“Games” Versus “Experiences”

My wife completed The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess the other day, after starting it several months ago, and playing in sporadic but lengthy bursts (the kind that you tend to indulge in only on the weekends, and which usually leave you feeling guilty about “wasting time”). I was a spectator for a small, but non-trivial, fraction of the game, and an occasional co-pilot (when she got frustrated or bored). I saw bits from most parts of the game, admired the great art direction, and boggled at the ubiquity of highly-scripted or specialized gameplay. Yet, in spite of this, I’m left with no real desire to actually play the game myself.

Why is that? I hadn’t thought about it much before, or had ever really anticipated my lack of enjoyment in this way. I believe it has something to do with the lack of meaningful choices that can be made – there’s really nothing novel to which I can look forward on my own playthrough, now that I’ve seen the story play out. Furthermore, the minute-to-minute gameplay isn’t good enough to overcome that – it’s pretty standard action-adventure stuff that doesn’t distinguish itself.

Categorizing games by the criterion of “frequency of meaningful choices” is an interesting exercise, and there’s a strong correspondence between games that meet the criterion and games that I really enjoy. RPGs often feature lots of character customization and branching gameplay, and they’re certainly a favorite genre of mine. Strategy games, by definition, require meaningful choices. Even driving games (good ones, at least) have lots of choices and problems, on a moment-to-moment basis, to wrap your head around. By contrast, FPS games and action-adventure games that fall on the “spectacle” end of the spectrum tend to be one-shot deals for me. I rarely come back to them, and watching or seeing spoilers for them significantly decreases my incentive to play.

I guess another way to think about this is that:

  • Nobody wants to watch people play board games – people want to participate.
  • Similarly, it’s rare that you would get something new out of watching a movie by yourself, after having previously watched it with friends. (There are certainly cases where the passage of time might give you a different perspective on a film, but similar analogues exist for games as well. I don’t think that invalidates this point.)

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