Now that we’ve talked about how engagement is what keeps us playing a game, how does this impact the rest of the industry? One thing we can fruitfully think of with this understanding of the quirks of gaming is a common complaint in big budget games: homogenization. Before talking about this topic, we’re going to need to talk about shallow engagement and deep engagement.
Deep engagement is why gaming enthusiasts exist. That feeling where you are so personally invested in the character’s struggles and goals that you and they feel like the same person. You want to save the world, not because the game told you to, but because the game convinced you to. We enthusiasts seek this out, and lament as we find these experiences very rare in the current big budget game market. Why are these experiences so rare, though? The simple fact is that these deeply engaging experiences are difficult to create, and not only require a team working together to carefully build something great, but also require the correct player. In video games, the player is a vital part of the equation. The player, with their unique understanding, biases, and viewpoints, craft their own experience using the framework created by the developer. Sometimes, like in the case of the first “Portal” game, this can happen almost completely by accident. To contrast with this, shallow engagement is working on keeping the player just engaged enough with the game to finish it. Games with this focus tend to have token stories, repetitive, Skinner Box gameplay, and often focus on multiplayer to hide these issues. Because the engagement in this type of game is so shallow, the requirements for the type of player to engage in it become far looser. This leads to a broadly appealing, high selling game that is forgotten the instant something new comes out. Does this seem familiar in any way to what we see in this industry?
Since it left World War II, I have played games from the Call of Duty franchise only a handful of times. I have always had the same experience, jacking up the difficulty and following the orders. I get through without much trouble, but an hour later, I can’t remember even basic details of the plot, why I was doing what I was doing, or context. That is the reason I really don’t have any interest in these titles. They’re popcorn, broadly, cynically appealing to the widest possible audience to justify their bloated budgets. They have been compared to Michael Bay films, and frankly, I’d agree. Watching a Michael Bay film critically is horrendous, but if you sit back and roll with all the insanity, you’ll be mildly amused for two completely forgettable hours. In this case, the campaign lasts a bit longer, but is just as insubstantial. To be fair, there is an attempt at deeper engagement in the multiplayer, hoping that cramming enough mediocre experiences together will lead to something better. It is arguably what the point of these games are, but I’d argue that the signs are there in the multiplayer just as much. Did you ever wonder about the leveling systems and RPG elements? Typical treadmill gameplay. An increasingly meagre drip feed of upgrades? Skinner’s theories at work. It’s shallow engagement all the way to the core. Admittedly, there are some hardcore players, who would seem to have found some form of deep engagement with the games, but these are the exceptions, rather than the rule.
This is not to say that there have not been titles in the industry that had both mass market success and deep engagement. “Bioshock” is a title that springs to mind, as well as “Dark Souls”, but it is inarguable that these experiences have become far more rare over time. Part of the problem is that games are spending more and more money over time chasing photo-realism. and as such have to broaden their appeal as much as possible in order to recoup their development costs, but this is by no means the only problem. Attitudes in the industry that have existed from the beginning have all coalesced into a huge, rotting core that would take a lifetime to disentangle fully and propose meaningful solutions. This is a task that needs to be done, and part of that is down to us, the consumer.
I greatly prefer a more deeply engaging experience, even if it’s shorter, or harder to get in to. I can list off all the characters in Undertale, for example, and their interactions and motivations without looking it up. I can do this because I was deeply engaged in the story and the world of the game, and a playthrough only takes about three hours. I understand why these experiences are so rare, but one can only hope they become much less so in the near future. As more of the big companies slowly turn back toward more targeted experiences, and with the Indie market, we can only hope that in the near future, we will start to see more games developed by people passionate about their art. We can keep supporting good and unique indie titles, and voting through where we spend our money as consumers.