Welcome to the Electron Dance Advent calendar. Each day will bring another post from the archives.


Have you read The Dishonest Player posted on 20 February 2014?

Another slice of Electron Dance indignation! I’d become upset that Full Bore, a puzzle game I thought was pretty damn good, was insulted for not having enough in the way of rewards for completing puzzles. I thought the joy was in solving the puzzles? And it wasn’t the first time I’d seen this sentiment.

So I wrote about The Dishonest Player who says they want depth and none of that cheevo bullshit yet throws the toys out of the pram if the game doesn’t pat them on the head whenever they complete a challenge.

Go read it!

From the comments:

  • Shaun CG: “I’m conscious that it may sound like I’m becoming another Dark Souls bore” me too Shaun
  • James Patton: “My question is, if you dangle a reward in front of your player, which do you fall into?”
  • BeamSplashX: “Max Payne 2 makes it a point to put rewards at the end of every hallway- the original did not”
  • Matt W: “What about a book of crossword puzzles? Do we feel unfulfilled when we haven’t done every puzzle in the book?”

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8 thoughts on “Countdown 2016, 6: Gold Star For You

  1. Oh, that’s an interesting essay about rewards as possible game motivator! For me, again, the way is the goal. I enjoy games without rewards, like I ignored the main plot at Daggerfall and just roamed around the villages and towns, just in order to read books in their libraries (I remember my arrival to another foggy town, in the early morning, asking random sleepy NPSs about the next library and even breaking doors if it was out-of-hours). I knew, the in-game books and manuscripts of Daggerfall haven’t necessarily a literary value of a classic literature, but they were entertaining and immersive for the Elder Scrolls cosmology, so I read it, without any reward intentions.

    Later, I think already in Morrowind, reading books became rewardable like skill bonus points etc. This was for me a one-sided simplification of the in-game culture perception, since you could from now just open a book, get your points and the throw the book away. Here consumerism entered the arena of Tamriel.

    Sidenote: your countdown is amazing, thank you for this. I’m waiting everyday for your next re-view of your essays, and wonder myself, why I haven’t discovered your webside earlier 🙂

  2. So, yes, we’ve gone back to the problem of rewards again. I’m not going to suggest rewards rewards need to be eradicated. They have their place and if you’re making a narrative game, it is a grey area whether your story drops are functioning as reward or whether they are core game (this is a much, much bigger topic which I’m not going to touch on here).

    But it’s quite clear that rewards are undermining some games. And I don’t mean from the inside, I mean in terms of context. If players expect rewards, those games that do not offer anything tangible or concrete can be interpreted as *incomplete*. If only we had an example from recent times… No *cough* Man’s *cough* Sky.

    Because games were expensive, we often made our own goals to extend the longevity of a game. these days, we expect more formal goals, and we expect them to recognised.

    (Thanks for enjoying the Countdown. I’ve been meaning to do something like this for a long time.)

  3. Perhaps I’m too off the track but…A game where discoveries as rewards are part of contents… “Her Story”? A narrative driven by… narrative? I used sometimes to input random keywords into database, and every found part was definitely rewarded with small step towards the solution of mystery around the protagonist.

  4. So the long-awaited Closure level select rant is on-topic here, because it’s also a rant about rewards and goals. Well, on-topic compared to my usual. (Earlier discussion of level select screens in comments here, though the best part is my thing about the clone Freds at the bottom.)

    Here’s how Closure works: For most of the game, there’s three separate sets of levels that you proceed through linearly. When you start up, there’s an in-engine level select where you walk through a door to one of those sets of levels, then walk to a set of doors to the last level you unlocked, and then a little animation plays as your character turns into the PC for this level. This is kind of annoying to go through every time you boot up (especially the “turning into the PC animation” is redundant after the fifth time). But once you’re in the levels, when you finish one you just go on to the next.

    When you finish all three sets of levels, another door in the level select screen unlocks, taking you to a new set of harder levels (I think these can be played in any order). And when you finish those a giant door in that level select screen unlocks. Therein lies the problem.

    You see, though you can go to that door any time you’ve unlocked it, what happens in that is that you do a little thematic exercise, and then you get a new kind of level… in which you will die very soon. Because in order to compete the final level, you need to have found every single one of thirty hidden rewards scattered throughout the 72 main levels. You’ll have naturally found a few of these but not all. It’s not very well communicated that you can’t finish the final level until you have every reward; the counter above the door looks like the counters above the doors on the main screen, which tell you how many of the levels behind that door that you’ve unlocked. But that’s not the main issue.

    The main issue is that everything is driving you toward finishing this level, and even if you know that you have to collect thirty collectables, the level select screen is fighting you as hard as you can in getting them. To begin with, it’s generally not apparent from within a level that it has a collectable (inevitable given the mechanics where you usually can’t see most of the level till you’re right there, and things you can’t see don’t exist). From the level select screen, there’s a mark above the door to a level when you’ve collected something in it, and there are marks above the door when there’s a collectable you haven’t collected–but those marks don’t show up until you’ve collected fifteen of them. Which is fairly tedious when you don’t know where they can be found.

