New Game Minus

August 4th, 2009

There should be a term for the first time you play a story-focused game, before you really get the hang of how to decimate all your enemies, before you know what’s going to happen in the plot, before you fiddle with the “moral choice” mechanics just to laugh at how big a jerk the protagonist can be, or before you find out that the choices you make don’t even really matter at all. This experience relies on a blend of story-oriented and mastery-oriented appeals, where the challenge of the game heightens the sense of drama and tension in the story, and vice versa.

I don’t know what the term for this type of play should be. Personally, I’d like to see it become more the norm for games with narrative pretensions, but it’s tough to pull off. Even story-oriented games seem to have a hard time pulling it off. And, notably, it’s usually absent in replaying a game. I’m not sure it has to be, though.

Replaying a game can rob it of this blend of narrative and perfectionist appeals, but not just because you know the story. Many of us re-watch movies we love from time to time, and those are the same every time we watch them; games, meanwhile, can actually offer different “stories,” from those explicitly presented in the paths they offer to those we make ourselves. No, the problem I’d like to focus on for now is how the way replaying a game can ruin the way that we enjoy a game’s story and realism because of the concessions made to challenge, rather than recognizing that mastery and story can work hand in hand even the second time through.

To be sure, replaying a game can offer its own sort of enjoyment in the sense of mastery it gives the player. In many story-based and role-playing games (like Dead Space, Prototype, and Mass Effect), there’s a “new game plus” option that allows you to restart the game with all the items and powers that you had when you beat it before. Why? Well, it’s fun to start things over feeling powerful already, and to build a character into something unstoppable. Sometimes this even fits into the story better than starting from scratch. Considering that the dialog in Mass Effect indicates that you already start the game with a reputation as an interstellar badass, it feels a lot more intuitive to start with a leveled-up character than with a first-level character who can’t even access most of its own powers and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with an assault rifle.

The problem, however, is that the second time through a game often feels a lot easier, or a lot more goal-oriented, and that throws the useful cooperation between story and mastery into imbalance. It becomes about making a beeline for where we know the best weapons and power-ups are waiting, skipping dialog just so we can get back to leveling, allocating points to be the most powerful at one ability, knowing that this means the game will be hyper-repetitive.

Fallout 3, for instance, doesn’t allow for “new game plus,” but it does become a lot easier to feel powerful when you restart it with a new character after learning the ropes. It’s fairly easy to carry around a huge supply of health packs, ammo, and money; to never worry about radiation poisoning; to max out all your skills; to wipe out a room of enemies with a series of laser shots to the head before any of them even get a chance to pull a trigger. Again, that can be fun, sometimes. But it feels fundamentally different from that first time you play, when you’re never sure what effects your actions will have, when there’s always a slight tingle of danger and thrill of the unknown.

This is where difficulty adjustment presumably comes in. The most obvious response is to suggest that you just raise the game’s difficulty from “Normal” to “Hard,” “Very Hard,” or “Insanity,” tempering your own invincibility. And sure, I do this myself. But that brings me back to the issue of game appeals: Raising the difficulty level preserves a more satisfying feeling of mastery, but often makes it much harder to enjoy on the basis of story. Sometimes the little things that signal to the player that this is a game can really pull you out of the story, like needing to shoot enemies in the head four times before they fall over, or needing to play conservatively because enemies can kill you with a single punch.

It’s telling that my examples keep returning to a sense of mastery or challenge in combat-oriented situations. This is because that is what contemporary narrative games tend to focus on, and what designers see fit to adjust in the difficulty settings. That isn’t all that contemporary games offer, however. They’re also about managing scarce resources, planning careful strategies, potentially even avoiding fighting whenever possible. These are things that often contribute to the sense of playing in a story, rather than a series of action-movie fight scenes. It would be nice to see these things highlighted in replay opportunities.

Sometimes, then, I find myself wishing for a kind of “new game minus.” It wouldn’t be the same as that first time you play because you’d still know so much of what’s to come. Still, there are ways to encourage the game to be played the way you can play it that first time through, with that sense of danger and the unknown, blending the mastery appeals with the story appeals. When I say I’d like to see a “new game minus,” I mean I’d like to see a replay option that makes the practices of “power gaming” itself less feasible, removing the power-ups, making even the skills and powers that seem less crucial feel worth developing in some way, encouraging the player to find challenge in systems other than (or in addition to) combat.

Again, take Fallout 3, for instance. Consider a mode where there are no more skill books or Bobbleheads to boost your abilities; you need to improve by gaining new levels (and recall that you can gain experience not just in combat, but by hacking computers, picking locks, completing non-violent quests, and discovering new locations). It’s a mode where damage isn’t strongly tweaked—because a head shot is a head shot—but where radiation is a real danger, healing supplies are harder to find, and the amount you can carry more closely corresponds to what a real human being could reasonably carry (e.g., the equivalent of a couple six-packs of beer instead of 150 beers). In other words, I’d like to see games get harder with a mode that makes them more realistic.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way: Fallout 3 has a whole community of modders who put such variations into practice, but not every game can be modded. The fact that the game itself needs to be altered to see such ideas implemented is an indication of how rare it is that we see the appeals of storytelling and immersion treated on more equal footing with the appeals of challenge and mastery.

