In Part I of this article, game designer and artist Taekwan Kim explains how player investment and the feeling of game progression do not only rely on plot but can be created largely through skill development as well.
Recently Altug Isigan posted an interesting article about stagnating plots affecting the player’s sense of progression. He mentioned two axes of experience in that article: plot and time. In this post I would like to point out and further analyze the other crucial axis to the experience of progression (aforementioned by Josh Bycer) which Isigan somewhat neglected: skill.
Let’s take a look at that hypothetical example he gave concerning a serial killer as an illustration of stagnating plot which destroys the feeling of progression:
"An ill-minded man with a butcher knife in his hand secretly enters the bathroom of a young woman which, unaware of all this, is taking a shower. With a sudden move the man opens the shower curtain and frantically stabs the young woman to death. Just as he’s finished, he realizes that a neighbor, an old prostitute, has witnessed the scene. He immediately goes to the neighboring home and kills her. Just as he’s finished, he realizes that another neighbor, a middle-aged nun, has witnessed the scene. He immediately goes to the neighboring home and kills her. Just as he’s finished, he realizes that another neighbor, a young cheerleader, has witnessed the scene. He immediately goes to the neighboring home and kills her. Just as he’s finished, he realizes that another neighbor, an old cleaning lady, has witnessed the scene. He immediately goes to the neighboring home and kills her."
I would have to agree that such a situation is patently absurd. And yet, one wonders whether the inability of the game to harness the ridiculousness of the situation itself is what would cause a detriment to the experience, and not actually the repetitiveness and horizontal non-development of plot. Let’s consider the above scenario seriously; how can we make this into a viable experience? Such an exercise would help establish that a game can have progress even when the plot is purportedly stagnant.
An initial question: how deep would the “pure action” (as worded by Isigan) be in this game (or how much skill is there to be learned and how much does that skill level impact player agency)? If it is a simple matter of just running over to the victim and pressing a button without any challenge at all, that would actually fail in any game pretty much regardless of how amazing a plot has been applied.
Actually this assumption of a lack of challenge is really the greatest hurdle as well as the greatest boon in implementing the above into a feasible game experience. The severity of the actions of the player vis-à-vis the implicit assumption of the wildly disproportionate helplessness of the victims destroys any chance for credible suspension of disbelief. But if we destroy this to begin through the use of a highly satirical tone (we can satirize the player’s assumptions that the [conspicuously exclusively female] victims are helpless, for instance), the primary problem disappears.
Say, the old prostitute is actually an undercover vice cop; the middle-aged nun is a recovering former assassin; the young cheerleader turns out to be a supremely fit killing machine; the old cleaning lady wields a volatile cocktail of toxic household cleaners and knows the ins and outs of the building like the back of her hand; etc. These “victims” would each provide their own unique set of challenges and cause the player to develop/exercise considerable skill.
Admittedly, the suspension of disbelief (if you could call it that) in such a game would rely heavily on the efficacy of the satire/writing. But at any rate, if the game mechanics were compelling and deep enough, the player would become invested in developing his skills in negotiating them despite a redundant (in every sense of that word) plot.
That is to say, the other assumption in the hypothetical case above is that the feeling of progression relies almost solely on plot, which is not necessarily true in games. There is no doubt that good writing and plot pacing contribute mightily to the player experience (and would, in this case, make the difference between thoughtful feminist critique of male power fantasies in core games and slasher flicks, or irredeemable and actually misogynistic camp). But the point is that suspension of disbelief which arises from a properly developing plot is, in fact, not entirely necessary when player investment and progression is created largely through skill development.
Counter-Strike (CS), for instance (a game Isigan mentioned as containing “climbing tension”), has absolutely no plot progression to speak of (this is not to say it doesn't have a "narrative"). It’s the same story of disarming/planting the same bomb at the same bomb site, or rescuing/preventing rescue of the same hostages from the same locations over and over, round after round. Condensed in this manner, CS is really no less redundant, and actually no less absurd, than his example of the serial killer who kills one victim after another. It is simply that CS provides a high level of complexity and a large number of opportunities for variations (and thus improvements) in the execution of these same, repetitive ludic goals.
[This article originally appeared on Taekwan Kim's Gamasutra blog.]
Taekwan Kim is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, with a degree in Cinema Studies and a minor in Fine Arts. When not dutifully engaged in the study of gameplay, he spends his time crafting mods and drafting design documents, some of which can be found at his website: www.taekwankim.com.