“Hundreds of weapons and equipment choices!”

“Characters react to your every decision!”

“Uncountable plot branches and endings!”

Typical marketing blurb for any modern game, particularly anything with “RPG” somewhere the list of genres it’s attempting to crossover and/or bust. More is better, particularly when it comes to player choice, obviously.

…Right? Or am I the only one who reads these and sighs inwardly? Not just at the terribly cut-and-paste marketing, you understand, but at the fact that… well… this all sounds a bit too much like work?

The game that set me off thinking about this was Bethesda’s seminal RPG Fallout 3 (er… hi, Bethesda guys!). I started the game, made my way out of the vault (after applying a certain level of OCD tinkering with my character), and got to Megaton. Arriving in the town, I found myself surrounded by Things To Do. Some obviously-labelled quests, some less obvious conversations with branches leading to I don’t know where, and in the middle of it all an unexploded atom bomb that I had the option of mucking around with. Even though at the time I didn’t realise it, in hindsight it was that bomb made me stop playing the game for about 6 months.

Basically, I froze up. There were all these things I could do, and I didn’t know where to start. I could apparently try to defuse the bomb, but what if I failed? Could I blow the town up? And there were people who wanted me to blow the town up? Is that a good idea? And what about these “Church of the Atom” people, who it seemed would be rather upset if I tampered with their religious icon? What was that ghoul guy about? Is there a time limit here? Will someone else do it if I leave it alone long enough? The game had hammered home (both in marketing and in the tutorials) that Actions Have Consequences, and I was damned if I was going to do something as obviously dangerous and important as trying to defuse an atom bomb without fully researching all the possible consequences of my actions.

The thing is, fully considering all of the consequences of my actions… didn’t seem like much fun. And at the time, I didn’t understand enough about the mechanics of the game to know that many of the things I was worrying about weren’t actually considerations (like the idea there might be a time limit). I didn’t even know if leaving town would trigger some sequence of events that would affect the story or my progress later. I was paralysed by indecision, in other words. And since this wasn’t an enjoyable situation for me, I put the game down.

6 months later, when I finally figured that I really should give it another shot, I ran away. I simply left town without talking to anyone or doing anything, and (arbitrarily) decided to head to the North-East corner of the map and see what happened. Along the way, as it turned out, I found some more quests, actually completed a couple, figured out (among other things) that time is largely irrelevant to the quest system and characters don’t usually go off and do things if you leave them alone, and when I came back to Megaton (20-odd hours later) I had the right mental toolbox to pull apart the different quest threads and choices on offer and make some meaningful decisions about them.

So, in retrospect, the question I find myself asking now is “why did that happen”? Fallout is very definitely a great game (I clocked 60+ hours on it in the end, clearing basically all of the quests), and it’s not as though I’m personally a stranger to the RPG genre or anything. And the conclusion I find myself coming to is this:

It was stressful in the same way as real life.

The vast majority of games thrive on putting the player in situations where they are being forced to operate “under stress” – having bombs rain down upon your tank, organising the construction of base defences, running between collapsing roofs, trying to slot a Tetris block into place without hitting the top of the screen… those are all things that generate a state of tension. Considering this, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three key things that make a stressful situation fun:

  1. You understand (the majority of) the rules. You know how to succeed, what might cause you to fail, and what the consequences of that failure are.
  2. You know you can back out of the situation without incurring unacceptable losses (even if that might be by reloading a saved game).
  3. You have a reasonable chance of winning. Even if some rules are unclear, you believe that those unknown rules are at least fair.

Situations we encounter where those three key factors are not true… are generally in the real world. And hence when we’re gaming, my hypothesis that we naturally gravitate towards games which give us this reassuring comfort-blanket. And that is why I equally shied away from Fallout at first – because some primal part of my brain had categorised it alongside “moving house” and “calling the council to complain about my (clearly undeserved) parking ticket” and all those other tasks I was doing my level best to avoid even thinking about, let alone doing. In other words, I had mentally reclassified it from “game” to “work”.

Just like the real world, games frequently lash out with unfairness in the most unexpected of places. Sold the Rusty Key that you now need to open the gate? Innocuous dialogue choice from 15 hours ago just killed your favourite sub-character? Missed a one-of-a-kind item in a location that got blown up when you left? Last boss turns out to be basically immune to magic attacks rendering your pureblood mage incapable of so much as scratching him? We’ve all had it happen, and each time it shakes our trust a little. I suspect that’s probably one of the reasons why there’s a pleasing simplicity to playing 8-bit era games today… if I flick the power switch, everything disappears, and I don’t need to worry that I might have just missed something vital to unlocking that alluring 100% completion achievement.

A little bit of reassurance goes a long way into allaying these fears. Set it up so the player can always buy back the key, structure your plot so that they have some chance to predict and/or avoid unpleasant outcomes, give them a way to return to old locations or pick up items later… and make sure they know about these. Once they can see enough of the rules to trust in them, the game becomes a non-threatening, non-stressful (well, except in the ways they expect) environment. If in times gone by you spent 10 years training as a blacksmith only to have the motor car arrive just as you finally qualified, you might rightly be A Little Upset. Do the same thing in an MMO and not only can you probably easily level up your Mechanic skill as a second job, but it isn’t unrealistic to expect that your blacksmith skills will come back into demand once the next expansion pack adds Pegasus (Pegasii?) as an Epic Mount.

Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this – there’s definitely an element of OCD-on-the-rampage about needing to second-guess every tiny dialogue choice. But I guess in broad terms the point I’m trying to make is this: Real life is stressful, annoying and unfair, so even if we strive to emulate it in other ways, let’s keep a little bit of childhood idealism in our games, shall we?