Games Worth Experiencing
Ask any gamer to think of a particularly fond experience had while gaming, and you’ll probably find yourself seeing a slightly-curled smile and a wistful look in their eyes. Games can produce an intensely personal experience that, much as I love films, books or television series’, can only otherwise be matched by real life experiences. As the gamer tells you about the time they desperately escaped death at the hands of a Deathclaw in Fallout or the time they accidentally took out their best friend in a friendly-fire accident in Counter-Strike, it’s worth thinking about what created these experiences.
A truly great game might create a middling experience for some players, and meanwhile a bug-ridden ill-balanced game might create the opportunity for a perfect moment that someone will be repeating drunk at parties until they die. Identifying just what made these moments work (or not) for yourself and for other players is a difficult thing to do, but it’s the most useful and rewarding thing to do when you’re designing a game. What experiences am I potentially offering the player? What can she get out of this game that I intend her to, and what kind of things might she experience that I won’t intend?
As a way to try and think about our own design, I’m starting a new project: hyper-mega-over-analysing my own favourite game experiences, to try and figure out how (and why) they happened. How much of it was intent and writing by the designer, and how much was me being in the right headspace and situation?
I’m going to start with Lightspeed, a highly underrated space trading game. In this game you command a space cruiser sent by the Earth to make a sector in space safe for the settler ships which are following you. How you do this is up to you – will you wipe out the alien threats, make peace with them, or some combination of the two? What about finding resources and a habitable planet? Will you take those by force, or take the more honourable route?
Being brought up in Star Trek of the Next Generation variety, I naturally found myself going all ‘Captain Picard’ on their bad selves, making peace and brokering deals until I finally found myself unable to reach a satisfactory deal with one particular race.
They weren’t a common species – in fact they seemed to have just the one star system under their control. But they refused to make peace, and I was running out of options. After a carefully infused cup of Earl Grey, I gave in and readied for war.
It took me hours to figure out how to defeat them – they were stubborn, powerful and well-defended. After numerous failed attempts and more blown up fighters than the Battle of Britain, I finally piloted the remote kamikaze that destroyed the space station… the system was mine.
I had never been so pleased with myself. The most difficult enemy I’d ever faced, and I’d defeated them. I paused the game (it was late at night) and had a victory coffee.
With this out of the way, I went back to my computer and decided to inspect the spoils. I launched a probe and scanned the system. To my delight I found the missing resources I was short on, but then something occurred to me – launching a probe was the same thing I’d done (slamming the ‘p’ button) to initiate communication with this now-extinct alien species.
I would never see that pixelated ambassador again. At least, not in this specific game.
I’d wiped out a whole species.
Maybe it was the lateness of the hour, the fact that it came on the back of the elation of defeating a difficult opponent, but for whatever reason, this thought disturbed me in a way I didn’t expected. I saved game and went to bed, pondering what I’d done as I slept.
This kind of subject matter has been dealt with in games a great deal both before and since, but usually with great intent and little subtly.
There is something incredibly important about providing the tools and the environment to make a player think carefully about the consequences of her actions, without feeling in any way manipulated or like the experienced was artificially created by the game’s writers.
This experience was mine, both in making and in feeling, and it has stayed with me for over 15 years now as a result.