The relationship between Invention and Necessity

There was a conversation in the most recent podcast episode which mirrored conversations I‘ve had with one of my friends, which revolves around two different approaches to playing games, particularly systems-heavy games: do you delve into the games systems exactly as much as you need to in order to overcome the game’s obstacles, or do you learn to master and optimize the systems independent of the game necessitating you do so?

I am very much the former: I love to use game mechanics to cleverly solve problems, but absent of a problem to solve I tend to keep my understanding of a game's mechanics shallow. The friend I was talking to, on the other hand, enjoys optimization for optimization's sake, and will treat the game's obstacles as a test of the optimization he's already doing.

So, I guess my questions are: how do you approach games? Do you learn the intricacies of a game's mechanics as the necessity arises, or do you play around with the systems for their own sake? Are there benefits/downsides to one approach over the other? Is there a way to shift your play-style from one approach to the other?

A half-thought for now: I think I get really flipped from one mode to the other when I encounter particular edge cases of the systems that seem to be specifically trimmed/hemmed/skewed around a particular game element to attain a game-goal. The example that comes to mind is the behavior of the basic glider in TotK - I was feeling pretty good about the game being Panekit-like until I glided on one of those and found how tuned the dynamics of turns were to be smooth, gentle, and forgiving. When I was able to do such dumbass means of strapping a boat together, I was ready and excited for making stupidly half-functional flying machines that crashed readily. Ultimately the game needs to get players place-to-place in the air so it is interested in making the flying work and be attainable, rather than physically bound.

I suppose this can be summarized as when a mental model I’ve developed of a system being shown wrong in a way that is “less fun” than the way I imagined it. This “fun” is tough for me to define. I think it really is about being to build and confirm a mental model of a game- the best of those games I am able to literally play and enjoy in my imagination at any moment. (E.g. when I ride a train I just imagine all the route optimization, schedule setting, and influence on city development that I enjoy playing with in things like Simutrans, SC4, and A-train; as good as playing!)

A perhaps less-than-half thought from me for now: I‘ve never stopped to analyse how or why, but it really seems to depend on the particular game for me. This isn’t even necessarily bound to any particular genre (or format!) of game.

An example that comes to mind is that Bayonetta seemed to let me just press buttons to get through encounters, and as I had no desire to replay on higher difficulty levels I just mostly stuck to simple strings to get through everything. Devil May Cry, however, managed to get me to learn the combo system and try to be as [color="goldenrod"]_SSStylish_[/color] as possible.

Path of Exile is, for me, all about systems optimisation. The whole game is a huge, multi-dimensional problem space and character build creation is an optimisation problem -- and a rather good one, at that. There are excellent 3rd party tools for build planning and the like, and PoE players will joke that they spend more time "playing" the build creator than the game.

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@“AlecS”#p119702 Is there a way to shift your play-style from one approach to the other?

Continuing to think here, there was a point maybe two episodes back where there was a discussion of the moment when you start to “realize you’re playing a game” and how that can cause a total falloff as what previously felt like fun challenges suddenly feel like arbitrary barricades.

I think playing a game with “as much buy-in as is demanded” relies on some other “game-ness” to carry you through - whatever it was that got @"rejj"#p119821 to keep going in Bayonetta even though engagement with the mechanical systems was limited.

At the same time, I wonder how those same drivers were deployed differently in DMC to encourage fuller engagement. I don’t know enough about either game to comment, but I would think there are some intentional design choices that helped with the flip from one mode to another. Not to mention the internal changes individuals have between experiences.

There’s something here that hangs out in between: ‘a choice to engage for your own goals /not being drowned in external goals,’ ‘seeing a game as/ a game appearing to be a canvas of expression,’ ‘grokability of systems’ and ‘agreeing to the limits set by the game / successfully imagining the absence of limits.’ This is something that’s a total interplay between what the game presents and what the player chooses to do. Nothing really conclusive said here, so I would love to hear others’ thoughts.

(Also, sorry for my minimizing “half-thought” comment in my first post - that’s my self criticism trying to defend myself against being ashamed of what I have to contribute but unintentionally implying some required depth of response for everyone, which I really don’t consciously agree with. This topic is one that taps into a lot of what I think about games, so I think I fear saying something that others see as half-baked, cuz then all this thinking I’ve done didn’t amount to much - again some fear-grounded thing.)

yeah, all thoughts are thoughts!! no apologies necessary from anybody here.

anyway, I am very light touch with game systems obviously unless they are either necessary or compelling. you don't have to throw in gunstar heroes but I think it's fun, so I do it. for the first third of resonance of fate you don't have to engage with the battle system properly so I didn't, and once I had to, it wasn't fun for me.

So really for me it boils down to - are the systems themselves inherently rewarding to me as a player with my particular interests, and how does that weigh against my interest in everything else that's going on in the game? If a system stresses me out, or causes a completionist motive, or is it too complex, I'm not likely to engage with it unless everything else that surrounds it is sufficiently interesting.

