Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

We Need to Kill WHAT to Make Better Games…?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 12, 2012

I said on Twitter that there was so much wrong with this article I didn’t know where to begin. But now I’ll begin. First off, the article in question

Why We Need to Kill Gameplay to Make Better Games

First I’ll cover the points of agreement. The author is absolutely right when he says, “I think than when we’re focused on overcoming a challenge – we try to kill an attacker or win a race – we go into savage beast’s survival mode and shut ourselves down for any “higher class” emotions. Our vision gets extremely narrow, and we’re no longer multi-tasking. Beating the challenge becomes the only thing that matters.”

I’ve said something similar myself several times. It’s why gameplay and storytelling are fundamentally at odds, and why striking a good balance between them means neither is going to be as strong as they’d be all by themselves. Deal with it. Hopefully we’ll achieve something more than the sum of the parts when we’re done. It’s why designing games is still more art than science. But here, the author seems to be arguing that gameplay should be sacrificed on the altar of spectacle, because spectacle is more memorable.

Okay. This dude is a seasoned game design vet, so it’s not like his opinion should be dismissed out of hand. And I think that above quote captures the crux of the matter.

Similarly, I could argue that many of my favorite moments in games were purely gameplay-related. I had a series of articles many years ago entitled “Game Moments,” and only a few of them (Wolfenstein 3D, Unreal, and Ultima 7, that I can recall) had moments that were most memorable to me because of a canned event.  The rest were most memorable because of things that happened organically as a result of choices that I made. Like the first time I won a diplomatic victory in Master of Orion, because I stifled the urge for revenge and spent the game arming combatants as a “neutral” third party through the entire campaign. Or the time the demon snuck up on me in Doom.  Or several key moments in Falcon 4.0. Or that time my group was getting hammered in EverQuest due to an aggro bug, but we managed to stick with it and barely stay alive through aggressive teamwork and an unwillingness for anybody to be the first one to run away (and lemme tell you, the XP we got that night was tremendous!). Or my first co-op game of Doom. Or going head-to-head against a friend in Rainbow Six where we knew each other so well we practically mirrored each other’s moves.  Or getting teleported into a random dungeon across the world, and surviving the hours-long search for the exit in spite of debilitating disease in Daggerfall. Or that time I mistook a plant for the reappearance of Alma in F.E.A.R. More recent examples would include managing to squeak out a victory without a single death battling the final monster in Borderlands 2, though I spent half the time cowering behind rocks.  Or finally taking out that friggin’ Balor demon (and friends) in Knights of the Chalice. Or defeating an entire wave of aliens without a single injury during the alien’s turn via Overwatch and good placement (not to mention good luck)  in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Or that two-tank surprise we got one night in Left 4 Dead 2

Also, if a game is completely awesome from start to finish, a perfect balance of moment-to-moment gameplay and exploration, but lacks significant stand-out moments, is it a failure?

So in that respect, I think I reject the article’s premise. Maybe the author is more enthralled by little non-interactive details and cutscenes and activities in games with no gameplay value… and that’s great. For me, that’s icing on the cake. A great game, one could argue, might even require these things, built on top of a solid game. But saying that this means we should “should drop regular gameplay, with all its core combat loops, gameplay mechanics and other voodoo?”

That’s about like saying that since hot dogs are so awesome at a baseball game, we should just drop the baseball games and instead just eat the hot dogs.

Now, I haven’t played The Walking Dead, the evidence he uses to illustrate his point, so maybe I’ll become a believer once I get around to playing it, but I doubt it.

Instead, I read the conclusion of the article and think, “This guy is describing non-interactive media, like movies. He’d rather be making movies.” Or maybe questionably game-like titles like Dear Esther, which I confess left me surprisingly unexcited after all the hullabaloo. I ‘played’ it and found myself uninterested in the narrative, because it quite simply had nothing to do with me, the player, or what I was doing in the game. All I felt was a vague curiosity about trying to find the context in which I found myself on this island.That was enough to keep me playing for about twenty minutes or so, but not enough to get me to play it again after one session.

