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  • Breaking The Gameplay Loop

    [06.21.18]
    - Gregory Pellechi
  • Games are a series of loops. Life and Death are a loop. Time may in fact be a flat circle, which is just another way of describing a loop. Repetition is the essence of our day, our entertainment, and our stories. Repetition is essential to establishing believable characters, ones we can expect to always act the same way. But repetition isn't growth.

    "I think it's very important to have a feedback loop, where you're constantly thinking about what you've done and how you could be doing better." - Elon Musk

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    Have you ever wondered what it is about Batman, Spider-Man or other superheroes that keeps people coming back? Or for that matter why Sherlock Holmes is still interesting after all these years?

    Different writers have their takes on those characters but by and large while the aesthetics may change the characters still act the same. It's a frustrating aspect of series when you as a reader/viewer/player want to have a story where things change. But it's an aspect of writing that enables series to continue for years or decades in some cases.

    Just look at the Simpsons, little has changed in the intervening years since the show's creation. And it shows in its outdated stereotypes and jokes. Yes occasionally a character may die or get married. That's rare though. I've by no means watched the entirety of the show, but I know from my random viewings that things are much the same as they ever were. Before we can talk about breaking the loop we need to talk about what that loop is.

    In game terms the loop is a series of actions the player can take. For stories, that loop is how the characters behave. By behavior I mean what the reader/viewer/player can expect a character to do given a certain situation. The most iconic characters across media will always do the same thing - not as one another - but as they've done in previous iterations.

    Ellen Ripley will warn people, then try to work as a team, before having to do it all herself to save the day. Veronica Mars will crack wise, go undercover and ferret out the truth. Velma from Scooby Doo will say "jinkies" every time she finds a clue, plot out the best way to catch the criminal, and generally be the only person in the Mystery Machine with an sense - both fashion and common.

    In comic books we know Batman has a plan, Superman will do everything he can, Wolverine will get violent, etc. In video games it gets a bit more complicated. Mainly because we have mechanics and gameplay loops to be concerned with and how they reflect upon the character.

    Some games, like those of the Halo series, have the gameplay loop and mechanics closely tied to what the character would do. In the Master Chief's case that's kill with all the firepower he can bring to bear. He's a man of few words but lots of actions, so the cut scenes are the times with the least amount happening. It's why the game, at least to me, feels cohesive and actions are never out of character for the Master Chief.

    Other games, like those of the Uncharted series, are commonly criticized for the absurd body count players rack up when they are ostensibly rogues and explorers, more Indiana Jones or Han Solo, than trained soldiers. But even Uncharted and its creators know at times you have to break the loop.

    That's why they give you the opportunity to stop and explore the Tibetan village in Uncharted 2 should you want to. Otherwise you can run through the place and get on with your adventure in two minutes. But that break, whether for two minutes or 20 is one that takes the player and the character out of the loop. There's no combat, there's no climbing or sneaking, and there's no puzzles to solve. It's a world that lets one walk around and explore in peace. Something a lot of games rarely give you.

    That's why it's so interesting to see a AAA game like Assassin's Creed Origins provide a mode where combat is not the purpose. Sadly you can't play the game in this mode, merely explore the world. That change of pace is no different from varying the outcome of different sections of your story, as I mentioned in Try Fail Cycles.

    Some games work change of pace into their loops. The Wolfenstein series from Machine Games is a great example. It goes from bombastic combat, to quiet stealth sections, to heart touching moments of tenderness as you converse with other characters. It can cause whiplash in how quickly it jumps from one style to the next, but it can never be accused of being boring.

    Yet even with all of that the issue remains - B.J. Blazkowicz doesn't change in any meaningful way as a player. Yes at the beginning of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus he's going to be a dad and trying to come to terms with what that means in a world ridden by conflict. He as a character never ceases to fight though.

    That's one of my major issues with game narratives - the characters never seek a different method of solving their problems. And it may be the antithesis of what a game is meant to be. After all, designing systems is difficult and making them interesting is more so. But time and again there seems to be little interest or thought put into the context of those systems and what they mean. People are designing for a feeling but never exploring a feeling to its fullest extent.

    Take happiness for example - you can't, not you shouldn't be happy all the time. Otherwise you lose all context for what happiness is. Your base line becomes a plateau that gives you no joy. Experiencing other emotions in relation to happiness showcases all the possible ways one can be happy. You'd never experience the bittersweet happiness of someone else's success if there isn't a bit of loss for you in that event.

    Games so often seem afraid of testing out more complex emotions or scenarios beyond the bog standard. It's why jump scares are so readily relied upon in horror games, or bullet sponges are so predominant in any form of shooters. Not all games are though. My favorite game to talk about Firewatch, is one such game that explores complex emotions of love, longing, self-incrimination and more.

    The Last of Us also seeks to explore what it means to be a parent and the sacrifices that come with that. Parenting to some may not seem like an emotion, but as an experience it's multitudinous in the feelings it evokes within you. You experience frustration, joy, rage, delight, despair and everything else. It's in part why as game developers have aged they've started to explore parenthood more.

    For games that truly explore a range of emotions you need look no further than Interactive Fiction. It doesn't matter what the engine is - Ink, Twine, ChoiceScript, RenPy, Inform or TADS. The limited mechanics in those games requires a greater emphasis on the story and the writing.

    But for those of us writing in more mainstream forms of games, what can we do?

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