I've played almost every yakuza and I don't engage earnestly with the battle system. I never use weapons, the finishers take too long, I don't like switching techniques. I just want to grab a motorcycle and smash stuff and have it be over so I can get more goofy story rewards. Fighting games on the other hand, their complexity is rewarded when I play with other people, so I get into them enough to where that's enjoyable. I think where I'm a bit off from most people is I don't find most of the rewards for complex systems very rewarding. despite owning manual cars in real life since 1997 I don't play any racing games with manual transmission. So, oddly, I'm happy when games don't make me engage with those systems and still let me enjoy them. It's an odd place to be, because intellectually I want systems to be in full use, and for me to get the max I can out of a game - but usually I don't feel that connection and just want an easy mode surrounded by goofy nonsense.

Recently I was trying to explain to a friend how to play picross (which is just a simple-but-engaging-for-me logic puzzle). He got the mechanics alright but I could see “the heck is this crap” over his face. How could I communicate what's fun about it!!!

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@“rejj”#p119821 An example that comes to mind is that Bayonetta seemed to let me just press buttons to get through encounters, and as I had no desire to replay on higher difficulty levels I just mostly stuck to simple strings to get through everything. Devil May Cry, however, managed to get me to learn the combo system and try to be as SSStylish as possible.

I've always felt the same but I think it comes down to Platinum's "loose" style of gameplay. Meanwhile DMC (esp. 3 and beyond) are influenced by fighting games and I find mastering the character and limited moveset more fun and rewarding by itself.

(also Resonance of Fate rules! ...but it's a bit arcane)

I think there is an extent to which difficulty can play a role here. When I first played Persona 4, it‘s likely I wouldn’t have engaged with the battle systems that much if the initial bosses weren‘t so demanding. They necessitate you building a roster of Persona and utilizing your characters’ abilities in a way that made me realize the joy that could be found in doing those things. On the other hand, if you aren‘t engaged with everything else in the game, the likelihood is that you’ll just quit. Dark Souls does the same thing, by starting off with challenges that essentially can not be overcome without engaging with the mechanics. If you‘re into the world and feel at that point, you’ll want to soldier on; if not, you'll just stop.

With _Resonance of Fate_, I haven't played it, but it seems that the problem is that the game doesn't make you engage with these systems at the beginning, lets you settle into a completely different pattern/routine with the game's battles, and then sorta pulls the rug out from under you. If you let the player get into a completely different rhythm, it's much harder for them to change what they are doing, than if they had to get used to something weird right at the beginning. Of course, you also don't want to overwhelm the player right at the start, so there's a bit of a balancing act there.

Personally, I get overwhelmed pretty immediately by most games, and do what Brandon does, which is find the easiest path at the beginning, and then only change if I am forced, which, like I mentioned, if it happens too far in, will usually just make me stop playing. Games thrive on patterns that you develop and then modify/add to gradually, so the challenge is to get the player into the right pattern/rhythm from the beginning!

RE: Resonance of Fate. I think exodus is correct and after a point it expects you to have figured out advanced techniques, and if you haven‘t properly engaged with its systems it’s hard to continue or care (nothing wrong with that).

Said systems are a bit abstract so it's tough to explain/get how to play "better" and where is the fun in that unless you have a certain mentality I think (there are "skill check" bosses every now and then but it's clunky). A friend told me he couldn't even beat the first battle, and I totally get it. It can be pretty obtuse!

Going with picross again, you can play larger/harder levels using in simpler ways that take longer, or more complex "contradiction" techniques that may come to you naturally when trying to be efficient in earlier levels; after a point RoF would expect the latter OR DIE.

I‘m definitely one of those people who won’t engage deeply with systems if I'm not motivated to do so. This feels like a common preference. I know there are plenty of people who enjoy exploring systems without any explicit motivation from the game, but I wonder if there are people who work in the opposite way: i.e., are there people who are more compelled to delve deeper into systems when they are not motivated either in-game or competitively to do so?

DMC's grading system is better than nothing I suppose, but IMO it feels like the absolute least-effort thing: "you have 20 different abilities - we give you a better grade if you don't just spam one ability". Instead of intrinsically motivating you to experiment, it's just saying "please don't spam one ability. I mean, we won't penalize you if you don't, but then we won't give you a prize".

Ideally, if a game wants me to explore its systems (which, btw, all games do. they don't create all that content for nothing), it has to convince me that my choices within the system matter.

The Resonance of Fate example is an interesting one. I haven't played it but I feel like I've had that feeling before: where I'm enjoying a game so far, then suddenly the game expects stuff of me that I feel like it never actually prepared me for. IMO even a game with the most beautifully deep and addicting systems could run into this problem. It's not really a fault of the systems themselves - it's a fault in the design of the game's progression.

When you're designing a challenge for the player, you have to look backward and make sure that, by the time the player arrives at the new challenge, they absolutely have learned all the tools they need to succeed at the new challenge. This often comes down to playtesting. You might assume "oh if the player has gotten this far, they obviously know how to do X, Y, and Z". But then playtesting might tell you "oh shit, most players are getting through the game by only doing W, and so they never needed to learn about X, Y, and Z". So if you _really_ want to introduce a challenge that requires knowledge of XYZ, you need to be absolutely certain that previous challenges required those skills.