When British mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, it was reported his answer was, “Because it’s there.” The desire to climb does not have to make any sense, have any rhyme or reason. The mountain was a challenge that called to Mallory. It’s very existence was enough to seduce him to its slopes in 1924 – and the mountain claimed his life. Mallory’s body was recovered in 1999.
There is a similar pattern in our desires to take on challenging videogames. Playing Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010) isn’t making us smarter and doesn’t teach us anything about the human condition. We might argue that it improves reflexes but this is the kind of comforting babble we tell people who don’t play games. Players need no such justification.
Oh, wait! Except when we do!
Some reviews of Kickstarted puzzle game Full Bore: The First Dig (Whole Hog Games, 2013) find its rewards not shiny enough. “Gems […] have no apparent value other than raising your completion percentage,” writes Britton Peele for Gamespot. “Why should you spend time collecting them, other than because they're there?”
In other words, why should we spend time solving puzzles in a puzzle game?
I bought Full Bore on a whim because the trailer made the game look complex and interesting. Let me now disclose that at the time of purchase I did not realise that (a) Full Bore was a block-pushing puzzle game nor that (b) Full Bore was not yet complete (hence the “First Dig” subtitle).
There are many things to like about Full Bore. With a constant stream of new block types, it’s quite rich for a block-pushing puzzle game. Full Bore is also good at letting you know when you haven’t cleared a room out – whether there is some hidden exit or gem remaining in the room. This was a touch I appreciated as I was hooked on beating its challenges.
There’s also some clever design afoot. The developers opted to rein in the tutorial aspect and do not explain how every block works. You learn through experimentation and, sometimes, through a puzzle that will stop you in your tracks. John Walker wrote: “There are certain puzzles I think I just currently can’t solve – perhaps there are abilities to come that will let me?” But no, John Walker. There are no powerups. It’s your head that Full Bore wants you to upgrade. And boy, does it get hard, especially once you enter the Deep Delve section.
There are real complaints to be made. I’d draw attention to the timed puzzles where you have seconds to figure out a hard puzzle before the screen explodes – some of which I only solved by taking a photo and reviewing at leisure. Sometimes it’s easy to screw up a puzzle by digging too much or jumping into a spot when you had no intention of doing so. Other times, gloomy lighting makes a puzzle too hard to read. When the player’s boar smacks repeatedly into a block that cannot be dug away, it sounds a lot like “fap fap fap”.
Like The Swapper (Facepalm Games, 2013) the puzzles are embedded in an open world you are meant to explore, but there’s one irritation that Full Bore has added to the mix. Although the game gives you the option of solving puzzles now or coming back later, some difficult puzzles require the player to navigate a tortuous route to reach them... which can discourage you from leaving the puzzle until it is solved. This can accelerate game fatigue.
There are other gripes to be had but let’s get to the bugboar I talked about in An Honest Game: story. Full Bore has a story but as I played the game over three months, I have little understanding of what I gleaned from the lore scattered around Full Bore's mine. All I can tell you is something a little Teleglitch happened down there.
Not understanding the story did not hurt the game in the slightest. I enjoyed wandering through it’s vivid, colourful underground environment, solving every puzzle the developers conjured up. Although it was clear that having a fleshed-out story hammered a degree of consistency into the structure and aesthetics of the game, I did not feel I missed anything of importance.
When Terry Cavanagh’s tough platformer VVVVVV (Terry Cavanagh, 2010) came out, I do not recall anyone demanding a reason to collect the trinkets. Players collected them because they were there. Everyone who collected the infamous Veni Vidi Vici trinket will remember the euphoria of that moment. Kieron Gillen: “At which point I completed the level and was reduced to disturbingly orgasmic cries. I haven’t felt as good with a videogame, in that direct physical way, for quite a while.”
But why might VVVVVV get away with it and not Full Bore? I’d argue it’s because the game uses lore extensively as a reward for exploration. I’ve previously called this plastic exploration, where incentives destroy the natural urge to explore. This bleeds into every other goal of the game – the challenge is no longer enough as the player demands more sweeties for everything they do. Is the incentive-driven player even enjoying it any more?
And there’s a sense in which players are being dishonest with themselves. Back in the 80s, your reward for completing a game came in two main flavours: a big fat “CONGRATULATIONS” message or the game starting again but, this time, it’s all just a wee bit faster. If we were awfully lucky, we might get a little animation or crude musical ditty to comfort us. Score was also a goad to play but that was more a metric for achievement and competition rather than an incentive to play. The contemporary player now craves little rewards and bleeps and bloops over the simple act of besting a game.
Many grumpy words have been written about how unethical free-to-play design exploits human psychology to make us spend money when we otherwise would not. Yet the tricks we see here are an extension of tried-and-tested game reward systems and we should ask whether they mask unappealing game mechanics. Game designer Jonathan Blow has asked this already in his 2010 talk, Video Games and the Human Condition. One of his notable examples is claiming that attribute upgrades in RPGs are an illusion – when games match continuous character upgrades with increasingly powerful monsters the resulting difficulty curve is almost a flat horizontal line. It is no surprise Blow recently took his hatchet to F2P design.
Let’s detour for a second, to make sure I note some exceptions before you write angry NeoGAF posts about me.
The flip side of “rewards hiding trash mechanics” is when a game is ostensibly about story, yet pads out the experience with horrible gameplay sequences that no one finds entertaining. Electron Dance covered Suzy & freedom (Nicolau Chaud, 2013) in a Counterweight podcast a couple of months ago and found the fighting and platforming sections dull and frustrating. We argued that some of the mini-games got in the way of the story. It’s the reverse situation where the mechanics are trying to justify the reward – the story – rather than the other way around.
But sometimes unpleasant mechanics are the point as one of Suzy & freedom’s best moments highlights. At one point, the character Suzy is forced to write an essay by her parents, and there’s a tedious mechanic where the game asks the player to press a specific key to make just 1% of progress, and it frames that segment beautifully. The most important game of all time is, of course, Pong (Atari, 1972). Whoops, sorry, I meant Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011), which is full of soul-destroying, repetitive mechanics that service a greater, narrative good. Without the tedious gameplay the narrative rewards do not exist.
So back to the rant. In-game rewards can also have genre-wide consequences. A single-player RTS without a story campaign is considered incomplete by some players. On Sins of a Solar Empire (Ironclad Games, 2008): – why no single player campaign missions? On AI War: Fleet Command (Arcen Games, 2009): “I was disappointed that there is no story driven campaign.” Regardless of how refined the act of play is, the mere absence of a story dissuades some players from purchase. (Note that Arcen’s followup to AI War, Tidalis (2010), lampoons spurious collectibles and rewards yet sports a forgettable story mode.)
Those games that strip out cosmetic rewards, like the austere Sokobond (Hazelden & Lee, 2013) or your average 2D shooter, are naked and honest. Players can only enjoy these games if the challenge calls to them. They will climb these mountains because they are there.
The moral of the story is this: any analysis of Full Bore that asks why the player needs to solve puzzles demonstrates how contemporary player rewards undermine mechanics.
Electron Dance has articles pertaining to some of the games mentioned in this essay.