New Difficulties

Ever think about what the games you play say about you? Or maybe your habits while you play them? Despite not fully enjoying the genre, I’m drawn to strategy games, particularly turn-based ones with idiosyncratic units on a chess-like grid. Maybe I first came to them under some rule of opposites; I actually don’t like chess, tend to be more impulsive in thought, and wish for more personal expression in my play. It’s possible there’s a part of me that needs something slow, allows me to think things out at my own pace. But there’s something beneath that, a weird perfectionism that compels me to start games over completely from scratch the moment they deviate from my ideal state. I have people asking me about how far I’ve gotten in Fire Emblem Fates, and I’m always ashamed to tell them I started over… again.

When I played games earlier in the series, I’d blame this on the permadeath function core to the game. I couldn’t stand losing a character that possibly had more to contribute to story, and would end up never completing the games because it became too hard to save them all. But now that the latest release has a mode where none of your characters die, I still find myself restarting over and over again. Having not read much about the differences between the versions of the game, I chose Conquest because the characters seem like they would appeal to me more, which I was right about. As a consequence, I had no idea it’d be an overall harder game, even on the easiest settings. It’s not the battles necessarily, but the story content that comes out of the support system, which requires strategically placing units together on the battlefield so they bond more. Because Conquest has limited ways to level up these support ranks, I realized that there was even another, possibly more insidious expression of difficulty in this game: I have to manage my battles according to who I definitely needed to ship and have children even more urgently than I need to actually win the fights themselves.

My usual habits in Fire Emblem have me testing out the waters and seeing the chemistry between the units before I marry them off, having my characters play the field as I decided which ones I’d like to pair up for good and decide when is the right time to have a time-traveling kid. But this time I got to the end of the game without having recruited a single one, which is easy to do in a game where you can’t grind very easily. I instantly restarted. I’ve been playing multiple times to see the different relationships, awaiting the time I create the perfect save with all the right pairings and perfect children. But I’m coming to find that I won’t get that in Conquest, unless I want to pay more of course. Where I thought I could escape the difficulty of the game through casual settings, I realized there was an inescapable hard mode waiting for me: nothing will ever be perfect, some characters won’t marry or have children, and effectively, the story will always be missing something.

I’m still a bit in denial. I’ve considered paying for some opportunities to grind or getting the ‘true’ third version of the game. I’ve complained to friends that the Conquest is a bad attempt to get money out of me, ultimately incomplete without all the other versions and DLC. But it’s slowly dawning on me that a newer form of difficulty has cropped up. When talking about ‘new difficulties,’ I point to the peculiarities of difficulty settings in BioWare games, which are at this point more critically known for their narrative and romances than they are for their battles. Choosing different difficulties shifts how battles work, but not the conversations or relationships. There’s this underlying assumption that there is little to be had in subjective, qualitative, or probably more succinctly said, emotional difficulty. Difficulty is usually restrained to the quantitative, and topics of personal expression and taste are left to be these abstract, woo concepts that most designers don’t pay a lot of attention to manipulating. But here, Conquest is giving me a real hard time by making me have an incomplete game, or at least play it over and over again to understand my own ‘true’ path. This contrasts with games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age which aim to further simplify how a player can manipulate these permutations by creating tools and not considering the complexity there is with emotional difficulty. This is a contrast between being presented with obvious, signed choices that you’re supposed to care about and understanding the small, mundane choices you’ve made by landing yourself in a mess you couldn’t really see coming until it arrived.

This opens up a lot of opportunities for new kinds of play, considering this kind of difficulty isn’t necessarily inhibitive unless you have an overbearing perfectionistic streak like I do. My time with this experience could be seen as researching, trying to explore the different corners to eventually express my ideal state of the game, where I allocate the few resources I have to create the story I’m able to create. It shows that despite casual modes being added for new audiences might seem like watering down the game, it’s actually opening up a new kind intense play previously unavailable in the series, and continues to expand its design further past pure quantitative strategy. I’m curious to see more games that push even further, and where the series will go knowing that this is an integral aspect of play for the newer wave of players that now enjoy the series.

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Exploring Taste in Play

I recently gave a talk on exploring the different ways players can express their tastes or preferences through play in video games that highlights some interests I still have in the genre. Springing from a piece specifically about Style Savvy, I wanted to reach for a design imperative to structure space for different kinds of expression that isn’t usually afforded to in games. How can games play with style and taste, help players cultivate and communicate their aesthetics? This is different from the usual customization that some game offer, like choosing an avatar or accruing items more to collect than to help you express yourself as the main focus of play. I find the topic fascinating because of how much I feel like people really want to have taste and style in games, but how to do so seems relatively stagnant. So here are some examples I went through to try and reach out on how to explore this topic.

