Decisions, Video Games and Gunplay
A few weeks ago, I got a Playstation 5.
One of the interesting things about getting a shiny new console on launch day is that the catalogue of games you can get on it are… minimal. The upshot of this is that rather than my usual trick of perhaps buying maybe 2-3 games a year, only in very specific subgenres that appeal to me, I find myself playing games that are far outside of what I would normally play.
The last time this happened was, unshockingly, when I got my brand new Playstation 4.
It’s usually an interesting time for me, forcing myself out of my comfort zone, seeing what there is to enjoy out in the wider planes of video game land. Hell, when I got my shiny new Xbox 360 I even played a few sports game – and I do so hate sports games.
This year, one of the shiny new games I tried is Demons’ Souls, the PS5 remake.
To say I bounce off souls-like games is… and understatement. I’ve tried Dark Souls 1 and Bloodborne before, and Demon’s Souls is… much the same for me (if many, many times prettier).
Within a week of trying this and a few other games, I found myself simply re-installing old favourites and using my blank new PS5 with no save games as a good excuse to re-play them from scratch.
Red Dead Redemption 2. Watch Dogs 2. I’ve even occasionally committed the horrible sin of letting my shiny new console sit idle while I go back to playing indie management sims on my desktop computer.
But going so far out of my comfort zone got me thinking – what exactly is it I like in a video game?
When people ask what I normally play, I usually reply with the most superficial of answers – I play open-world Action and RPG games, mostly, plus some management or construction games. And flight simulations, of course, though really for me the desire to jump in Microsoft Flight Sim and do a flight happens when I am in a different headspace to when I feel like playing a ‘real’ video game.
As I sat there, angrily cursing at Demon’s Souls and trying to find something other than the graphics I liked about it, I began to think more about my answer to that question. Because I don’t magically like all open-world Action or RPG games, of course. Who does? There are very specific titles I like.
I got Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla for my PS5, but lost interest in that game incredibly quickly – yet it, like all the previous AC games (some of which I’ve enjoyed immensely) still fits in a category that I usually enjoy.
An hour later, my PS5 was asleep in the corner of my room while I found myself diving back into Subnautica, one of my go-to games since I first discovered it way back in early access.
As I sat there in my observatory dome underneath the ocean, waiting for the sun to rise and plotting out my day’s expedition to the Mushroom Forests to collect the lead, lithium and quartz I’d need to begin my next base expansion, it finally hit me.
Why Subnautica appeals to me, yet Green Hell does not.
Why Red Dead Redemption 2 appeals to me, yet Far Cry 5 does not.
Why Airport CEO and Project Highrise appeal to me, while Two Point Hospital does not.
Why games I may have really liked in years past, such as Star Wars Squadrons or even Mafia (the remake) caused me to lose interest so fast.
Video games have different scales at which they function when you play them.
There’s the moment-to-moment gameplay, usually requiring some degree of tactical thinking and hand-eye co-ordination. Do you manage to get off that headshot in Red Dead, or do you miss and end up back in cover, suddenly surrounded by more Pinkertons and in a worse situation than if you’d made that initial shot? Do you manage manage to tale that Barque carrying a load of lumber as a prize in AC: Black Flag? How well do you nail the placement of the ammenities and offices you plan to lease out in Project Highrise?
Then there’s the larger, more strategic thinking that goes into them. What is your plan for your day in Red Dead 2 – do you go hunting in the morning so the camp has food, into town during afternoon to trade in some goods you stole during a recent robbery? Are you going to build a new hydroponics wing for your base in Subnautica, or perhaps clean up and improve the Moonpool and submarine docking area that you were never quite happy with?
The action in Red Dead Redemption 2 is, frankly, quite easy. I play enough third and first person action games that it’s quite rare I die Red Dead, and when I do it’s usually because I made quite a foolish mistake. The same is true in Mafia III and Watch Dogs 2. Subnautica may not be an -easy- game per se, but half the game is avoiding close encounters with horrifying sea monsters – not seeking them out to kill them, as you frankly cannot really do that in most cases.
What keeps me playing them is not the moment-to-moment challenge of gunplay or stealth in any of those games. I have no interest in playing a difficult game solely to get better at the combat mechanics. In the games I like, the combat is a small, momentary thing that rarely presents a huge challenge.
Will I successfully take out the six guys who ambushed me from behind the rocks on my way easy through the heartlands in Red Dead 2? Almost certainly yes. I’ll enter dead-eye mode and headshot a few, dive off my horse, fuck behind a rock for cover then take the others out. Unless I am very careless, it’s not actually difficult. What makes that engagement interesting is what comes next – the decision of what to do right after the guns come out.
The gunplay happened on a road. These men tried to rob me, and are now lying dead, their possessions morally mine within the general ethics of this kind of game. Do I go and pad down the bodies, taking their money, ammunition and trinkets to sell at a fence later on? Do I do that and risk that a traveller on a horse or carriage may turn up, see me looting the corpses and run off to describe my crimes to the nearest law-man, resulting in a bounty on my head?
In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, raiding settlements is a big focus of the game. You and your longboat full of angry bearded goons scream and charge into the town in a historically-sanitised raid that usually results in no ‘civilians’ being killed. Once that’s done, you open their chests and pilfer their valuables, before heading off on your way. There is no real decision to make, other than when to begin your raid. The challenge, and what people obviously enjoy about that game and others like it is the combat itself.
The moment to moment challenge of using your skills and weapons to defeat the village’s random large guard captain and some of his underbosses, along-side the many other random men with swords who come out to defend their village is the point. Once it’s one, you get your spoils and head back to spend the loot upgrading your village, giving you access to more equipment and tools to make the next raid easier (or at least more possible to accomplish).
I haven’t taken pleasure in getting better at fighting in games for a long time.
I’m not interested in spending hours re-fighting the same battle until I manage to take out a particularly tough boss. To me, it’s the larger decisions about what to do next in a game that makes me come back for more, especially if those decisions exist in an internally-consistent world, ideally resembling our own to some degree.
I accept that combat is, in many games, mandatory. A thing that we have long since accepted as just What One Does In A Video Game.
I sometimes even enjoy it a bit.
But for the most part, video games are about escapism to me. To spend time living in a place or time I cannot actually be in real life. The moment to moment mechanics should be simple and easy enough to almost be flavouring – something which adds to the sense of really being in that world.
I accept that Arthur Morgan gets into gunfights and robs banks because, well… that’s the story this game is telling. But it’s the fact that I can get on my horse, ride for days, camping at night, hunting for my meals and trying to find interesting places to visit that grabs me.
If that part was spun off into its own game, I’d play it – if the combat parts were put in a Naughty Dog style linear action game with the same story, I’d likely never have even finished it in the first time.
The meta-game and the experience of a world feeling real interests me; the mechanics of the moment-to-moment gameplay only interests me insofar as they help me feel like the world is real.
It’s why management and construction games where you build a single, large functional system or object interests me (whether that is a single commercial tower in Project Highrise or a city in Cities: Skylines), yet strategy games where you build multiple smaller structures as part of a ‘campaign’ of levels, like in Two Point Hospital, tend not to.
I want to create, explore and enjoy a space, whether that’s a top-down 2d space or a large, open 3d one. I’ll even shoot or stab a few people in that space, if I must – but the world feeling alive and the game giving me a sense of accomplishment when I complete my own player-set long term goals of advancement and construction will always matter more to me more than how challenging an individual event or encounter within that space is.