What I Get From Games

There are basically three things I get out of video games: chill, story, and action.

Chill games are ones I can play to relax. There’s a difficult balance to strike here - the game must engage me, but at a relatively low level. My actions need to depend on the game state (purely rote actions like just clicking a button over and over to make a number go up are insufficient) but in a simple and straightforward way. Needing to pull in enough brainpower to do things like learn new systems (puzzle box or escape-the-room games where understanding each goal is a major required step in solving it), manage risk (like in an RTS with fog of war), or execute difficult inputs (like a precision platformer’s tricky jumping puzzles) means the game is no longer relaxing. In terms of my concept of challenge profiles, the gameplay must challenge me a moderate amount on tactics and basically not at all on strategy or action. Similarly, any story elements can’t be too exciting or too complicated. And it helps a lot if the game is “cozy.”

Good candidates for chill games are puzzle games (Picross games, Dr. Mario, Faerie Solitaire), sandbox games (Endless Sky, The Sims), life sims (Animal Crossing, Disney Magical World), MMOs and grind-friendly RPGs (Champions Online, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning), and some rhythm games (Beats, Guitar Hero/Rock Band on mellow songs I know well). Even some action games can become good chill games if I’ve played them enough times (Kirby’s Adventure, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy).

Common design decisions that ruin otherwise-good chill games for me are time limits (such as Stardew Valley’s short days which punish you for being outside too late), which add non-relaxing pressure and make me feel like I have to engage in strategic planning, and friction (like the constant inventory management required by No Man’s Sky… in fact, inventory management seems to be the most common form of this), which interrupts my flow and frustratingly gets in the way of what I want to be doing.

Story games allow me to immerse myself in a world or narrative. What I get out of these is similar to what I’d get out of a good book or movie - enjoyable atmosphere, interesting story, and/or likable characters. As such, the things that matter to me in all kinds of storytelling (internal consistency, good characterization, etc.) are important here as well.

Good candidates for story games are JRPGs (Persona 4, I Am Setsuna), visual novels (Zero Escape, Ace Attorney), puzzle-light adventure games (To the Moon, Night in the Woods), and walking simulators (Gone Home, The Beginner’s Guide). Story-heavy action games (Iconoclasts, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons) can fit as well. Since story can be integrated with gameplay or almost completely separate from it, there isn’t a specific challenge profile required and good story games can be found in basically every genre.

The most common issue that ruins otherwise-good story games for me is content gating - locking story behind unskippable gameplay challenges. This is okay as long as the challenges are themselves enjoyable and you can set difficulty to a level that works for you, but that’s going to vary betwen players and it sucks to be playing a game for the story and then be blocked off from it because a challenge you don’t enjoy is too hard. Catherine is my most notable offender here - I enjoyed experiencing and influencing the story in the visual novel sections, but the frequent climbing puzzles felt like sudden demands that I pass challenges in a totally different game before I’d be allowed to continue the story. I didn’t enjoy this different game at all and struggled to pass even the first levels on the easiest difficulty. I wish I had been able to skip them; in practice that’s what I did by handing the controller to Senpai-chan who was gracious enough to do the climbing puzzles for me.

Action games have active and engaging gameplay. For me personally, that usually means a challenge profile with moderate action, moderate-to-high tactics, low-to-moderate strategy, and zero-to-low preparation. My enjoyment of these games comes from learning to overcome challenges, so games must neither be trivially easy nor so difficult that I never feel like I’m making progress. Since that sweet spot varies so much, selectable difficulty levels are often quite important. Pacing matters too - the game must introduce new mechanics or challenges after I’ve had a chance to become comfortable with the existing ones but before they become dull. Freedom of choice in how to approach challenges also helps keep things fresh.

Good candidates for action games are platformers (SteamWorld Dig, Poi), shooters (Ratchet & Clank, Bioshock), action RPGs (Mass Effect, Dragon Quest Builders), open-world games (inFAMOUS, Saints Row), and rhythm games (Bit.Trip Runner, Elite Beat Agents). Some games start as good action games but keep going after I’ve learned basically everything mechanical and must then be sufficently good chill or story games for me to keep playing (Musou games like Fire Emblem Warriors often fall into this).

The most common issue that ruins otherwise-good action games for me is punishment. The way I process tension means that when I fail, I want to try again immediately until I succeed. Delays in my ability to retry a specific challenge are highly unpleasant and do not increase the eventual satisfaction of overcoming that challenge, so it doesn’t take much of this to render a game simply not worth my time to play. Kero Blaster is a recent example - like in old-school Mega Man, if you run out of lives at the level-end boss you have to replay the entire level. I enjoyed learning the game’s variety of weapons and well-designed levels and boss fights - but did not enjoy having to do an entire level again learning essentially nothing in order to try again on the boss. Relatedly, I do not enjoy roguelikes because when you die, you don’t get to then try again on the thing that killed you. You have to restart with a new set of challenges.

I like to have exactly one game providing each of these three things at all times. Sometimes I get them from different games (recently I had The Sims 4, Dragon Quest XI, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate going at once) and sometimes I get them from a single game (Destiny provided chill via patrol missions, story via the campaign, and action via strikes). In some ways it’s nice to find a single game that covers all the bases, but since I don’t like to start a new game for a given category until I finish or drop the one I’m playing it also means I’m locked in to just the one game until I’m done with it one way or another - at which point I suddenly need to replace three things at once.

I’m curious how typical my approach is. I wonder what set of things other people get out of games and how they go about finding those things.