after cognitive shift, taken at your own pace but delivered with such ferocity you’d think it was that douche who taught your SAT test prep class. Every time I reach a puzzle I have no idea how to solve, which is often, I find myself marveling for just a second and relishing the fact that I might never solve it. Then I try anyway.
I love fights I can’t win. Whether it’s Luke’s failed duel with Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back or the battle that kills Boromir and separates the heroes in The Fellowship Of The Ring, losses can make narratives more interesting. This is something that can come across as very heavy-handed when done poorly, but I love in World Of Warcraft: Wrath Of The Lich King when the titular villain shows up to deal with your dungeon party and you have to make a fighting retreat. The weird Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman builds an entire game around your hero repeatedly getting smacked down by a boss he can’t possibly defeat. Normally, when you lose a fight in a game it’s your fault for playing poorly, which is why I find it so refreshing to get beaten without having to feel bad.
Samantha, no! I despise fights I can’t win. Instead, I’m with Anthony. What I love more than anything is helping fake people and doing something that is unambiguously good. While playing 2004’s Spider-Man 2, no matter how dramatic my current mission was, I could not resist the siren call of a citizen being mugged. I’d drop everything and swing my way over to them and stop the crime in progress, even though doing so didn’t result in much of any tangible in-game benefit. Not enough games let me exercise my obviously quite large and charitable heart.
This question is tougher than the last one because once a specific design tendency shows up often enough to notice it, that tends to mean it’s also becoming tiresome. But I like when puzzles invite me to figure out a long-lost culture—at least when that culture has a real, fleshed-out ethos (as opposed to existing as a thin justification for a sliding-block puzzle or some such). I mentioned this in Wednesday’s edition of The Digest, because Year Walk’s imaginative trip through strange corners of Swedish folklore gave me the sense that I was communing with wisdom from another era. Myst and Riven are probably the hall-of-fame examples here. The clues scattered throughout their windswept isles probably did more to give me a sense of the D’ni civilization than I would have gotten if the creators had chosen to let me walk among them.
I’m a sucker for any game that lets me make an escape. There’s nothing more suspenseful than sneaking behind enemy lines to perpetrate some dirty deeds. But all of that tension turns to thrill as you bust out of there with bad guys hot on your heels and bullets whizzing by your ears. Far Cry 3 was able to reproduce these satisfying dashes at a consistent clip. I’m thinking particularly of the bounty hunter missions in which you infiltrate a small group of pirates and assassinate their leader. These usually end with a scene similar to the opening scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I scramble down a lush hillside while poorly aimed gunfire tears up the jungle behind me. That or I dive off a cliff into a pool of water. Either way is fine by me.
Timed missions get a lot of flack, but I think they can be quite effective when used judiciously. There’s some optional timed-mission stuff in Gears Of War: Judgment, and it made me realize how atrocious the pacing of many shooters are these days. Since there’s a general lack of urgency in terms of moving toward your objective, you spend a lot of time peering down a scope, waiting for a villain to pop his face out from behind a desk 50 yards away. That was, in fact, my biggest problem with Mass Effect 3. Reapers are wiping out all life on Earth at the very beginning of the game. It doesn’t make sense that Commander Shepard spends so much time having heart-to-hearts with his ship’s artificial intelligence or awkwardly dancing at a nightclub. I would have loved if BioWare had tried to turn the thing into one long timed mission to save Earth along the lines of The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
I grew up in the suburbs of southern New Jersey. We had normal suburban stuff—a Burger King, a Dairy Queen, a Wawa (sort of a regional 7-Eleven). What we didn’t have, though, was a blacksmith. We needed bikes and Little League bats, not dirks and bastard swords. Perhaps owing to this childhood deprivation, I love games that allow me to blacksmith. I don’t care if the blacksmithing mechanism itself is the height of monotony. Fable 2 turns it into a sort of pendulum-timing game, where you have to strike at exactly the right point to make the item. In Skyrim, blacksmithing requires less skill, but I still spent most of my first 10 or so hours making weapons and armor. Then I sold them all at the general goods store across the way. It was a living—one I hope to revisit after my Dragonborning days are done.
