The source for this post is online at 2013-03-11-pap2.scrbl.
Last week I introduced the basic framework I use to understand video games. In particular, I discussed how I see them as either "stateless" functions:
(GameState -> PlayerAction)
(PlayerMemory GameState -> PlayerMemory PlayerAction)
In this post I use these notions to describe what makes a game "fun".
It is important to realize that playing a game engages you with the function in two ways: you must write the functions (into your brain) and then you must run the function (using your brain).
For some games, it is very amusing to write the function. For example, young children like to play Tic-Tac-Toe, in part (I believe), because they enjoy discovering which function is the correct one. In contrast, adults rarely like to play Tic-Tac-Toe because they’ve figured out the correct function and just run it routinely.
There are other games with this same structure that can provide entertainment for longer, but ultimately fail. I include Sudoku and most Solitaire derivatives in this category, because it is relatively easy to master the strategy and then be done with game.
Other games don’t even have this property. My favourite example is the card game War, where the PlayerAction type has only one element: meaning that there do not exist different functions to play the game, because the game lacks any player choice.
In general, games that are only fun to write lack the property of "replayability". I find that almost all "puzzle" games are in this category, because once you figure out the puzzle, there is no enjoyment afterwards. Nevertheless, this does not mean that they are terrible. I greatly enjoy the Professor Layton games and games like Picross.
Summary: The best games are fun to write and to execute.
Traditional PC adventure games are classic examples of this: the puzzles are identical between runs and the fun is from viewing new scenarios, dialogue, cut-scenes, etc. Many older games lack any "real" choice, because there is only one linear sequence of game states that is possible, modulo puzzle failure. In fact, walkthroughs for these games often give instructions about how to fail in every unique way, so you can "see" everything in one playthrough.
When games like this offer different paths, it is common to hear complaints that the game forces too much "busy work" on the player who wants to see something new. The most common complaint of this form is when you can’t skip cut-scenes. Some modern games of this variety, such as 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and its sequel, have tools to quickly skip pieces of the game that you’ve already experienced to optimize replays.
Traditionally the other genre where this lack of replayability is very common is Japanese roleplaying games (JRPGs). As a common example, many believe that the player actions of a game like Dragon Quest are boring ("Press X to Win") and the only enjoyment is the unraveling story. In the PlayStation-era, non-skippable cut-scenes were an incredibly common complaint against these games.
If a game allows skipping of story segments, it should ensure that necessary information to make progress in the game (such as where to go next) is displayed some other way.
I find it very disappointing that some modern trendy games totally lose the joy of playing the game in favour of experiencing the story. Games like Journey, the Walking Dead, or Dear Esther are described to be devoid of interesting gameplay and rest entirely on their story.
As an aside, I think the stories in most games are pretty bland and pathetic from a literary perspective, so I recommend that you don’t limit your intake of fiction to just games, because you’ll be sampling from a trivial repertoire.
Summary: Story is a liability when creating a fun game, because it takes attention away from the gameplay and is inherently un-replayable, no matter how good it is.
Next week we will continue with the analysis of which functions are fun to execute and discuss how the concept of "level" influences this framework.