    And even when you have unlocked those marks, the level select mechanism is fighting you. The game is designed around uninterrupted movement through the levels. If you want to skip around in levels to hunt collectables, you have to quit from a level all the way to the main level select screen, walk to the door for the world you want, walk to the door to the level with the mark for the uncollected collectable, and watch that animation where you turn into the PC, before you can start playing. Repeat for the next time you want to skip a level. There were times when I would think “Is it less annoying to go back to the level select screen or just play through two levels to get to the one I want to reach?” That’s not what you want your players to feel.

    Which wouldn’t be so bad except (here’s where we get on topic) the game really wants you to get all those collectables. There’s this giant door I unlocked with a final level that I die in the middle of if I don’t have the collectables. I could walk away after finishing the main levels and say “I’m done”–but it doesn’t feel like I’m done! I haven’t finished what’s behind this huge door and I haven’t seen the credit roll! The intrinsic challenge of getting the collectables and finishing the level isn’t that rewarding (one of the collectables in particular is a blatant Walkthrough Special), but without it I feel unfulfilled.

    NightSky is another contrast. It also has sets of levels that unlock linearly, and it also has content that can only be unlocked by finding collectables–but the content is clearly signaled as a bonus; it’s after the level that gives you the ending of the story, it has distinct art and music, and there’s no special reward for finishing (it puts you back on the main level select screen, just like finishing any other world). Also moving from level to level is frictionless and there’s no goofing around with forcing you to unlock the thing that tells you which levels have collectables. Here the collectables are decidedly an optional challenge. Whereas in Closure they should be an optional challenge, and the level select is designed as if they were an optional challenge, but the presentation of the final stages doesn’t make them seem optional.

    In conclusion: Put your credit rolls earlier! (This applies to Crayon Physics too.) If you signal that the player has done what they need to do, and the rest is an optional bonus challenge, they’ll feel more chill about actually doing the bonus.

  5. I know you’re sick of talking about it by now, but I think it would be fruitful to reconsider your criticisms of The Witness in this light. It seems to me that the vast majority of people who were into the puzzle-solving but found the game lacking were victims of this problem. The satisfaction of solving the puzzles and the enjoyment of the cleverness and beauty in the landscape weren’t sufficient in themselves, they were lacking because they didn’t *mean* anything.

  6. merzmensch: Good call. I think we can think more broadly that all IF games are like this, they’re not about a big reward at the end but a constant narrative exploration. They are all reward.

    Urthman: hmm… maybe? The odd thing about The Witness is that most of its puzzles merely give you access to more puzzles. The reward is more game, it’s always “more game”. Like, at a certain point, I wasn’t expecting anything in the way of revelations because it seemed so diffuse and scattershot (so I was totally surprised to discover there was A Story) and perhaps a lot of people just gritted their teeth through all of it, hoping for some crumb of understanding, and assumed Jonathan Blow hates them. And of course for The Witness to hand out rewards would be so anathema to its theme.

  7. Joel: “I think we can think more broadly that all IF games are like this, they’re not about a big reward at the end but a constant narrative exploration. They are all reward.”

    Ooh, I don’t know about this one. Puzzly IF games (often but not always the kind where you type commands as opposed to the kind where you link) are much more likely to be of the typical narrative-as-reward structure–you figured out that you need to be holding the shield in order to get past the explosion in the laboratory, congratulations, now you can get somewhere where you find another part of the story (and also more puzzles)! Her Story is unusual in that the puzzle is figuring out what’s going on in the story and also that figuring out what’s going on mechanically unlocks more stuff (as opposed to something like 30 Flights of Loving where you can basically find out everything the game’s going to reveal with you without understanding it, but piecing it together is still a puzzle). There are a couple other games with that structure–Analogue: A Hate Story, and maybe some of Emily Short’s conversation games like Alabaster–but it’s not usual.

  8. Matt, okay you got me. What is with the people in these comments proving I’m wrong all the time?


    I mean I agree and do not disagree at the same time. I guess what I mean is a good piece of traditional parser IF – to make the distinction here from something like modern work from inkle or Failbetter – is a careful exploration of the possible interactions in the game’s narrative space. In an action game, it’s often about negotiating the challenge and that negotiation is an experience but, in itself, provides no “rewarding” content.

    Whereas in IF, even failed attempts to solve puzzles often yield clues, jokes or interesting vignettes. Bad IF is intensely focused on the correct verb/noun couplings and this was partly due to keeping the memory footprints under control in the beginning. Unfortunately that tradition, championed by Scott Adams held on for rather longer than it should.

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