I’m always elated when I discover I’m playing a game that clearly explains its rules and then lets you break them. This is a pretty broad design idea, but it works in most any implementation. The gothic horror role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade—Bloodlines uses it to enrich its storytelling, by letting you flagrantly disregard quest instructions and (un?)live with the consequences, positive or negative. The trading-card game Magic: The Gathering has rule-breaking as the core tenet of its design. The game itself only has a few simple rules, but every pack of cards contains a stack of ways to bend or ignore them. This works because while games can be defined as a set of instructions, playing games involves negotiating those instructions and coming to a personal understanding of them. You know this if you’ve ever said “no tag-backs!” on a playground. When a game has this rule-breaking spirit built in, I feel more like I’m playing and less like I’m listening to some arbitrary taskmaster.
When it comes to my favorite mission styles, I tend to like it simple—real, real simple. Give me a good destroy everything and/or kill ’em all mission, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s not that I don’t like more subtle, innovative fare—stealth, puzzle solving, and all that stuff—it’s just that at least 70 percent of the time when I’m holding a controller, I’m looking to indulge my inner 12-year-old. That means I want to run around and make stuff blow up real good. That’s probably why Just Cause 2 is one of my favorites of all time. The whole thing is one open-ended “destroy everything” mission that rewards you for what comes naturally. See some oil tanks? Discover a military installation in the jungle? Hey, is that an airport you just flew over? Not only can you blow them all up, but you make progress by doing so! And the explosions look totally sweet as a nice bonus.
I’m always happy to see some sort of dynamic credits sequence. Batman: Arkham Asylum and Splinter Cell: Conviction do the easy-but-effective thing of layering the opening credits on top of a tightly paced tutorial. All the Katamari games have bonus games in their end credits. These are inconsequential but charming acknowledgements that we are playing a game and not watching a movie. I’m sure it helps, though, that I am exactly the kind of graphics nerd who always stays through the credits at the movies. Many a first date have been quite upset over my refusal to leave the instant the lights turn on (though even I have to leave the room once the Assassin’s Creed crawl gets started).
I love when missions tell me to survive for 30 minutes. I tend to lose track of time easily, so having a giant countdown timer loom in the corner of the action is a perfect motivator for me to bring my A game. The survival episodes in StarCraft and Warcraft, ratchet up a special kind of tension that’s unlike the standard “kill ’em all” or “travel from A to B” missions. I take great pleasure in failing with seconds to go, forcing me to retrace my steps and tweak decisions to better face the impending doom. To a lesser extent, I poured hours into the “15-Minute Melee” in Super Smash Bros. I never did beat it, but I hold the many times I got down to the last five seconds near and dear to my heart.
Here’s something I look for in pretty much every game I play: Does the game world work like the real world? Can I switch the lights off? Does that vending machine actually vend? More importantly, can I flush the toilets? Ever since Duke Nukem 3D, functioning plumbing has been my litmus test for a compelling game world. It’s meaningless, yes, but that actually gives such trivial actions meaning in a roundabout, counterintuitive way. Whatever action-packed task the game is asking me to perform takes on greater urgency when there’s even a faint hint that I’m in a tangible place where some of the normal rules apply. Somehow, the suggestion that I inhabit a world with light bulbs that work and butts that poop makes me more determined to save it.
I love the idea of games within a game (which we’ve actually tackled before). I’m not just talking about grasscutting mini-games (although those aren’t without a certain charm). No, I’m talking about the kind of mindlessly diverting activities that suck you in despite their repetitive nature. Saints Row 3 for example, had Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax, a demented game show in which you shoot costumed mascots with sniper rifles. I also spent way too much time punching Italian mercenaries in the underground Fight Club game found in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Some people might find these to be nothing more than filler, but I’m a sucker for games within a game, especially if the developers put a little TLC into creating them.