Wednesday, October 7

Optional Obligations

 A few days ago, my friend was kind enough to show me iD Software's new Wolfenstein on his PC, I not having seen it yet.The game is a throwback first-person-shooter, favoring linear gameplay and intricate, gorgeous level design over the now-standard cover system or necessity for tactical forethought. Honestly, its great to see this type of shooter still in existence; Wolfenstein satisfied my Perfect Dark roots. Wolfenstein, however, does have its gameplay hook, veil powers, four abilities that allow players to enter the occult realm while granting them various boosts. Using veil powers drains an energy meter, though, so the spamming of or prolonged use of them is restricted. Or, at least, one would think.

Quite the contrary, spamming veil powers is not only easy but, potentially, inadvertently encouraged. Veil powers, you see, have absolutely no casting time and no cool-down time. That is, the veil powers require zero time to activate and zero time before they may be used again. This allows players to freely ignore "use sparingly," instead permitting "spam-at-will."

One of the veil powers is called "empower" (activated by "2" on the keyboard) You may watch a video of empower in action at this conveniently hyper-linked text. When activated, empower causes shots to do critical damage, often boosting damage to an extent that enemies fall with a single bullet. It may or may not be safe to assume that empower is meant to be used by players as a last resort, as it is particularly powerful and causes the energy meter to quickly dry up. But in reality, the functioning of the veil powers allows for a considerably more frequent use of empower, a use that could easily be considered cheap or cheating.

Players will take advantage of every gameplay possibility or quirk to be as effective and efficient as possible. My friend demonstrated to me how he played through Wolfenstein, by using empower every shot he took. 2 Click 2. 2 Click 2. Because before each shot he activated the ability and after each, deactivated, every shot he fired was charged with empower, . He also never drained his energy, as a fraction of a second is no where near long enough to affect the meter. Yet more efficient, he used minimal ammo. One shot, one kill.

"It's annoying," he said, "because I have to play as best as possible. I don't know. It's hard to explain." Wolfenstein allows players the option to spam its powers for maximum efficiency. Is it cheap to take advantage of this fact? Maybe, but it's also human. It's like the board game Clue. If you happen to glance Professor Plum in your opponents hand, it is very difficult to consider him a potential suspect. Once players realize that they can spam empower, is it really that easy to go back to pretending their supposed to use it sparingly? How optional is efficiency?

On one hand, constantly rapid-activating empower could quickly become tiresome and annoying. Aligning yourself with your interpretation of the game's intentions (use sparingly) could make for a considerably more enjoyable play-through; after all, the rules are there to maintain fun. However, as a person, who is both innately precise and also trained throughout one's life to be efficient, ignoring perfect execution is difficult.

I can speak for my friend, at least (and would be very interested in hearing your own opinion), that he felt obligated as a person of efficiency to take advantage of the rapid-use allowance of the veil powers. His rapid-use of empower completely side-stepped that whole "energy meter" thingy, which is obviously there to specifically limit use. It also breaks the difficulty system, which also is tuned to the limited use. Is the game better with the rapid-allowance? Is it more fun? This is something each player must answer for his or her self, but, unquestionably, its power to affect a player's experience, either by adhering to efficiency or forcefully ignoring it, is definitely something of which the developers should be aware.

Options aren't always so optional, I've found recently. The mere option itself may, to some players, feel mandatory. I think people assume too much with the "optional" angle. "Hey, why not throw in some side-quests?" or "Players can choose to help this NPC for extra benefits if they want." I'm sure the decisions aren't that trivial, but how many players really choose not to help that NPC? How many don't feel like side-quests are obligatory to maximize their character or see more story?

More specifically, an optional game feature which has particularly affected my play experience of late is the presence of collectibles. Who doesn't love collectibles? You get to search for hidden Easter-eggs, explore the crevices the game world, and unlock extra content or features in doing so. Additionally, collectibles expand not only gameplay objectives but invested time as well. But I believe that collectibles have an additional affect of hogging focus.

Several weeks ago, I played the then-new PS3 demo for Mini Ninjas by IO Interactive. I really enjoyed the game and would love to someday play through the whole thing. In fact, I came back to the demo several times, spending probably three hours or so memorizing the level and mastering the gameplay. The real reason I came back, though, was to find every flower, jizo statue, and trapped animal there was. I was obsessed with catching 'em all, with hunting down every collectible.

Eventually, I realized that my entire play experience had been acutely focused on finding things, a tunnel-visioned experience, rather avoiding of the peripheral elements of combat and progression. Every step I took, I made sure to back-track three and to rotate my camera 540 degrees, just to be sure I hadn't missed a single hidden item. Every time I fought, my eyes would be glancing to the corners of the screen, hoping to catch the glint of a coveted collectible. It didn't help that the game tracked how many you had found, either. For me, the collectibles were the primary focus of the game, obligatory, not optional. However, I read Edge Online's review of Mini Ninjas, and the reviewer had quite a differing opinion of the collectibles:
It’s a peculiar miscellany of diversions that, along with the game’s uniquely soothing cartoon-fauvist style, sets a meditative pace. In between skirmishes with samurai, you find yourself wandering amiably through quiet twilight woodlands to search for ingredients or bobbing on a river with a fishing rod while peach blossom descends.
For some people, optional means optional, maybe more of a little surprise to happen upon a collectible than a die-hard manhunt. But that is not to say I did not enjoy myself. Rather, I loved searching for the collectibles. I didn't come back to the demo because I felt like I had to. I came back because I wanted to. However, it is important to note that the optional existence of collectibles greatly affected my play experience, diverting attention from other potential foci of the game such as combat. I do not believe this to be a good nor bad thing, just an affect of which, again, I believe people should be aware.

Similarly, playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum has shown me how collectibles can affect gameplay. "Detective Vision" in Arkham Asylum is an alternate vision mode, allowing players to see through walls, see structural deficiencies, highlights intractable objects (like grates and gargoyles), and, to get to the point, shows collectibles. Hidden question marks are painted around Arkham island that can only be seen in detective mode. There aren't even many question marks, to tell the truth, but the few that their are have contributed to me switching on my detective vision innumerable times through the game. Detective vision aside, I am constantly looking for hidden question mark statues, riddles, joker's teeth, interview tapes, and Spirit of Arkham stones. I have a mostly good time looking for them (although also annoying being so constantly present), and I enjoy when I succeed, but I can't ignore the nagging feeling that searching for collectibles occupies a significant amount of my gameplay focus. Now, there is no doubt that I am an OCD gamer, so I speak with significant bias, but I also know that the presence of collectibles impacts the play experience of many more besides me.

Collectibles, like other optional inclusions, come with a price: your players will want to find them. Collectibles may potentially detract from other spheres of gameplay, or at the very least, they should never be written off as "only optional."

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