Or maybe he’s going after a Chris Crawford-esque vision quest for true interactive storytelling. I can give this pursuit a little more credit. In my mind, this simply means that we’re in disagreement over the meaning of gameplay, and I may simply have a broader definition than he does.  For me, the constant vaguely goal-related tinkering of The Sims counts as gameplay. It is not the hyperactive run-and-gun of a hardcore platformer or FPS, or the frantic moment-to-moment decision-making for a real-time-strategy game. But its no less gameplay to me. Wandering around the landscape of Frayed Knights or any other RPG looking for interesting things to mess with is no less gameplay to me than a combat sequence. To me, gameplay is a combination of interesting decisions (Sid Meier’s description of a “good game”) and challenging execution – and can literally encompass any mix of these two elements, including the extremes of having all of one and none of the other. Maybe the author is thinking exclusively of the latter type?

I’ll credit the article with one more point: We still don’t understand games. This is a good thing. We’ve still got a ton of room to explore. While I’m not a fan of Dear Esther, I appreciate the fact that the creator was willing to push some boundaries and explore some of the fringes of the medium. We need plenty of that, even though the results will often be less than awesome. It’s how we discover. But while perhaps the meaning of gameplay is happily subject to debate, I think it remains the foundation without which these “memorable moments” are meaningless.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 20 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    I think a lot of game devs would rather be making movies. They don’t trust the gamer to make the “right” decisions and find the “right” fun.

    To be sure, I like the story-heavy Final Fantasy games for what they are, but they really *could* be movies and retain the fun of the narrative. The fun of their gameplay stands apart as a different animal. Sure, the play can have deeper resonance if I care about the characters, but I do often look at the FF games as prime examples of two bits of entertainment stapled together, rather than mixed into a nice conglomerate.

    I wish we’d see more of that in games; finely mixed creations, rather than heavily authored set pieces with a litlte gameplay in between segments.

    …then again, I’m biased, since I love the directionless nature of MineCraft, and I have a strong antiauthoritarian streak. I play games precisely because I want to control the experience. If I want a barely intereactive movie, I’ll just watch a DVD and pause it every so often and play MineCraft to cleanse the palate.

  • Jackson said,

    That article annoyed me, I was gonna write a counter article but I’m glad you did. I just think any sort of huge value judgement like that really discredits a big chunk of work that designers have done. I’d rather the author make a game like he describes, and then write a post-mortem of whether his hypothesis still holds true and what he learned from the experience.

  • Charles said,

    I think that might have been link bait… In which case you fell for it 😉

    Off to watch a DVD, and have myself, hopefully, a great “gameplayless moment”.

  • McTeddy said,

    Oh gee… the most memorable parts of highly-cinematic-narrative games were narrative and cinematic? This guy is good!

    He seems to leave out that there are more than one kind of game. I fondly remember game play moments from Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy despite not remembering anything about the overall narrative. Different types of games have different highs and lows… different players enjoy different things.

    As such, some games are made with the intention of telling a story while others are made for playing. We don’t need to kill either… we just need to realize that games aren’t all the same and that is a good thing.

    There is room in game design for extremely complex simulations… simplistic arcade game… interactive novellas and casual time wasters. There is nothing wrong any of these even if I don’t enjoy them… and even if some are VERY small niche markets.

    Call me crazy… but I thinks it’s a good thing that not all games are created to satisfy ME. (Though I wouldn’t mind a few more since I do feel left out sometimes)

  • Albert1 said,

    In my opinion Unreal 1 had the best story in a game ever.
    The fact that, from a narrative point of view, it’s hard to even define it “a story” is where the difference between videogames and other media lies. In Unreal 1 there was as much story as the player wanted. The developers set a detailed enough world to make the player “speculate” on what was actually happening. An example. In one of the last levels (Nali castle?) there is a cemetery nearby the castle: in this cemetery there’s a Nali ghost! The first couple of times I played Unreal I just smiled, and nothing more. However, the last time I played the game (almost 10 years ago) I started wondering whether the reason a dead Nali leaves a ghost is similar to human folklore i.e. he/she was killed and is now seeking revenge, etc. I also thought that maybe Nali ghosts scare their people, like ghosts are “supposed to do” with us. I believe the designer of that level hardly thought about all these things: he probably thought it was cool to place a ghost in the map, and nothing else. Yet, it added a detail my imagination worked on, making that experience truly memorable. And probably unique.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    One of my favourite gaming moments:

    Winning a battle in Mount & Blade: Warband (w/Floris).

