Friction and hooks

A bit over ten years ago, I started playing Dragon Age: Origins. It was a very highly-regarded game by the people who’d made Mass Effect, which I had absolutely loved, so I expected to enjoy it.

And I more or less did, for a while. I got through my chosen opening area and the first few hours of the main story, picking up a few party members along the way. The story and world were fascinating, but I wasn’t enjoying the combat - it was too slow and strategic for my tastes, especially as my party grew in size. Before long I stalled out, dropped the game, and never came back to it.

This bothered me. I was supposed to like this game! I’d gotten so into Mass Effect that I’d played it three times in a row and read the tie-in novels, and here I was giving up on the universally-acclaimed Dragon Age: Origins partway into my first playthrough! Was I not a man of culture?

I resolved the cognitive dissonance through a bit of denial. Clearly the reason I’d been able to get into Mass Effect and not Dragon Age was that I’d been unemployed when I played Mass Effect and not so when I played Dragon Age. It wasn’t a question of taste - it was a question of time and energy. So instead of moving Dragon Age to my “Meh” category on Steam, I made a new category for it: “Free Time”, for games I should come back to when I had more free time so I could enjoy them properly. (I no longer have this category so I can’t tell you all of the games that made their way into it over the years, but I’m pretty sure they included Before the Echo, A Valley Without Wind, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.)

Of course, the “free time” I was waiting for never materialized, even in later periods of unemployment, and no game ever got picked back up from that category. Looking back, I think I now have a better idea of what was happening (and has continued to happen with an increasing number of games over time). It was related to free time, but indirectly.

To oversimplify - games have both friction and hooks. The friction is the way the game pushes back on the player - it’s the difference between the actual game experience and the hypothetical “win button” super-easy mode. That does include difficulty - but in a complex way that includes all phases of challenge as well as other things like pain points.

Hooks, then, are what the game gives back to the player - what they get for putting up with the friction. This varies widely between players, even in the same game. I’ve talked about how I get chill, story, and action from games (though that predates my taking caffeine and l-theanine which have substantially changed how I interact with games), but any kind of experience games can deliver can qualify.

(Naturally there’s a lot more that can be said about friction and hooks - for one thing, this framework applies to other media and experiences too, but we’re here to talk about video games. For another thing, hooks can extend outside of the game itself, as in internet scavenger hunts or shared cultural moments. And certain kinds of hooks essentially require certain kinds of friction - you can’t have the enjoyment of teasing out deep lore or mastering a deep system without having complexity, which necessarily creates friction in understanding that complexity. This can create situations where friction itself is a hook to some players, due to its ability to create barriers to entry. But these are all topics for another time.)

What happened with these “Free Time” games was that for me, the hooks and friction were out of whack. Because of my particular tastes and brain wiring, the hooks of these games were not enough to make me want to overcome their friction. The hooks were there, and other players were able to get a lot of enjoyment from these games - but those hooks did less for me or the friction was worse for me.

It’s happened enough times now (and I have, hopefully, a more-accurate perception of both game design and myself) that I’m more able to recognize it rather than having to chalk it up to a lack of free time. But there is certainly a glimmer of truth in that excuse - back when I did have more free time and fewer alternatives, I was definitely more willing to put up with friction. And the fact is that sometimes this paid off tremendously - there are games where I pushed through initial friction and ended up with a new all-time favorite, and every time I abandon a game because my early experience with it has a high friction-to-hook ratio, I’m aware I might be giving up another potential favorite - and it is especially frustrating for games that are part of the discourse.

I think it happens even more now that I’m on the caffeine and l-theanine. To again oversimplify - I think that the change in my brain makes the vast majority of game hooks less appealing, which means I’m less willing to put up with the same friction. I also think there’s a bit of a cycle - when I first started taking it, games lost their appeal almost entirely and I stopped playing them at all. Later, some of that appeal came back and I was gaming a bit again. There was more of an upswing for a couple of months after that, and I think now I’m again in a period where the hooks are powerless to me.

At the tail end of that recent upswing, I finally got around to trying Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac. One reason I’d been putting it off for so long is that I’d wanted to read the tie-in prequel novel first, and I finally did that.

Unfortunately, Marvel’s Spider-Man turns out to have an atrociously bad tutorial for some reason. My first hour or so with the game was frustrating and exhausting. I failed the tutorial boss fight twice, and even after beating it, I felt like I’d internalized perhaps 25% of what the game had been trying to teach me.

(I speculate that this is due to changes in how AAA games are marketed. I find myself thinking of the criticism for the opening of Fallout 4, where the popular theory seemed to be that it was constructed as a vertical slice with a clear climax for E3 demos and such. It feels very plausible to me that something like that happened here as well, with the game’s opening being designed not to hook the actual player but to hook journalists writing about it before release and audiences watching trailers. And in fact, after you beat the tutorial boss fight (presumably the endpoint of the demo/trailer) things improve tremendously, with further tutorials being far more enjoyable and effective at actually teaching the game.)

I couldn’t help but compare the experience of playing the game to the experience I’d had reading the novel. Both allowed me to spend some time in Spider-Man’s world and consume a story. But one of them had a lot more friction in the way than the other. One of them forced me to work a lot harder to get that story and was happy to let me actually fail to do so.

In the moment, it was hard to see why I should put up with that friction. The hooks from the game didn’t seem more appealing than the ones from the book. So I put the game down, and for the next few weeks I again spent zero time gaming.

Maybe in a month or two the hooks of gaming will be shinier again. Maybe when that happens, I’ll pick up Marvel’s Spider-Man out of my “Free Time” pile. But maybe I won’t.