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Let's Talk About The 'Experience' Of Playing Games

I just wanted to vent some thoughts about experience of play and what needs to change for games to tap the potential of interactivity to provide a real experience during play - paralleling it with my own experience of going to GDC China.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar, Blogger

January 19, 2011

9 Min Read

(This is a post from my blog TheDoglion)

In Shanghai on the second day of GDC

In Shanghai on the second day of GDC

What is experience? I don't mean experience points or the improvement of a skill by being exposed to real life situations. I mean the entirety of the feelings, the emotional states and the mental states that something can put you through.

Last month, I went to GDC China, which meant I had a trip from Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar to Shanghai. I went to the border with a night train and my friend and I shared a compartment with an older couple. They were fun people and told us about life in socialist times.

Then, they told us about their kids and their work - prison inspectors. We had a lot of fun conversing and when we came to the border we parted ways. Going over the border it was the first time I went to China, and I remember the border troops directing the cars, the Chinese scripts and how empty the town (Erlian) was from the Mongolian one (Zamiin Uud).

I remember how it was so early that there were no cars, no people and it was a little bit eerie. Then we went to Beijing with a sleeper bus, which was so uncomfortable, and stinky. I remember how we made a stop in the middle of the night somewhere in the country side of Northern China and didn't want to have food, because we weren't hungry and willing to deal with the others who were hustling to get their meals quickly.

Jumping forward, I remember when we were in Beijing, we missed our train to Tianjin, from where we had to catch our flight. In the hurry, my buddy lost his phone, then we lost each other, found each other, went to Tianjin only to realize that it was too late and we missed out flight. Oh man, that was a bummer.

We had to go back to Beijing, get tickets for the night train to Shanghai, which we did. I remember how we bought one 100g bottle of strong Chinese alcohol each, drank them in the train to stop stressing that much and celebrate our adventure. And we didn't know the smallest amount of Chinese during all that.

THAT is an experience.

A sequence of ups and downs, a sequence of differing feelings, complete shifts of states of mind. Seeing new things, actually having to actively deal with your surroundings, because things are so unusual and new and interesting.

A movie can be an experience. I believe that the art of film making is a lot about putting people through different states of mind by exposing them to dialog and imagery designed to lead them to the desired states. Why was it so shocking in From Dusk Till Dawn when it turned out they were all vampires?

Because the movie spent so much time making us believe that it was a cool gangster movie. It had George Clooney being a rogue type guy, it had the pacing, the elements of such a movie, and then it completely broke with that flow to shock the audience. I felt that this was damn cool.

What I believe needs to change in games is that designers should realize that every little thing that is in the game that can be sensed by the player is their arsenal. It can be music, it can be graphics and a new weapon. But it can also be a camera angle, it can be a line of dialog said to the player at the right moment, it can be the proportion between the size of objects vs the player and so many other things. Designers are free to tweak everything if it serves the purpose of pushing the player into an emotional state.

Some of the memorable moments I remember when playing games were:

  1. A puzzle in Half-Life 2 where I lifted a plane of wood drifting on water by putting a canister filled with air below it, effectively building a ramp for myself. The first time I encountered a puzzle based on physics. It made the game feel scarily real. 

  2. The f*cking dog in Resident Evil 1 jumping out of the window. 

  3. The first 3 seconds of GTA3 when I drove the car down that bridge and realized I could go anywhere in that city. It was like a breath of fresh air - no more limited levels! I can go on a rampage and escape with a car 3 miles from here! It was a feeling of freedom. 

  4. The first time I got out of Midgar in FF7 and saw the world map for the first time. All that stuff before happened in ONE city?! And now I can go to ALL THESE OTHER CITIES? A feeling of epicness overcame me.

  5. Omaha Beach in Medal of Honor Allied Assault, the chaos of the fighting, comrades dying around me constantly and the feeling of achievement getting behind the covers. 

These are just some of the moments in games that really stuck, because they were by themselves real experiences. None of these were cut scenes, and none of these were actually connected to the stories their respective games had.

Today you have so many games just telling you about the experience the characters in them go through. Sarah Kerrigan was betrayed and sacrificed. Oh well. She is really pissed off. So? I don't feel betrayed. I mean, I understand that somebody would get really angry about such a thing, but nobody betrayed me, so I don't feel a personal motivation to get my revenge. Most games are just telling stories, and they borrow the means of other media (text and cut scenes) to get their point across. Games should not tell stories so much as put us through them.

Why was Half-Life a cool experience? Not because Gordon Freeman was such a likable guy and it was interesting controlling him through those hard hours at Black Mesa. It was cool because I was going through hard hours. Don't get me wrong - games that just tell stories to the largely passive player aren't actually bad. They just aren't living up to the potential experience a game could offer. Instead of getting better and better at telling stories, game designers should get better of creating the circumstances that allow players to stumble into their own personal experiences.

The thing is that cut scenes are not an entirely undesirable pimple upon the game's face. They have their use. They can sit us down and introduce the personality and way of thinking that the hero we are playing has. Things that are too hard, and not always wanted to do by interactivity. But the actual action in a game should always be highly interactive. Again, designers are free to utilize whatever they have in their arsenal.

Imagine a game where you play as a little girl who feels inadequate and small. She feels like the world is big and bad. One could simply show her in a cut scene being wimpy and shy. But it could also be done be actually making everything else subtly bigger than it usually would be, just a bit, enough to put the player just that small amount off center. Make the player feel inadequate, without clearly stating that the girl they're playing has that mind set. Make the player enter that mindset by themselves.

Look at Clarice Sterling in the Silence of the Lambs. She is a youngster cop, and she is always confronted by male figures throughout the movie. They intimidate her and make her feel like an alien with the cold and sometimes disrespectful way they treat her. But then there is a scene where she has the authority over a room full of male cops, and she has to send them out. She is not a wuss, but she is clearly uncomfortable. The camera goes into her point of view, and has those cops looking into the camera the way they look at her. For a moment, the audience clearly gets to feel and understand what Clarice is going through and has to deal with. We get her.

How could a game make you feel betrayed like Kerrigan? Well, have the game betray the player! Build up the player's expectation that they'll be helped in a moment of trouble. Have the game help the player (reinforcements, bonus items lying around and what not) build up that mindset that "Oh that's a lot of enemies, but it happened before and somehow I'll get a power up or a cut scene will appear and reinforcements will arrive like in the previous level." and then have the player deal with the enemies, have them coming and coming and coming and the player will micro for his life.

He might even push the button to call his mercs, but they won't arrive. He'll drown and it's game over, the player feels betrayed, angry and doesn't know why this happened. And THEN you can have a cut scene showing Raynor's fury at Mengsk.

To be fair, StarCraft was never about that kind of experience, what with the hopping between protagonists etc, but you get my point.

I want to play a game that puts me through an adventure. It doesn't have to be killing monsters or people. It can be something as unspecial as my little trip to Shanghai. But make it so that the player gets to feel the frustrations and euphoria and stress and discomfort and fun that I had when going there. Make it so that the player actually feels like he/she had the almost exact same experience I had (given the constraints of technology).

For every emotion and frame of mind I was in, the game designer has EVERY freedom to change what the hell he/she wants in order for the game to achieve that effect. If the game must change from first person to third person, so be it. If the game has to change into a 2D platformer for a few minutes, so be it. If the game has to frustrate the player with an unreachable objective and have him try and try and try just to realize it isn't possible, so be it. Make the player go through an ordeal if only to blow the happiness of actually arriving at the hotel at the end out of normal proportion into the actual proportion, so be it!

Because believe me, it was SO relieved to check in there.

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