YOU ARE HERE: How games have become domesticated
We don’t cry when we get lost in the mall anymore. We may very well try, but there is no need to: at the most all we have to do is press start and look up where we are. A map, a “You are here” indicator, and suddenly you are lost no more. Just like that.
Try to remember the last time you were lost in a game. When you had to wander aimlessly, trying to find something – even if you were still unsure of what you needed to find. In fact, when was the last time you discovered something in a game? Something cool that was not already stated in your objective list? When was the last time you found something that truly surprised you, like a secret dungeon or an item whose existences wasn’t already hinted by the vacant spot in your inventory?
Well, how far back did you have to go? I passed through a couple of Animal Crossings along the way, but was only able to find the “Era of Discovery” – when the blurb “Discover Planet X” on the back of a game box made sense – back in the days of the original Zelda and Metroid. Games during which we were asked to discover what we were supposed to be doing in the first place.
Now, games are domesticated. Not only have we grown familiar to their bizarre lexicon (cracked walls were meant to be exploded) but we always have the information of what to do and where to go directly at our fingertips, sometimes even before we have any real use for such information. As a result, games have become to-do lists. The contemporary quintessential videogame is nothing but a laundry list of things to do in order to get the 100% complete rate. What used to be surprises to be found became mere tasks to be fulfilled: “Defeat Riddler”; “Stop the bomb”; “Find 35 pieces of arrows”; “Help the villagers”; “Become the master of fighter’s guild”.
The more domesticated games are even worse. These games not only list what you have to do, but also how you should do it. The block you need to ground pound has the “ground pound” symbol on it. After pounding it, the game camera zooms in on whatever change that last action created so you know exactly where to go next. More “complex” puzzles will merely increase the string of activities you must complete before reaching that treasure chest. In which probably lies the exact thing your goal statement said you needed! Aren’t you lucky? Don’t you feel happy, boy? Now you can beat the level’s boss in a fashion almost exactly like the one we will now explain via this super tutorial sequence! Isn’t that nice, boy? Who’s a good boy? WHOSAGOODBOY?? You are!
We now take this for granted. We expect our games to have mini-maps to pin point exactly where we should be heading next, as if my medieval hero had a smartphone with him. It’s either that of that looming golden arrow that acts like Jack Sparrow’s magical compass on the top of the screen. After getting the treasure, we expect to see our progress rate increase in 1%. That way we can measure exactly where we are and have a notion of how much I need before completing the game.
In the world I’m from, this is called a project management tool.
It makes sense when we see each game we play as a different project. Projects – like games – are temporary endeavors directing us to go through a set of tasks in order to achieve a certain goal. A project management tool is meant for us to control our projects – and this is exactly why developers are giving us: the control to domesticate games. Before this, we weren’t able to see where we were going or how long that game-project was going to last. Remember Super Mario Bros. when it first came out? We didn’t know the princess would be at the 8th castle! There was nothing hinting that. We hoped she would eventually be in the same castle we were in, but finding which one was a surprise. Now, with theses tools, we a given a holistic view of the entire game and where we stand – but lost the element of surprise. The New Super Mario Bros. games not only show us how many levels there will be in total, but also the connection between themselves.
As a result, even if the game doesn’t offer a to-do list – which is actually rare these days!, we can mentalize one with the information given. Item 1 would be “beat World 1″, item 2 would be “beat World 2″, etc.
This domestication has little to do with the idea that games have become too complex, mind you. This trend comes even before the notion of casual gamers even existed. It’s not a question of making games easier or holding hands. We have some pretty good systems for that. Machinarium, for example, is a game with a help system that makes it impossible for someone not to finish it – and yet there is nothing in there trying to turn me into a project manager. The entire game simply unfolds as it happens and every inch of progress is a discovery.
When we talk about the issue of complexity, we are basically assuming the posit that “any game should be finished by anyone”. When discussing the issue of domestication, however, the posit developers have been assuming is that “any game must be manageable and should be 100% completed by anyone” and we are against that.
Basically, the domestication has to do with three things: the fear that, without direction, players will feel frustrated and abandon the game; the idea some publishers have that whatever resource used on something not discovered by the player is a waste, and the increasing desire from gamers and developers for tighter, better constructed stories.
That last one tells us the process of domestication will only accelerate from now on, for more plot means more direction. With plots, the notion of having one event following the other will start to matter. You can’t go after the Final Boss until the plot introduces you to the Fallen Masters and gives you the Sword for Slaying Final Bosses – unless, of course, you are Chrono Trigger (and then you would be awesome).
When plot didn’t matter, the discovery of an item, a boss or a new environment were themselves plot devices of the game’s emergent narrative. The only way games with strong plots can allow for that sense of discovery is when that plot either is flexible enough to allow not one or not two, but several sequences of events to take place or to incorporate that aimlessness as part of itself.
The second item is the trickiest one, for it arises from a shift of paradigm. It’s not uncommon to read reports or interviews of game makers complaining that only a small percentage of players fully finished their games. Their answer was to make the game structure evident. They thought that if we knew how much of the game we had left to complete, the chances we wouldn’t stop playing it until the 100% mark would increase – and they were certainly right: I am less likely to drop a game if I knew there was only 0,5% left for me to complete. But then again, the idea of the money spent on a game only being well spent if the game was completely beaten is somewhat recent. Games weren’t expected to be thoroughly devoured back then.
Saying that “any game should be finished by anyone”. is not the same as saying “any game must be completed by anyone”. The verb complete implies a 100% goal.
The internet, of course, played a big factor in it. The moment information of what a game contained became public and rapidly available, instead of being confined to the back pages of a game magazine or the conclaves with your school friends, game makers figured that the feeling of surprise might be a lost cause anyways, that there wasn’t any reason not to expose the game consummation structure anymore. Unless, of course, there was some kind of gamer that purposely avoided information telling him what to do in its games.
That gamer. That is our key.
Truth be told, not everybody is ready for playing games in the wild. Our market only managed to increase as developers and publishers fought to have games domesticated. That fear of players abandoning games when bored or due to a lack of direction? It’s totally justifiable. Most players do, in fact, need to be constantly doing something or going somewhere in order not to feel frustrated. The “best practices” we have now, like always stating what the goal of the player should be, were born from that very axiom.
Not everybody likes to be left without direction, crying in the mall. I certainly wouldn’t want ALL my games to be like the original The Legend of Zelda. Similarly, not everybody wants a game with plot, or a game with nothing but surprises or a game that unfolds before your eyes as your play it. But then again, the gaming environment would be very dry indeed if the only games available were the ones everybody wanted – the Greatest Common Denominator. That’s why we have niches.
Because it is exciting not to know where we are sometimes.