The Startling New Trend of the “Gameplay Experience”

E3, in addition to being the debut of many a new gameplay trailer, has also become a home for many a video game buzzword. Words like “innovation,” “gameplay experiences,” “social interaction,” and so on get tossed around to such an extent that they become a mockery of what they once meant. Suddenly, no one cant describe a video game without mentioning at least three of these buzzwords. It’s gotten to the point that some people make a drinking game out of it.

And end up passed out under their computers.

Most of those buzzwords just become part of the E3 noise that I try to tune out while I wait for a trailer to begin. However, this year, one buzzword finally made sense to me. Gameplay experience. Because of one trailer played during Sony’s E3 press conference, I finally understood not only what it meant, but how it described a certain type a game. It was no longer white noise. It meant something. My thinking cap lit up with understanding.

Disclaimer: I’m going to talk about The Order: 1886. A game that I know very little about, outside of what was shown at Sony’s E3 press conference.

Let’s think back to The Order: 1886‘s gameplay demo. Let’s also avoid criticizing its use of zombie-werewolf things. Instead, let’s think about the demo as a whole. It opens with the player character walking slowly through a supposedly creepy house, shining a useless lantern through pervasive darkness. The character moves slowly, in what is likely meant to inspire suspense and fear in the player. Soon, the player character stumbles upon the previously mentioned zombie-werewolf things. Through a cutscene, we see the zombiwolf (which I sincerely hope is their real name) eating the corpse of something, then notices our hero. It stands up, and starts to change. Then, it attacks.

The player character, as is always the case, is prepared with a gun. He fires at the creature in a gameplay sequence, but it seems that the gunshots do nothing. The zombiwolf gets up close, and then another cutscene plays, where the hero is tossed aside through a window. The cutscene continues, and eventually, the player character gets back up. Once more, the zombiwolf sees him, and attacks. Once more, gameplay briefly interrupts, where the player fires at the zombwolf. And once more, his attacks do nothing. The trailer ends with the zombiwolf closing in on the hero.

This demo exemplifies what a gameplay experience is. It’s a carefully crafted sequence of events punctuated by player interaction that drives the game forward. These moments are created by the developer, and are meant to elicit some kind of emotion. In this sequence, that emotion is meant to be fear. Look at this unstoppable monster! You should be afraid of it attacking you!

And yet, it inspires the exact opposite reaction from me.

Which has nothing to do with how lame the werewolves are.

According to the gameplay demo (of which very little was actual gameplay), the player’s actions have very little effect on what’s going on in the game. I doubt that no number of headshots would’ve actually stopped the zombiwolf, because the game developers didn’t want the player to feel like they could kill it yet. It’s a sequence then, a glorified cutscene, one that the developers have planned from start to finish. The player interaction is there simply as a means to call it a video game. No doubt, sooner or later, the hero will face off against the zombiwolf again but this time, the character will be able to kill the beast. Maybe it’s a boss battle. Maybe the hero finds the magical whazzit that lets him finally hurt the beast. But not at the moment demoed, because that’s not how the developers want the sequence to go.

They are essentially leading players down a series of events, a movie where player interaction is a means to an end. They want this sequence to create fear, and rather than let fear grow dynamically (and risk the player killing the beast and not getting any fear at all), they force the player into a sequence meant to create that emotion.

But to me, it just feels like a cheap thrill.

The equivalent of a Michael Bay movie.

When I’m playing a video game, and I get myself in a fight that the game wants me to lose for story purposes, it takes me right out of the game. Suddenly, I’m not playing the game, so much as being a spectator in what the developers want to have happen to me. I’m watching a movie and pressing buttons in a smoke and mirrors attempt to include gameplay. But my actions don’t matter. My gameplay doesn’t matter. The moment has been preplanned—my failures or successes have been preplanned.

This has become an increasingly popular trend in video games, made popular by games such as Uncharted with their action setpieces. I was never able to put my finger on a reason why Uncharted didn’t excite me.

Now, I can.

A few years back, I was playing Uncharted 3 and Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 at roughly the same time. I remember being completely enthralled by Ninja Gaiden, and bored with Uncharted 3. Ignoring the story problems inherent in Uncharted 3 (that’s another blog subject entirely), I knew something about the game wasn’t connecting with me the same way Ninja Gaiden was. I just couldn’t figure out why.

Maybe it was the ninjas.

But it’s actually pretty simple. In Ninja Gaiden, I am faced with challenges, not experiences. The game developers aren’t trying to manipulate my emotions or create certain situations or setpieces. They are dropping me in a room with enemies and expecting me to emerge victorious. They are throwing boss battles at me and expecting me to prove myself superior. The thrills are not carefully crafted pre-designed sequences–they are created through the well-done battle system, crazy combat, and my own skill. A battle in Ninja Gaiden can be simple if I’m good at the game, or heart-wrenching if I’m bad. My health drops low if I mess up, not if the developers choose for it to happen. Every fight can feel different from the last, even if I’m fighting the same set of enemies. If I don’t throw up Ryu’s block fast enough, I could be faced in a tough situation with very little health. If I manage to chain together a series of devastating attacks, the same battle could be over in a matter of moments. My actions matter in this moment, because the gameplay can go either way. I can fail miserably, succeed splendidly, or fall somewhere in between. But that’s for me to decide, not the developers.

In Uncharted 3, almost the exact opposite occurs. I’m running along rooftops because the game told me to, not because I chose it as the best course of action. The ship is sinking, but it only moves along when the developers determine that it should. My actions are not driving the battle so much as I’m doing what I’m told. Failure is barely a setback as well, and if I do fail, I will respawn in a location the developers have determined is the best place for the battle to unfold. They don’t want my lack of skill to hold me back, they want me to keep moving forward, from one thrill to the next. Outside of shooting the guys, my actions matter very little. Cutscenes take over often and there is always a set path through the level and to deal with enemies. “See that cover over there? Use that!” the developers seem to say. “It will put you in a good spot to deal with the enemies and to see the explosion we have planned!”

It just feels like I’m being led along, doing what I’m told like a good gamer.

“Do I get a gold star?” “Only in Mario!”

Ninja Gaiden doesn’t care if I suck. I need to either learn to get better, or stop playing the game. They don’t care if a certain battle makes my heart start pounding. If I know how to beat the boss, the boss is easy. If I don’t, then the boss is hard, and gets my blood racing. The sequence is not trying to force its thrills on me, they happen naturally through the fight. In Uncharted, the thrills are forced on me. Outside of choosing which cover to take and which guy to shoot first, my actions matter very little. The fight will end the same way.

It becomes like a movie interrupted reluctantly by gameplay.

But I don’t know if it works as well in video games as in movies. In a movie, we’re wondering if the hero can survive a challenge, and how they are going to do it. In a video game, we’re trying to see if we, the gamer, can survive that challenge. We don’t really want to see how Drake does it—we want to do it ourselves. For me, seeing Drake save himself through cutscene just doesn’t have the same thrill as surviving a challenging boss fight by my own merit.

As is probably obvious by now, I prefer video game challenges over video game experiences. I feel that video games are meant to challenge us, test our skill, and have us prove ourselves superior to anything the game throws at us. Gameplay experiences, on the other hand, are there to force their thrills on us, force their emotions on us. And to me, that seems like a cheap thrill, rather than a genuine experience.

What do you think? Am I on to something here?

Note: No images are mine. All link to the source.

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