 

Fire Emblem Awakening & Fates

Being of the moment, I start this journey from the most mechanistic of the examples on our way to more and more abstracted methods of exploring taste. Fire Emblem’s legacy is focused on being a strategy game, much like a particular evolution of chess with some story attached to it. Though known most through time for its difficulty, its reputation shifted as a particular feature surrounding pairing up characters in battle began to evolve. By the time it got to Awakening, characters who fought together often in battle would get cutscenes together and possibly got married and had children, who would then travel from the future to fight with you, being a mix of the parents traits and being a pretty unique unit subject to many min/maxing guides. But most importantly, units in the Fire Emblem series evolved from being mere chess pieces that you only moved because of their strategic to agents for expression, moving units together based on your preferences along with strategic consequences. Here we have players creating their ideal story in spite of the strategic aspects of the game which are decidedly difficult, creating a melodrama suited to the range of eccentric characters you pick up on the way. I would say that now Fire Emblem is more known for its romancing features, and the newest edition, Fates, recognizes this by having two versions with different sets of characters and more casual modes that encourage creating bonds between characters over victory difficulty. The lesson, then, would be to revisit the objects used in play and see we can imbue them with qualities that make players care emotionally about how they use them in the game, instead of keeping them as pieces that may hurt to lose, but are ultimately disposable. Rarely do games allow that sort of control or ownership over central aspects of design like this.

 

Long Live the Queen

Looking at another strong tie between strategy and preference, Long Live the Queen takes the framing of the Princess Maker series, a ‘life sim’ that has you guiding the main character through her growth as a young woman, but puts many obstacles in your way to achieving those ends. Mainly, you develop the states of your princess, attempting to pass many skill checks so you can survive until the day of your coronation. You are presented with a large stat sheet and have to manage the princess’ mood so she does well in her various classes and trains up her skills. It’s easy to go into the game with certain preferences as for what you want your princess to be good at, like being a good public speaker and deft at political intrigue, or familiar with various weapons and trained as a magical girl. The problem is there is a system out there to kill your princess, and the realities of that course of events forces a tension between what you want and what will make it through to the end of the game. So I can stick to my guns and want a princess who is most able at moving through the social game of the narrative, but I have to exercise creativity if I’m going to have her survive all the different physical threats thrown her way. I find this is the most typical route games tend to allow player expression, through gaming a system and finding a unique strategy to overcome the challenges. What makes Long Live the Queen different is how it incorporates the life sim elements to allow subjective preferences to interface with what would in other circumstance be just moving numbers around until the puzzle is solved. An idea for evolving this to further submerge the system so it isn’t mostly balancing stats but more qualitative aspects that players could become more emotionally invested in, where the end of the game is less about surviving and gaming and more a culmination of all the choices you’ve made to create a unique experience at the end.

 

Shira Oka: Second Chances

Butting up right against the life sim genre are dating sims, which are much like the former except the end goal is to end up with a love interest. These games take a stronger visual novel approach and treat the player as a guiding force in the story for which character the protagonist ends up with. Shira Oka is a particularly good example of this because instead of just making story choices to get your romance, you have to manage your time in order to shape life in the right enough way to pursue their route and end up with them in the end. The preference part is pretty apparent, being which of the romanceable characters you want to be with in the end. Unlike most dating sims, you are made to play the same sequences of events over and over again with meta-data involved that compiles and confuses all of your desires, while also throwing in plot twists that can end your playthrough and force to start over. This complicates the usual branching narrative model that most dating sims operate by, creating a more unique method of player expression, one of wrangling together chaos and leaving behind a footprint that can’t be easily replicated. Building upon this, I find that games in general are find amping up difficulty in traditionally gamey aspects of games, but when there’s narrative parts that involve expression, rarely if ever understanding what it means to create complex decisions. We can also look to legacy games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age that have games that build upon the varying choices of the past to create landscapes continually shaped by past actions. I can see games that use the repetitive genre conventions of visual novels to slowly move the game into a highly idiosyncratic ending that veers far enough from a standard expression of the game enough that players would see wide-reaching differences in their games that would reflect much of how they interacted with the experience. I touched upon some of this with some meditations on what digital patina would look like.

 

Happy Home Designer

Moving to some more fluid expressions of preferences, Happy Home Designer centers player experience on crafting homes in a particular style that is typically auxiliary features in other genres. The game is pretty permissive in letting the player do whatever they want, to many gamers’ chagrin. With each assignment, the player gets access to new themed furniture depending on their new customer’s preferences, prompting a loose base for creative output. What I think is typically lost with Happy Home Designer is that people tend to hue too closely to realistic expectations of homes should look like despite their clients willingness to accept pretty much anything you can give them. Happy Home Designer’s prompts are commonly open for subversion to create political commentary or surrealist imagery that goes beyond just preference and up a level of personal expression. Approaching the game with the particular intention of creating a morbid undertone to the overly cute aesthetics of the Animal Crossing world (which I do find disturbing particularly around themes of capitalism re: Tom Nook), I created a set of rooms that took clients’ desires and expressed them in a dystopian future that I believe would be the inevitable product of a world ruled by Nintendo. Pushing this game further would involve putting it in an ecosystem that the Happy Home Network gestures towards, where the interiors add and speak to a discourse about the spaces we inhabit and the politics residing there. There is something naive about creative games like this one that keeps your works separated from each other and not summing up to a series that affects the world or at least the creative network you are in.

These are just a few examples of how preferences are expressed in games and how we can use them to add a new experience to our play. I’m particularly interested in subjective play, or at least, challenging that play isn’t only some weird, wishy-washy thing that sometimes happens, is whimsical and intangible and therefore of less interest to people in our field. The success of some of these games shows that moving towards this kind of player expression is resonating with people and bringing in new kinds of players into games instead of relying on usual kinds of engagement that convention entertainment game design relies on. I feel like there would be a new era of games if creators were able to integrate these sorts of qualities into their designs and values, particular in response to usual tactics for diversity and representation in games.

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