Does this need to be done for every game? No, of course not. I wouldn’t really care if it were there for games like Dead Space, which have a story element to them, but one that isn’t necessarily strongly integrated into the gameplay experience to begin with. The reason I want to see it in games like Fallout 3 is that the context implies that storytelling is kind of a big deal in the game as a whole. The quests present something like a narrative arc with actual attention to pacing and continuity. Dialog has its own front-and-center mechanic, with its own experience rewards. The protagonist’s personality is customizable, and his/her behavior has ramifications in terms of social interaction with other characters and other elements of gameplay (including who decides to attack you and which missions you have to complete at all). We are told that our actions mean something, with moral implications, beyond a straightforward life-or-death struggle. The game already hints to you that character, performance, and story are a major part of the experience, but it doesn’t necessarily follow through with it as far as it could.

The next obvious response to such concerns is that you, the player can always impose your own difficulty adjustments through arbitrary rules outside any the game has set for you. You don’t need to use all the health packs the game provides; you don’t need to traverse an entire game world through a click on a map; you don’t need to shoot every enemy in the head with the best weapon in the game; you don’t need to keep playing after your character dies, but can decide that your character is now dead. And, indeed, I have tried some such “imaginary adjustments” or “gameplay experiments” myself—hey, let’s aim for the legs this time!—but this presents some narrative distractions and frustrations of its own when the game isn’t designed to support such decisions.

My next post, then—the third (and tentatively final) in this series on how narrative games do (and don’t) encourage story-oriented appeals—will describe how we might actively go looking for narrative meaning in games. I’ve had mixed results with it myself, which is why I discuss this now in terms of what games actively to encourage us to feel. Not every game is a narrative game, and not even every narrative game really encourages us to treat the story as a kind of gameplay itself—but those that do are teaching us some new ways to think about narrative, and still have some room to explore how that could go further.

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9 Responses to “New Game Minus”

  1. Regan Says:

    I find this especially interesting re: The Path, which I’m playing now. I restarted last night because I kept getting bummed out when I’d see the overlay of the girl I’d killed accidentally by meeting her wolf early, but it’s a different experience knowing more about the interface and what’s expected of me as a player now.

  2. Jason Tocci Says:

    I still have to check out The Path. But yes, since every game (potentially) has its own interface, control scheme, and expectations of player behavior, so much of our first time playing is largely tied up in learning how to play at all. (I wonder if part of the reason that sequels of games are typically considered “better” than the original isn’t only because the graphics and hours of play get a boost, but also because there’s less “learning” to be done, and so a feeling of seamless interaction for more of the game..?)

  3. Chris Collins Says:

    I think it’s interesting to think about your scheme for changing games through the lens of Shakespeare. Reading, hell, watching a Shakespearean play requires the building of mastery of skills in understanding the language. If you have never watch anything by Shakespeare before, your first watch is going to require you to develop those skills. The play itself, both macro (the plot) and micro (the lovely little jokes, funny bits, historical references, etc), can’t be properly enjoyed until you have mastery of the Language he was writing in.

    What does this have to do with games? Well, I’d say that the way that Shakespearean companies have varied them game play involves a couple of things 1. editing of the text to emphasize different things that are in script (also for timing) and 2. changing the setting of plays to add a second level of meaning to the work (ie, doing a noir version of Hamlet as something of a PI or something like that). I’d be interested if you think that your game minus idea could work that way. I’m imagining instead of just offering you a harder replay, what if they offered you half a dozen sequences from a game that you’ve already finished with different challenges/edits made to the story.

    I don’t know if the changing the setting is a real option for game developers. At least not easily?

  4. Jason Tocci Says:

    Changing the setting seems potentially problematic from a development point of view, but to the extent that some games already offer a degree of customization, we might say this already exists (or that we’re quite close to it). Each time you play a game that allows for some variation, you can do things a bit differently, take a slightly different approach, even if basic plot points are going to turn out (more or less) the same way. (I’ll get into this a bit further in my next post.) In Mass Effect, for instance, it doesn’t matter too much whether you’re a warm-hearted engineer or a tough-guy commando—many dialog choices point to the same result, and you still beat the bad guys to make way for the sequel.

  5. Pavitra Says:

    I’m reminded of the “voluntary conduct” mechanic in Nethack, where the game will track whether or not you obey “extra” restrictions such as vegetarianism, atheism, pacifism, and illiteracy. You don’t have to toggle any switches in game options to decide to take on the extra challenges — they’re just there, and you can try to do them or not. They stay out of your way when you’re not interested in them, and they’re easy to find when you are. It’s a very elegant interface.

  6. Jordan Says:

    I think a good way to do this is to add NEW narrative niches that were inaccessible the first time you played through.

    As usual, I submit Chrono Trigger as an example to illustrate a point about your post.

    Chrono Trigger has “New Game +” mode, where you start over with all your experience and weapons. There’s nothing in the narrative to justify starting over all beefy (although it seems like they could have come up with something to explain it since it’s a game about time travel…). However, the first time you play through there are a few times when you can accidentally do something that will make you fight the boss of the entire game way too early. You die almost immediately if you make these choices. However, if you play though with all your levels and weapons, it’s possible to actually defeat the boss WAY early in the game, revealing a new ending.

    I think this approach has a lot of potential. Chrono Trigger had a relatively simple implementation, but there could be whole entire realms of narrative that are ONLY accessible the second time through. Imagine levels or worlds that are alluded to throughout the game, and only accessible your second time through.

  7. Jason Tocci Says:

    Nice points, Pavitra and Jordan. Your comments remind me that to some extent, these sorts of meta-gaming are sometimes encouraged on consoles nowadays through “Achievements” and “Trophies” that give out-of-game rewards for optional behaviors, like beating a level of Mirror’s Edge without ever using a weapon. Anyway, I’ll have to look into Nethack more deeply to get a sense of how the voluntary conduct may differ from, say, the simple tally of lives you’ve taken in Fallout 3. (More on that in the next post.…)

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