    The battle in question? I had a little over 160 longbowmen (and similar high level archers – swadian faction) and defeated a vast Sarranid army lead by their leader Sultan Hakim (some 900 troops of varying levels, over half were lower level footsoldiers).

    The magnitude of the battle was immense, with 300 units on the map at a time, and the Sarranids having many waves of reinforcements. Thankfully, I’d managed to get a lucky location. My archers were sat on a small hill above a river, meaning the enemy cavalry were ineffective.

    The battle helped turn the tide of the war (for a while at least, until my idiot king started multiple concurrent wars). Felt like my Crecy. Exhaustingly long battle though, but something that you rarely get in gaming these days.

    Also, I’d like to heartily recommend “The Stanley Parable”, a source mod that I played because I thought it would be a bit like Dear Esther but it’s so very different and amazing (and there’s going to be an upgraded, expanded and updated version at some point).

    Stanley Parable mod: http://www.moddb.com/mods/the-stanley-parable

    Video for HD remix: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bB4AR5Crb54

  • automata said,

    So, we’re going to be charged $60 for movies, with worse “graphics”, stories (arguably), accessibility (through DRM, DLCs, patches, etc), and/or direction now?

  • Felix said,

    Exactly, automata! That is why these people are making games, even though they should be making movies: because they can ask for three times more money per copy.

    It’s not an artistic statement. It’s pure greed, and I think we can safely ignore the opinions of “game designers” who hate the very essence of games.

  • Laura said,

    I would have thought you have to kill the Marketting Department.

  • adorna said,

    hmm.. I remeber that back when FF10 was sort of new I tried to talk a female friend into playing with me (she hated computergames up to then becasue she couldn’t relate to them and found them boring)
    I argued, that in a movie, you have the classic “journey of the hero” – but you skip right through the journey part. You are sort of informed and get a scene or two of them batteling evil.. but then the film skips right to the “big things”
    a JRPG isn’t a movie – especially because you get to spend time with the charcter and the world. You don’t get told “and he battled a thousand foes, made new friends and then arrived at the castle” – you battle thousand foes. You rescue, bribe or overpower people who become your friends. You get lost, run out of supplies and almost die a thousand times over. So when you face the final battle – you haven’t just been told that the charcter is a hero – you know he is. You know how much he changed, and had to grow and what he left behind and seeing him winning means so much more to you. Becasue by being a part of his life for a time, he became a part of yours.

    So – what I’m trying to say is that even in games that seem to put little emphasis on gameplay, the good ones are still very different from just watching the cutscenes. Personally, I’ve never grown fond of survival horror games becasue the tension is so different betewwn cutscenes and gameplay, but still the offer more than just narrative and are more than the sum of their parts.
    I think – keeping narrative and gameplay in the same “tone” might be more cruxial, than skippng one of the two.

  • CdrJameson said,

    Driving around in my car listening to the radio was fun in Vice City – but only because of the context of the city and my knowledge and experience of it that playing the game created.

    Watching a video of someone driving a car through somewhere with the same music would have been rubbish.

  • adorna said,

    (snarky second comment – sorry about that)

    When you talk to people, leaving a cinema, they naver talk about the story of a movie, the talk about special effects and funny charcter lines. So why bother them with story archs and such?
    We could just produce the perfect movie (on a tight budget) by having a few people in a room, making funny comments to each other and then, suddenly one of them explodes, another falls through the floor and so on.
    It would be perfect, right?

  • Brian said,

    I still consider mass effect a graphic example of what happens when you refocus a game midstream from gameplay to narrative. The first game was extremely well balanced in both factors, but the latter two focused less and less on gameplay and far too much on narrative, leaving those last two as vaguely unsatisfying (aside from a truly miserable ending)
    I haven’t touched commercial games since.

