Replay the Day Away

11 07 2011

Firstly, this a big one. Read at your peril! Or if you’re just a bit bored. Anyway, let’s crack on…

I’ve just fired up the topic-o-meter, which tells me that today’s post should be about replayability. Good call from the machine, since I’ve got two fairly decent starting points on the subject. Firstly, I’ve just finished playing Batman: Arkham Asylum for the third/fourth time (no idea which one) and the game has pulled it’s usual trick of making me want to start from the beginning immediately. With many games, I find the need to let things simmer down after downing the final boss and watching the credits roll, but with Arkham I’d no sooner delivered the final punch to Joker’s face than I wanted to let him escape all over again. For a linear experience this is quite the achievement – not just being replayable, but being compelling enough to be instantly replayable.

I’d already pondered this topic before the second starting point emerged; an episode of the Escapist’s Jimquisition on ‘Linearity versus Replayability’, a deceptive title in that the two are proved to be perfectly compatible with one another. I’ll warn you now that the style of this series is extremely divisive due to the blunt, angry, self-congratulatory persona taken on by its creator, but the points are fair, well-made and in my view at least correct. The idea that a game needs multiplayer or masses of unlockable content to provide good replay value is quite rightly knocked on its head in favour of the view that even the most linear single-player title will be good for many more play-throughs as long as it is a good game.

This is exactly my view. Two of the games I have replayed the most, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Star Wars: Republic Commando (I bit of a hidden gem, that one) are entirely linear experiences with no deviation, no backtracking and no extra goals other than ‘finish the game’. Yet they are so rewarding to blast through again and again, Sands because of its gorgeous art style and mesmeric level design, Republic Commando through its immensely slick production values.

Then, from my personal gaming perspective, things go a little bit weird. As is to be expected, the formula ‘good game = replayable game’ doesn’t hold true in every case, particularly, so it seems, once we move into my favourite genre, the role-playing game. RPGs (western ones at least, I’m in no position to comment on something like Final Fantasy) have held non-linearity at their core for some time now, with branching dialogue trees, various morality choices and plentiful character abilities leading to different opportunities and results on each playthrough. No one will play Oblivion, Dragon Age or The Witcher in quite the same way.

This doesn’t always make a second, third or fourth run of the game any better, however; in some cases it makes it worse. To look at one side of the argument; I have replayed both Knights of the Old Republic games more times than I can count, but after a few experiments with the dark side in both I always return not only to the same choices – save the galaxy rather than conquer it – but also to the exact same character build. For some reason, in KOTOR I always play as a Guardian, always wear the Heavy Exoskeleton and always wield twin lightsabers; in KOTOR 2 I am always a consular who annihilates everything with an unending supply of outrageously powerful force abilities. I’ve turned two big, branching games into very linear experiences.

Now to the other side, where choice and options almost cripple replayability. There are two games that I’ve played that I simply can’t bear to touch again, yet I though both games brilliant. The first in Morrowind, which I wrote about a while back, explaining my reluctance to return to the fantastic world of Vvardenfell. The second is Mass Effect 2. Both are big, meaty games in very different ways. Morrowind is a colossal open-world adventure with miles upon miles of plains, marshes, farmland, mountains, cities, dungeons and even ocean to explore, with more quest, items and characters than you could possibly uncover in a thousand sittings. Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, is a cinematic RPG built around set-piece missions and lots of moral choices rather than sprawling character design and world building. So why do they both have this effect? Both should, in theory, hold plenty of replay value to me, but I can’t bring myself to go back.

The only thing I can think of that differentiates Morrowind and Mass Effect 2 from the two KOTORs in this respect is one of narrative flow and tone. Both KOTORs maintain a consistently high level of storytelling throughout, being neatly split into a starter planet, then four mid-game planets, then the endgame, with big pivots and hinge moments spread neatly throughout. No single moment, to my mind, stands out from the others, such is the balance between high excitement and routine activities like combat, trading and character customisation.

In the other two games, however, those few incredible moments that stood out so brilliantly from amidst the rest of the action made them memorable. Morrowind is littered with such memories, but such is the size of that game that they are spread thin between areas of endless wandering and fighting too many cliff racers. Likewise, Mass Effect 2 was a fairly routine, if lavish, space opera in which two moments struck me with more immediate emotion than any other game has done.

SPOILER TIME!

The initial moment was when Archangel, revealed as your old pal Garrus from the first game, survived the attack on his safehouse on Omega. I desperately wanted him to live, I was pleading with the writers to let him live, I fought harder because I wanted him to live – and he did. The other moment was the very end of the game. In the hype before release and the foreshadowing of the final level throughout the game as the ‘suicide mission’, it was made very clear that, if you put a foot wrong, some squadmates would die, perhaps even Commander Shepard himself. As I blew up the base, no one had died, but then came that last Hollywood jump, the slow-motion dive as Shepard leaps from a collapsing platform for the safety of his ship. The relief and exuberance when he made it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in gaming – instant, immense emotion, not a result that I’d put alongside the deeper themes of some greater games, but truly powerful nonetheless.

SPOILERS ARE DONE. CARRY ON.

Is it the case that games with incredibly powerful, stand-out moments actually hold the least replay value? Maybe this is just the case in RPGs, where such an outcome is not even close to being guaranteed the next time around – even if it was, wouldn’t it be a little cheapened, bastardised? The question of why I can’t play these two games has always bugged me, and I’ve nailed down the basics – big, one-off moments that stand out from the rest of the game seem fake second time around. However, the bigger question is around the corner.

Is my reluctance to play these games a quirk of my own subjectivity, or something more telling? I’ve spent the last three years being told never to simply explain away differences in views on literature by saying ’cause art is, like, subjective, duh’, but to pursue such thoughts to their roots. In this case, though, I’m done. Maybe in a few years, when some more examples have landed on the ‘brilliant but unplayable’ pile, I’ll figure it out, but for now I’ve just got to deploy a straightforward defence. Gaming: we don’t know that much about it, do we?

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