Sunday 27 January 2013

How does Affect affect Challenge in Video Games

What is challenge? Some people would consider meeting their in-laws a challenge. Other people would consider getting up in the morning a challenge. You could even consider answering the question ‘what is challenge?’ a challenge. As always, different people have different definitions and opinions. From a game perspective, I see it as a situation that you want to resolve, but that doesn't automatically resolve itself, unless you choose the correct actions at the correct time. Usually, these actions are limited by constraints: if you’re in-laws are particularly annoying, and you don’t want to meet them, punching them in the face may not be the best approach.

Shadow of the Colossus - To save your loved one, you must slay these peaceful giant creatures. When users become aware that they are slaying these wondrous beasts only for their own selfish reasons, they start feeling guilty when they go to slay the next one. This is how affect can influence the perception of challenge. 

Depending on the type of game, the focus is either on ‘the correct time’ (reactive or behavioural games), or on ‘the right actions’ (deliberative or cognitive games). For example, in Pac-Man, a reactive game, the player has to stay away from the ghosts, while picking up the pac-dots and fruit. If you’re not fast enough, the ghosts will catch you. Another example, while solving Sudokus, a deliberative game, the player has to fill in blanks while making sure that each field of each horizontal line, vertical line, and the 3x3 rectangles contains a unique number (1 to 9). If you add the wrong number to a blank field, then you might discover later on that the Sudoku can’t be solved any more (much to your frustration, as you have to redo the entire Sudoku).

Now, I believe that there is more to challenge. There is another branch of challenge, one that is more difficult to identify and to manipulate. It has to do with the affective state of the player; the emotions that the player experiences while playing the game. These have a major impact on the actions that they choose. For an example, think of a horror game. Typically, the game mechanics are quite challenging (again, punching the ghost in the face is probably not an action you can choose). For the player to progress in the game, they have to conquer their fear in addition to mastering the game mechanics. Focusing on these emotions is difficult; what if the player does not think it’s scary? Instead of becoming scared and running away, they may just find alternatives to dealing with the situation.

ZombiU - I would probably not stand around to smack a zombie in the head with a cricket bat...

Still, there are many games that target the emotions of the player. They use it for a diversity of reasons: story-related, to make the players think about the consequences of their action, or to build an atmosphere; game-play related, to make the game even harder to complete, or to give the player a certain experience. In the coming paragraphs I will discuss some examples. Do note, these examples do contain (sometimes massive) spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything more about one of these games, please do not read the corresponding paragraph.

Bastion shows how affective challenge can influence both game play mechanics and narration. At the very end of the game, the player has a choice to either take one of his former friends to safety, even though he has betrayed you before, or leave him behind, supposedly to die. If the player decides to take him away, the remaining level becomes a bit different from before. Previously, he could attack enemies and evade them to progress. Now, while holding his friend, he cannot attack, or evade, but enemies do continue to attack him. This does end though, after a while, as the enemies come to respect the player for saving his friend. However, this is still a confrontational section of the game in terms of emotions. First it deals with betrayal, would you save a friend who has betrayed you, and secondly it deals with the possibility of facing the game-over screen, what price are you willing to pay to save your friend…

Bastion - The underlying narrative of Bastion focuses on betrayal and forgiveness, which is reflected in the choice of saving Zulf or leaving him.

Another example is Final Fantasy VI. During your first run-through of the game, you get to know more of the story, identify the bad guys, gather a group of like-minded friends who will help you stand against these bad guys, challenge the bad guys to a final fight, and … lose. Then the world fast-forwards to a later stage, in which the world has been ransacked, you've lost all the party members you've acquired, and you are stranded in the middle of nowhere. This is a difficult section to go through for a number of issues. First of all, there is a mismatch between your expectations and the results; the bad guy is not supposed to win! Secondly, everything you took so much effort to rebuild is either gone or destroyed. This can take an emotional toll on the player, as they've invested much in the story so far, and will determine the way they interact with the game.

Final Fantasy VI - The world of ruin is a desolate place, reinforcing the idea that the player has lost, and there is no hope left.

Sometimes the affective challenge is part of the meta-game, such as in games like Super Meat Boy, Binding of Isaac, Bit Trip Runner, and so on. These games are traditionally quite ‘hardcore’, meaning that the level of challenge is quite high, and it’s easy to die. While this level of challenge is a large part of the reason why people quit, people often overlook the affective battle that is played out outside of the game. Usually, when you lose a game for the umpteenth time, you become extremely frustrated. To carry on, one must be able to deal with this frustration.

Super Meat Boy - Learning to deal with frustration, maybe Super Meat Boy can be considered an educational game!

Spec ops: The Line shows that affect can sometimes make you regret your actions. Halfway through the game, you’re stuck against a group of enemies (which of course is nothing new for typical FPS games). There are a lot of enemies, and you have the option to use a mortar to defend yourself. The problem with the mortar is that you don’t see exactly who you’re targeting. A little while later, you discover that instead of destroying just the ‘bad guys’, you've murdered a large group of civilians in cold blood (or in this case, white phosphorus). This is quite a sickening scene, and may cause players to stop playing the game. Either way, you won’t quite view the battlefield in the same way again.  

Spec Ops: The Line - There are few games that can make you regret your actions like this one. 

The Mass Effect series shows how choice can lead to emotions of uncertainty. Because of the promise that choice matters in this series, players usually get quite uncertain when they have to choose between two outcomes. This was particularly true when the second and third part of the series still had to be released, and no one was certain how it would play out. In the first part, from a gameplay perspective, it hardly mattered whether you chose Kaiden or Ashley (although if you saved the latter, you would miss out on some very awkward bro-mance between Kaiden and male Shepard). However, many people have difficulty choosing, or playing on after such a choice, as they are unable to deal with the possible consequences (which makes it even more frustrating that hardly any choice really had an impact in the end).

Mass Effect: Sometimes to do what's right, you must do wrong

The common theme above in the examples is the loss of control and the impact of actions. In a lot of games, players gain more control, and a greater understanding of the consequences of their actions (it would be interesting to see an inverse role-playing game, where the user actually becomes less powerful during the game). But when you start taking that away from them, you can create a sense of fear, surprise and frustration in the player. Usually, this doesn't happen a lot in big triple-A games. Like I said in a previous blog post, this might cause players to stop playing the game, frustration is something to be avoided. While I do understand, from a financial point of view, that there is little reason to invest in risk, affective challenges can lead to very unique exciting, and memorable moments in games. I think that we should be less worried that our games appeal to everybody, and focus more on stretching the boundaries of what we can do with and within games. If it’s one thing that we can learn from Mass Effect, it is that punching somebody in the face can sometimes lead to some very memorable game experiences!

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