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Second Verse, Same As The First

A reflection on repetition in games, and why we should be careful of how we use it.

I was playing Red Dead Redemption, specifically the Undead Nightmare DLC. I had finished the main story of it -- which I enjoyed a great deal -- and I was looking at what I'd need to do to reach 100% completion.

I had done everything except for a string of missions in which you had to find a missing person, rescue them from the undead hordes, and bring them back to the safety of town. Apparently there were 16 of these types of missions in total, and I had decided to get them over with.

As I played, though, I realized something: each mission was essentially the same, despite changes in location and the person being rescued. And this was just not in a thematic sense; the gameplay was the same "kill a bunch of zombies and ride away with your damsel" over and over. I did about 8 of these missions before I decided I had had enough.

This instance is not an outlier in the grand sphere of games. Many are the times in which we are tasked to do similar actions over and over again. This can manifest as the dreaded level grind in an RPG to having to slay an annoying enemy in one's path for the 100th time. Again and again we are subject to repetition, and to me, it seems quite needless in most cases.

I must first qualify that repetition is not inherently bad. A game like Tetris, for example, has repetition as a key gameplay component as one's goal is to see how far they can get/how many points they can rack up. In the case of games like this -- games that have no real narratives -- repetition can be fine.

My issue is with games where narrative is important. And even then, repetition can sometimes be a good thing. To again use Red Dead Redemption as an example, John Marston is led astray time and time again by people who claim that they will help him find his bounty, and having the player experience this firsthand better communicates Marston's frustrations than if we were merely told of it.

My issue, then, is with seemingly needless repetition in narrative-focused games -- the apparent repetition for repetition's sake.

In a good book, every word has been chosen carefully. In a good film, every shot is meticulously planned out. In these cases, nothing is intended to be filler. Yet when it comes to games we plan for filler all the time.

Throw a few more enemies here, collect an arbitrary number of things, kill this enemy so many times for the chance of a drop, make this mission essentially like the last, etc. It is a common complaint in the industry that games are too long in general or not substantive enough, and yet we pad them with this material. Why can't we approach our games with stories with the same level of care we would approach other vehicles of story? Why can't we take the time and resources dedicated to these repetitive tasks and instead focus them on better ways to tell story via gameplay?

In the end, I suppose it is about what we want to communicate to the player. What does the repetition communicate/accomplish? If there isn't really a good answer for that question, then I think something must be re-evaluated.

In any case where we are telling a story, we should aim for quality, not quantity. The player's time is a valuable thing, and we must be careful not to squander it.

(This post can also be found here on my multi-purpose blog, Mulling Over The Multiverse.)

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