  • TheStrangeAndConflictingEmotionsOfSeparationAndBetrayal said,

    Flaws in the premise. . . if you can find 20 people whose most awesome moment in Bioshock was entering Rapture, I’ll owe you a coke. No, I’m guessing you’ll get a mix of “the first time I ran into a Big Daddy and Little Sister” and “The first time I defeated a Big Daddy and then was faced with what to do with the Sister”, and “the first time I used some really awesome combination of powers to destroy 5 enemies”, and lastly, that conversation. You know the one. A “non gameplay” moment, yes. Except that it’s full emtional impact hinges precisely on all the gameplay that came before. The veil being pulled back is only relevant in light of that.

    GTA3? Driving around in cars listening to music is part of the game. In sandbox games like that moving around in the game world is a hugely important part of the game. Blizzard came to understand this when they put jumping in. And arguably driving around listening to tunes in GTAX isn’t as compelling as traversing the gameworld in Crackdown (or put it another way; add cool radio stations you can pick up on headset in Crackdown and that experience is unparalleled).

    Modern Warfare 2’s airport sequence involves actual gameplay. It’s the gameplay that makes it so visceral. Though I found the emotional impact of it underwhelming frankly.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Watching a video of someone driving a car through somewhere with the same music would have been rubbish.

    While I personally agree with you there, we may be in the minority. Kids these days seem more content to watch other people play a game and have fun on YouTube than play the game themselves.

  • Xenovore said,

    This dude is a seasoned game design vet, so it’s not like his opinion should be dismissed out of hand.

    I’m going to dismiss it completely; to me he comes across as a total noob. (And by association, I’m also dismissing The Astronauts and anything they create.) “Seasoned” or not, he obviously doesn’t get it; there are better — more immersive — ways to tell a narrative in a game than with cinematics.

    I mean, this is the sort of game design that at best annoys me, but more often just completely pisses me off because instead of letting me play the game I’m either forced to watch some cutscene, or being railroaded to the next cutscene!

    There are two main things that make games memorable for me: 1) Focus on creating world, and 2) multi-player. So for me, the games with the most memorable moments are games like Half-life, L4D, Farcry 2, Everquest, World of Warcraft, Borderlands, the Elder Scrolls games, the Rainbow 6 games, the Quake games, the Doom games… Not once, in all my years of playing video games, has a cinematic made me go, “Wow, I gotta play this game again! That cut-scene was awesome!” (Speaking of Half-Life, that’s how you tell a narrative in a game!)

    @Felix: Greed? Naw, more like delusion. After all, it’s usually the publisher that makes all the money; often the developer is lucky to break even.

    @Jackson: Agreed!

    @Brian: Exactly. Same reason Crysis was (mostly) fun, but Crysis 2 rapidly became boring. Crysis was fairly open, with only a few cutscenes; while Crysis 2 went heavy on the cinematics and railroading the player between the cinematics.

  • McTeddy said,


    Of course, Modern players are just as happy watching a game. As the article pointed out… the best parts of modern games were the narrative and cinematic. :/

    I’m not judging though… I watch plenty of games and have posting my own videos recently… so I’m definitely not judging 🙂

    I half agree with you. I tend to despise being railroaded too… but I can’t honestly say its a bad way to engage a player.

    Many casual players (AKA “hardcore Gamers”) want to be entertained. They don’t want do work for their fun… they don’t want to think. They want to sit back and blame a developers “Bad Design” if they don’t have fun.

    Sadly… those people ARE a paying majority. I don’t blame devs for making this their target audience.

    But again… I wish more developers would make games for us interactive people too. God bless indies for not sucking!

  • Albert1 said,

    People love recurring patterns of a handful of elements. Sparseness hasn’t such a strong appeal. This applies to game graphics too: IMHO one of the reasons behind 16-bit graphics renaissance in the indie world is because those graphics were/are full of tiling.

  • Xenovore said,


    They don’t want do work for their fun… they don’t want to think.

    Could not agree more; I blame consoles. Console games have been progressively dumbed-down by designers (like this guy) until now that’s what the players all expect. It’s a feedback loop: players want more dumb (or designers think players want more dumb), designers give more dumb, then players expect more dumb, then designers give more dumb, ad nauseum.

  • Kian said,

    I couldn’t take the writer seriously after he said “Gameplay-less experiences like exploration or short interactive dramas”. Since when is exploration not a part of game-play?

    It seems he defines gameplay to be combat. Everything that isn’t killing things, isn’t gameplay. And apparently he realized games have a lot more to offer than different combat systems.